On December 8, the Russian fleet reportedly shot down a drone over the Black Sea, according to the Russian-installed governor of Sevastopol, the largest city on Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula.
That incident followed multiple drone attacks deep inside Russia earlier this week, potentially carried out with repurposed, Soviet-era Tupolev TU-141 Strizh surveillance drones.
Russia has accused the United States and its Western allies of helping Ukraine carry out those attacks, which it has falsely labeled acts of terrorism and not self-defense.
"NATO was aware of the preparations for the latest Ukrainian attacks on the Russian military airfields,” said Konstantin Gavrilov, the head of the Russian delegation to the Vienna Negotiations on Military Security and Arms Control.
“We gave them an immediate response with a massive strike on the military command and control system, defense complex facilities and related energy facilities in Ukraine,” he said on December 8. “No one should have any doubts that this will happen every time if acts of Ukrainian terrorism continue.”
But the facilities Ukraine allegedly struck in Kursk, Ryazan and Saratov were legitimate military targets under international law. Moreover, Ukraine is not a NATO member, and while NATO countries and the United States are supplying Ukraine with arms, U.S. officials said they neither encouraged nor enabled the retaliatory strikes on Russian soil.
Russia responded to the drone strikes by further hitting civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. It has systematically been carrying out such attacks since launching a full-scale invasion on February 24. Legal and human rights experts describe these strikes on civilian targets as war crimes under the Geneva Conventions.
Ukraine did not directly claim responsibility for the drone attacks, although Ukrainian officials have implied Ukraine was behind them. Senior Ukrainian officials speaking with The New York Times and Washington Post on condition of anonymity stated that Ukraine carried out the strikes.
Under international law, military necessity is paramount when justifying such attacks.
Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, Article 52, states:
“Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.”
Then there is Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which states:
“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.”
Germany cited the Article 51 when defending the legality of the Ukrainian strikes. German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said:
“For more than nine months, Russia has been at war with Ukraine, and Ukraine has a statutory right to self-defense stemming from Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and Ukraine is not obliged to limit its defense efforts to its own territory."
So, military bases used by Russia to launch attacks on Ukraine are fair game.
Kyiv says one of the targets, Engels Air Force Base, located roughly 9 miles east of the southeastern Russian city of Saratov and 450 miles east of Ukraine, has been used to strike Ukraine. Engels is Russia's sole operating location for the Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber, and the base also houses Tupolev-95 strategic bombers.
The United Kingdom’s Defense Ministry says Engels is “the main operating base of Russia’s Long Range Aviation (LRA) within western Russia and is home to more than 30 heavy bombers.”
“These aircraft contribute to Russia’s nuclear deterrent and have also frequently been used to launch conventional cruise missiles at Ukraine,” the ministry said.
Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, concurred, telling the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper that sorties originating from the base “have played a major role in the recent bombings in Ukraine.”
Lee said Ukraine may have preemptively struck Engels Air Force Base to blunt further attacks on its power grid. Ukrainian officials say Russia’s attacks have imperiled access to heat, light and water for millions of Ukrainians as winter approaches.
Ukraine also allegedly targeted Dyagilevo airfield near the city of Ryazan in western Russia on December 5. The Dyagilevo base hosts Tu-95 and Tu-22m nuclear-capable, long-range bombers.
Russia state media reported that three people were killed when a fuel truck exploded on the base as a result of the attack. Pavel Malkov, the governor of Ryazan region, said neither civilian infrastructure nor civilians were affected.
On December 6, a drone struck Khalino Air Force Base in Russia’s Kursk region, some 80 miles from Ukraine. That attack ignited an oil storage tank, but no causalities were reported.
Following the drone attacks, Russian forces launched a wave of missiles at Ukrainian territory, hitting residences, killing civilians and further damaging Ukraine’s power grid.
That fits into a pattern of Russia’s repeated attacks targeting civilians. The U.N.’s top human rights watchdog and others have documented those attacks throughout the war.
“Russian armed forces have indiscriminately shelled and bombed populated areas, killing civilians and wrecking hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure, actions that may amount to war crimes,” the United Nations former human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said in April.
In October, Amnesty International said Russia’s attacks are “clearly” intended to "sow fear and despair and deprive civilians in Ukraine of heat, electricity and water as the cold grip of winter approaches,” and are “unlawful.”
“The morale of the civilian population is not a lawful target, and carrying out these attacks with the sole purpose of terrorizing civilians is a war crime,” Amnesty said.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko called Russia’s actions “genocidal.”
“Kyiv might lose power, water, and heat supply. The apocalypse might happen, like in Hollywood films, when it’s not possible to live in homes considering the low temperature,” Klitschko told Reuters on December 7.
“We never expected that they would try to destroy the civilian infrastructure of our cities. It is genocidal. It’s terrorism,” Klitschko said in a separate interview with The Guardian.
Ukraine’s defenders say hitting inside Russia is justified on humanitarian grounds.
“It [the drone strikes] is not, as some are sure to claim, an escalation. But it is a necessary political and military measure for Ukraine to limit the humanitarian harm of Russia’s brutal drone and missile attacks,” The New York Times quoted Mick Ryan, a retired Australian Army officer, as saying.
Last month, the European Parliament designated Russia a state sponsor of terrorism , citing "the deliberate attacks and atrocities committed by Russian forces and their proxies against civilians in Ukraine, the destruction of civilian infrastructure and other serious violations of international and humanitarian law amount to acts of terror and constitute war crimes.”
On December 7, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution “recognizing Russian actions in Ukraine as genocide.”
On December 6, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States had ”neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia.” He stressed the U.S. in not “enabling” or “encouraging Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.”
The United States has not provided Ukraine with longer-range, Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMs), and it reportedly has modified the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) it has supplied so as to restrain Ukraine from firing into Russia, according to The Wall Street Journal.
But the U.S. is also not preventing Ukraine from developing its own long-rage capabilities or defending itself.