War in Ukraine: should we fear a strong response from Russia after the attacks on its territory?

Romain Rouillard / Photo credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP

Is Russia still a country at peace? For several days, the question seems legitimate. This Tuesday, Moscow suffered a major attack, carried out by a dozen drones, which however did not cause major damage or casualties. An offensive which adds, however, to the Ukrainian bombardments perpetrated in the border region of Belgorod. Its governor, Viatcheslav Gladkov, even reported one death and two injuries. This region was also targeted a few weeks ago by two armed groups, made up of Russian soldiers fiercely opposed to Vladimir Putin.

Clearly, this war which, until now, did not go beyond Ukrainian borders, is now being exported to Russian territory. A scenario that Vladimir Putin has long presented as a red line that would arouse strong reactions if it were to be crossed.

Only here, these red lines have continued to recede throughout the conflict, assure the specialists. “In 14 months of conflict, many of these so-called red lines have already been crossed without this leading to the use of tactical weapons”, indicated last April Anne de Tinguy, professor emeritus at Inalco (Institut National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations) and specialist in Russia. Are these recent drone attacks likely to change the situation? “For me, it’s the game of war and it does not involve reprisals,” said Jean de Gliniasty, research director at IRIS and specialist in Russian issues.

“It’s hard to understand what the Russian strategy is today”

For the former diplomat, a major response from Moscow is, to date, quite hypothetical. “In fact, they have very little additional room for manoeuvre. The only one, in reality, would be to increase the bombardments on the civilian populations in Ukraine. But I can’t imagine it because they will want to keep their missiles for war aims”. And even if the Russians choose this solution, they will have to face the powerful Ukrainian system of anti-aircraft defense, reinforced by American equipment.

For the moment, Moscow therefore seems to be confined to a simple “verbal one-upmanship”, remarks General Jérôme Pellistrandi, editor-in-chief of the review National Defense. Vladimir Putin contented himself with accusing kyiv of wanting to “terrify Russia” and “intimidate Russian citizens”. While denouncing the attitude of Westerners, responsible, according to him, for these attacks because of the support given to Ukraine. A less aggressive reaction than imagined, which can be explained by the absence of clear and readable tactics at the highest peak of the Russian state. “Putin said recently that Russia would do something but that it still has to think,” says Jean de Gliniasty. And Jérôme Pellistrandi to complete: “In theory, they are able to strike the presidential palace in kyiv and yet they do not do it. So it is difficult to understand what the Russian strategy is today”.

“We are never safe from a tipping point”

On the other hand, Moscow has always been quite clear about its desire to minimize the difficulties encountered on the battlefield. And, a fortiori, on its own territory. The objective is to convince the population that this “special military operation” in Ukraine does not jeopardize the security of Russian citizens. And that it is only an epiphenomenon. Difficult then to justify a reaction of magnitude on the military ground. Difficult, however, to definitively bury this hypothesis. “We are never safe from a tipping point. From something that could move the Russian population. A hostage-taking, civilians killed, etc.”, illustrates Anna Colin-Lebedev, political scientist, specialist in post- Soviets.

The nature of the targets targeted in Russia is also to be observed closely. “Are these military targets or undifferentiated targets with the risk of civilian casualties?” asks General Pellistrandi. Another important parameter: the origin of the weapons used. “For the moment, a priori, the strikes are not perpetrated using Western equipment,” confirms the soldier. But how would Moscow react if a British or American missile ended its course on an apartment building? To date, it is difficult to provide a firm and definitive answer.

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