What are kamikaze drones and why is Russia using them in Ukraine?

Hitting civilian infrastructure seems to be only effective tactic for Putin’s under-pressure forces

Russia’s growing use of Iranian Shahed-136 drones reflects both strength and weakness. Monday morning’s drone bombings in the centre of Kyiv, in two clusters at the time of the morning rush hour, show how the weapons can cause destruction and fear in a capital that until a week ago had not been attacked for months.

The Shahed-136s first appeared in the war in September, and although they are described as kamikaze drones, they are better thought of as small cruise missiles with a relatively limited destructive capacity given their 50kg payload. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Russia had bought 2,400 – a large-sounding number, but these are being depleted fast.

Justin Bronk, an airpower specialist at the Royal United Services Institute thinktank, says the drones “are difficult to consistently intercept” but their airspeed is slow relative to cruise missiles, meaning air defences will always have a chance. “Ultimately, they offer a way for Russia to cause more civilian and military casualties in Ukraine, but will not turn the tide of the war,” he said.

It is the second major attack on Kyiv in a week. Last Monday, in response to the explosion at the Kerch strait bridge into Crimea, Russia unleashed a deadly hail of missile and drone strikes aimed at Kyiv and other major cities.

The bloody success of last week’s attack – an estimated 15 were killed that day alone – and the destruction of this Monday’s, reveals the limitations in Kyiv’s air defence. It is not clear why it has taken so long, but the US responded last week by saying it would expedite the delivery of the first two of eight promised Nasams air defence systems, which are deemed good enough to protect the Pentagon.


But while attacks on Kyiv capture headlines around the world, the military utility is closer to nil and in isolation will have had no meaningful psychological effect on the country’s largely determined civilian population. The attacks provoke fear, but also anger, particularly after Vladimir Putin said there was “no need” for more massive strikes on Ukraine.

Their use also appears to demonstrate that Russia is running short of guided missiles. Western officials said on Friday they agreed broadly with a Ukrainian assessment that Moscow had used up about two-thirds of its stocks, and has only 124 out of 900 medium-range Iskanders left. “We think that’s about right,” one said, although such conclusions are impossible to verify.

There were some suggestions on Monday morning that Russia may have partly been trying to target an energy site in the capital, although full details are yet to be confirmed. Nevertheless, more broadly, there are growing signs Russia is trying to target Ukraine’s energy and other utility grids as the winter and the country’s “heating season” begins.


The point is not lost on the country’s anxious defenders either, with calls for people to reduce electricity use between 5pm and 11pm in the evenings. In the last month power supplies to Kharkiv, Kyiv and Lviv have at times been affected by Russian strikes.

Drones such as the Shahed-136s are more effective against such static targets than they are against armies and, for Moscow, the disruptive impact on Ukraine may be greater. At the same time Russia will want badly to halt Ukraine’s battlefield advances at least until heavy late-autumn rains are expected to prompt some sort of a pause.

Russia’s call for the evacuation of civilians from Kherson oblast last week may have been billed as merely temporary by one local official, but it is the next step in a gradual retreat from the west of the Dnieper, where its forces have been going backwards since the beginning of the month.

Ukraine has been mounting a counteroffensive, pressing and pushing against the Russian lines since the beginning of September, but with little material success until the first part of October, when the invaders gave up a swathe of territory up to 30 miles deep north-west of Kherson city to a new front, north of the village of Mylove.

If that was an attempt to rationalise the frontlines, it clearly has not succeeded in the light of the evacuation announcement, and there has been speculation in some western quarters that Kherson itself could be recaptured as soon as next week, although that sort of talk is perhaps highly optimistic.

It may be the case that Russia is simply girding itself for an urban defence of the city, allowing its lines to contract and tie up Ukraine in a costly autumn battle. It will be easier to defend the city than the open country around it, creating a dilemma for Kyiv as to how far it is willing to blast its way to success.

But for the moment it is the frontline to watch in the nearly eight-month-long war, where Ukraine appears to hold the initiative on land. Russia also continues to come under pressure in the north-east part of the front too, where Ukraine is seeking to push towards Kreminna, after taking Lyman, and Svatove, a transport hub.

Nothing else is working for Moscow. Russia has been flinging mobilised conscripts from its half-a-million draft into the frontline, and the first, depressing reports have emerged of forced recruits dying in places such as Lysychansk after receiving minimal or non-existent training.

Ukraine’s frontline progress is not rapid at present, but it is steady, and the concern has to remain that an under pressure Russia will resort to stepping up its targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure because that is the only tactic that seems, from its point of view, to have any impact.


Dan Sabbagh

The GuardianTramp

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