First there was a mysterious drone strike on the Kremlin. Next came an “invasion” whose embarrassing implications for Moscow could prompt it to divert front-line troops to border regions. Then, late last week, Ukraine launched a marine drone attack on a Russian spy ship in the Black Sea. On Tuesday morning, as many as two dozen aerial drones attacked Moscow.
Ahead of Kyiv’s long-expected counter-offensive, when it aims to retake occupied territory, such attacks are just four of the increasingly daring “shaping operations” that Ukraine has launched this month.
Ranging from symbolic strikes to more strategically significant attacks, these shaping operations form part of standard military practice. Their aim, defence officials and analysts say, is to deceive the enemy, meddle with its mindset and otherwise “shape” the battlefield before a large offensive.
“Deception operations have always been part of war, but now their effect is magnified by social media,” said John Spencer, a former US army major who chairs urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point. “They are Ukrainian grey zone operations that require Russia to expend resources — be that troops or information operations. They’re like a magician’s sleight of hand: they deceive the viewer and force his attention elsewhere.”
The explosion of two drones against a backdrop of the Kremlin’s golden dome on May 3, which Kyiv denied any responsibility for, was the first in Ukraine’s recent run of dramatic strikes.
Then, in Tuesday morning’s strikes on Moscow, which followed a wave of Russian attacks on Kyiv, several drones exploded over the capital. Russian authorities claimed to have downed them all before they reached their targets but the attack again exposed the capital’s vulnerability.
“A successful offensive starts with a successful psychological offensive,” said a senior Ukrainian official. “Their [Russian] morale is not at its highest level.”
An equally bizarre event came on May 22 with an incursion by two Ukraine-backed groups of far-right partisans into the Russian border province of Belgorod, which the Ukrainian official said showed Russians that “their borders are not impenetrable”.
Ukrainian social media lit up with memes that proclaimed the establishment of the “Belgorod People’s Republic”. In Russia, by contrast, the raid dismayed hardline military bloggers, and led to heated criticism of the defence ministry by Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner paramilitary group which has spearheaded Russian attacks in the Donbas city of Bakhmut.
In an hour-long video, Prigozhin lectured locals on how to set up better defences and said Russia needed to beef up its military presence on the border. After the region was reportedly hit by Ukrainian shelling on Monday, Belgorod’s governor said “we are living in a de facto state of war”.
“The idea is to create a lot of dilemmas for the Russian command structure,” said Mike Martin, a former British army officer and author of How to Fight a War. “Problems — such as a breakthrough of the front line — focus attention. Dilemmas, by contrast, paralyse action.”
The shaping operations seem to have had some psychological effect in Moscow. Commenting on the Belgorod incursion, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the war required “very difficult and tense work” that “constantly created questions”.
Following the drone attack on Moscow on Tuesday, Rybar, a popular pro-war Russian blogger, commented on social media app Telegram: “If the goal of the assault was to stress out the population, then the fact of Ukrainian drones appearing in the skies over Moscow has done enough of that already.”
A Ukrainian military intelligence official meanwhile commented that the raid and others that might follow sought to “deliver a blow to [Russian] morale and force them to redeploy troops” along the border — although “we have not yet seen any indication” of that.
Ukraine successfully used similar tactics last summer. For weeks it talked up the notion of a southern counter-offensive. When Russian forces moved south in anticipation of that attack, Kyiv launched a blitzkrieg to the north instead that punched through thinned-out Russian lines around Kharkiv.
“Ukraine is using the Russian playbook against Russia,” said Spencer, pointing out that Moscow has persistently fomented the possibility that it might launch an attack from the territory of its ally Belarus.
“However unlikely that attack may be, its mere possibility forced Ukraine to fix troops nearby, in case,” Spencer said. “The Ukrainians are now similarly distracting Russian attention.”
Russia has not stood by idly. It has stepped up missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian cities and on what it claims to be military targets. As the final of the Eurovision Song Contest was being held in the UK, it bombed Ternopil, the Ukraine act’s home city.
On May 13 a huge explosion, possibly of an ammunition depot, shook the western Ukraine city of Khmelnytsky, damaging schools, medical centres, apartment buildings and industrial facilities, according to the local mayor. The city’s air base was also struck on Monday.
In addition, Russia has deployed its own information operations, such as spoofing the tracking data of commercial ships to create the impression of a 65km long Russian pro-war Z symbol in the Black Sea. It has also built formidable defensive fortifications along the front line.
Western officials caution it is far from clear how effective Ukraine’s counter-offensive will prove to be. But Ukraine will continue its shaping operations, combining them with precise attacks that seek to corrode Russian military assets and capabilities, they added.
These may include long-range strikes using UK-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles, which Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov has called “treats”, to drone attacks on what the senior Ukrainian official calls “fat targets” such as the reconnaissance ship Ivan Khurs.
“They [the Ukrainians] are testing and probing and finding out what works and what doesn’t,” said a senior western official. “The whole point of this counter-offensive is that neither Russia nor the [western allies] know when it has really begun, and what we’re seeing now is them forcing the Russians to keep second guessing.”
From the Ukrainian point of view, that nervous uncertainty is key. Commenting on state television last week after the Belgorod raid, Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security chief, said: “They [the Russians] need to get used to it.”
Additional reporting by Ben Hall in London and Max Seddon in Riga