UPDATE: Mark Sumner
Ukrainian Air Force now reporting that the connection to the TB2 was lost, leaving it wandering uncontrolled. In which case, shooting it down was probably the sensible thing to do.
UPDATE: Mark Sumner
Sorry. More detailed photos make it pretty clear that this was a Turkish Bayraktar TB2 belonging to Ukraine. Why it was flying over Kyiv, and why that didn’t get passed along to air defenses is … kind of embarrassing. And certainly frightening for folks on the ground.
UPDATE: Mark Sumner
This looks to be a fairly substantial drone. The tail and wing configuration suggests this isn’t something like a typical Orlan surveillance drone or one of the Iranian-made shaheds. It could be a Russian Forpost-R or Iranian Moheajer-6 perhaps one of the newer Orion-2 variants. These are all drones with wingspans between 6m and 10m, with weights around 500-1000kg. They are closer to the size of a small aircraft than a model plane.
Extremely unusual to see any of these drones at this altitude in the day. These drones are generally used for surveillance, though it’s not clear why Russia would need detailed, up-to-date images of Kyiv.
More than anything else, it looks like a Bayraktar, raising the idea that this was something akin to a friendly-fire incident. But at this distance its very hard to distinguish the Bayraktar’s upwardward-angled tail from the boxier tail on a Forpost or Moheajer (at least one new Orion variant has a Bayraktar-style tail).
On Wednesday evening, multiple sources on social media began reporting the same thing: Russia was not only putting multiple bombers aloft and rolling out a fresh raft of cruise missiles, but also, the weaponry laid out on the tarmac at some unidentified Russian airfield included “two nuclear missiles” which were to be loaded onto Tu-22M “Backfire bombers.” Those bombs were reportedly on their way to Kyiv in retaliation for the two drones that exploded above the Kremlin on Tuesday night.
According to many of these same sources, this information came from a source deep in the Russian military who was “risking his life” to bring this warning of impending doom. One source insisted this was “not hype or a gimmick.” Another included details of supposed orders that had been sent to Russian air bases, calling for strikes on Ukrainian government offices in Kyiv overnight.
It’s Thursday. Kyiv has not been nuked. And the overnight frenzy might best be summed up by this tweet:
As I wrote yesterday, the drones that were either shot down or detonated over the Kremlin may well have been a false flag operation. The spectacle of one of these drones popping over the Kremlin senate dome, with an apparent force slightly greater than a party balloon, while white-suited workers looked on from the top of the dome itself, certainly made the whole thing look extremely comical.
The immediate reaction of Russian officials, including the pretense that this attack was somehow an attempt to assassinate Vladimir Putin, and that the only answer was the “elimination” of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and all his government, only added to the impression that this whole event was a stunt designed to give Russia an excuse to do something, anything, to make Putin’s efforts look less awful in advance of the May 9 “Victory Day” parades.
That thought was hardly original, but the leap from “do something” to “unleash the nukes!” is a very big step. As one NAFO member posted in response:
Chill with the nukes. Russia is not going to use them even if Biden or Zelensky himself drives into Moscow on top of an Abrams, takes a piss on Lenin’s corpse, and kicks Putin in the nuts.
I tried to get that quote into the headline of this piece. Too bad it wouldn’t fit.
Of all the things that Russia could do to give themselves something to celebrate on May 9, opening the door to action that would lead to Putin being dead, all his oligarch buddies still in Russia being dead, and every one of their money-laundering family members outside of Russia being placed in prisons for life is definitely not at the top of the list. Russia likes to use the threat of nuclear weapons. It’s hard to imagine the circumstances that involve them actually employing such a weapon anywhere.
What could Russia do that would make them a pariah forever, remove any thought about NATO providing immediate and direct military assistance to Ukraine, and ensure that a generation of Russians would grow up in cities administered by U.N. forces? You get one guess.
What happened as these reports circulated on Wednesday night is the flipside of the OSINT community that has generally served the public extremely well in illuminating what’s happening in Ukraine. When it comes to the details of equipment movements, logistical chains, and putting a location to video and images, that community has been fantastic. There are thousands of people devoting tens of thousands of hours to see that information emerges on small changes in control along the front. They help put seven digits after the decimal on pinpointing coordinates for the latest shot of a damaged Russian tank. They grind through the numbers to determine what kind of weapons are available to each side, and how those weapons are performing in the field.
It’s no secret at all that our daily Ukraine Update is highly dependent on information derived from the open-source intelligence community. I literally could not do my job without them.
But like all people, and the moths in your backyard, those who make up OSINT can be distracted by a bright light. Put out a hot story—nukes on their way to Kyiv! Secret information given to you at the risk of an insider’s life!—and it’s not shocking that the story gets picked up and rapidly carried in all directions by sources who, on any other day, might be providing fantastic, well-researched details of other aspects of Russia’s invasion. OSINT people are people first, and if you wave a “NUKE!” story at them, they do what people are prone to do: Share that information.
Now that it’s Thursday and Kyiv is not a smoking crater, some of those sources are feeling pretty embarrassed by the overnight frenzy. Others are desperately trying to defend the story and the underlying sources, ignoring the fact that spreading the idea that Russia might nuke Ukraine over literally the most trivial of attacks, is promoting exactly the kind of fear that Putin wants everyone to have. Because the belief that Russia might, at the drop of a hat, drop a few megatons here or there, entirely benefits Russia.
Dmitry Rogozin, former Russian deputy prime minister and another of Putin’s mouthpieces, was back on the air Thursday talking about the idea that if Ukraine begins a counteroffensive, Russia will respond with tactical nukes.
But it’s not going to happen. All of this is clearly designed to diminish support for Ukraine.
Both parts of this—how quickly a single claim can spread across multiple sources and the way such claims can serve Russia’s interests—are worth keeping in mind as Ukraine edges toward its counteroffensive.
What Russia actually did overnight
To give those OSINT sources some credit, there have been credible reports over the last few days of a large number of Russian bombers rolled out, or even put aloft, each evening. Those have been paired with reports of Russia delivering more missiles to ships in the Black Sea, and of forces reading launches from ground-based missile sites in Russia. It’s not just nervous folks on social media who have been expecting Russia to make another of the large-scale missile attacks that occurred erratically, but with some frequency, over the first year of the war. That’s also been the feeling of Ukrainian officials who have repeatedly warned that the threat of such an attack is high.
However, while there have been some tragic incidents in the last few weeks, like the strike on the town of Uman in southwestern Ukraine, it’s now been almost a month since the last large-scale attack when Russia launched an estimated 81 missiles along with eight drones at Ukrainian targets on March 9.
No one knows what to do with this unusually long gap in Russian attacks on civilian centers. Is Russia low on missiles? Are they saving up weapons to deal with the counteroffensive? Was Russia simply disappointed that in that March 9 attack Ukraine’s improved air defenses knocked down most of the incoming, including high speed Kinzhal missiles, resulting in relatively small damage?
During the night, while everyone was sweating about nukes, Russia launched another 24 Iranian-made Shahed drones toward targets in Ukraine, they also launched six missiles into Kramatorsk and Zaporizhzhia. These were likely S300 missiles. The Ukrainian government indicated 18 of the drones were knocked down. No figures were given on the missiles, but an unspecified number of “deaths and injuries among the civilian population” were reported.
There’s been a suspicion for some time now that Russia wants to have control of Bakhmut in time for Putin to brag about it five days from now, when he celebrates Victory Day in Moscow. Whether or not that’s the case, in the last 24 hours Russia has engaged in assaults on remaining Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut that dismiss any idea that Russia might have given up on capturing the city in time for Putin’s big day.
Almost fifty assaults were reported in the Bakhmut area. That includes not just Wagner Group forces attacking in the city from the north and southeast, but also near Bohdanivka and Markove. That last one is concerning because it’s well to the west of what was believed to be the line between Russian and Ukrainian forces, and this is the second time it has appeared in the daily lists.
But the biggest concern at Bakhmut right now is just what many feared as Ukraine was forced into a smaller area at the west of the city: artillery. With Russian forces able to position guns on three sides of the city, they are firing into the Ukrainian positions at what is described as a very high intensity on Thursday. It’s not clear that any of the paved routes—either the “road of death” through Khromove or the T0504 coming up from the south—are passable. Recent images show vehicles entering the city along one or more unpaved routes.
The only good news may be that the number of artillery units destroyed over the last day has reached new heights.
… and find out.
Dimitri of WarTranslated has been doing the essential work of translating hours of Russian and Ukrainian video and audio during the invasion of Ukraine. He joins Markos and Kerry from London to talk about how he began this work by sifting through various sources. He is one of the only people translating information for English-speaking audiences. Dimitri’s followed the war since the beginning and has watched the evolution of the language and dispatches as the war has progressed.