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What is the reasoning behind Ukraine denying (or refusing to accept) responsibility for attacks and incidents of sabotage in Russia?

From a recent article:

There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials, who usually don’t claim attacks inside Russia. The Kremlin’s forces, meanwhile, hit Kyiv with drones and missiles during the night in what Ukrainian officials called a “massive, combined attack” that killed two people.

And:

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, said his country has drones with a range of up to 500 kilometers (300 miles), although he did not take responsibility for any attacks in Russia or Crimea, the peninsula that Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Source: https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-war-drones-a9fc4ddad80a906e85aacca7354eb317

Would it not be to their advantage to further the propaganda war? Aren't the drones domestically constructed, meaning there are no violations of policies by allies/supporters that may cause problems if used beyond Ukraine's borders?

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  • "Deny" is not the same as "doesn't take responsibility". Just read the next para: "“If you look carefully at the news recently, in general, every day there are news about long-range drones that hit various targets both in occupied Crimea and in the territory of Russia,” Fedorov told AP recently. ”So in this regard, let’s say, that more or less a mass production of these drones has appeared.”" Feb 6 at 14:55
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    IIRC Russian media doesn't trumpet each and every attack on Ukrainian cities either. Though sometimes they do, when they intend to claim them as response for a particular acton by Ukraine theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/… ; politico.eu/article/… Feb 6 at 14:58
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    What's the deal with the close/reopen vote tug-of-war? Yet no one likes to share their motivation for either... Feb 7 at 8:24

2 Answers 2

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This is a bit of carefully calibrated political theatre. One might even call it "non-denial denial".

While Ukraine probably isn't going to tell us exactly why they say things that way, on one hand the US say they "discourage" Ukrainian attacks into [pre-war] Russian territory. This is thus phrased a bit more broadly than merely forbidding such attacks using US weapons. E.g. in Dec 2022:

The U.S. State Department said there was no confirmation the strikes were carried out by Ukraine, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States has "neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia."

And on the other hand, as you suggested, Ukraine needs to take some credit for those strikes domestically, to show they're not letting Russia's bombing campaign go completely unanswered.

So, these days, unlike in the beginning of the war, you get rather transparent statements from Ukraine that simultaneously allow some modicum of plausible deniability, while at the same time being capable of being red as implicitly taking [some] credit. E.g. in July 2023:

Mr Zelensky said attacks on Russian territory were an "inevitable, natural and absolutely fair process" of the war between the two countries.

(Note that that's not taking credit for any particular attack though.)

A more recent statement from Zelensky, March 16, 2024:

"In these weeks, many have already seen that the Russian system of warfare has weak points and that we can reach these points with our weapons," Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on March 16.

He did not name a specific attack but the remarks came after reports that three oil facilities in Russia's Samara region -- more than 1,000 kilometers inside Russia -- had been set ablaze in drone attacks on March 15.

Likewise, several sources noted that on specific attacks Ukrainian officials make semi-veiled statements. E.g., on one occasion in August 2023:

Although Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for the drone attacks, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense released a cryptic message on the platform formerly known as Twitter that appeared to hint at Ukraine’s responsibility: “Did you know that Pskov Airport is named after Kyivan Princess Olha? Oh, what a spectacularly vengeful woman she was!”

Sometimes the endorsements are very explicit, but instead the source is kept anonymous in the Western press (at least), only mentioned e.g. as a source in Kyiv with knowledge of SBU operations. In fact, this seems to be the PR pattern more recently. Perhaps because coming up with an appropriately transparent joke every time is more difficult. And as of Jan 2024, some Ukrainian military officials assert that Western partners are increasingly at ease with this strategy.

Also, it should be said here that's pretty common for US intelligence agencies to release some matters to their own press this way [i.e. on condition that officials not be named in the press]. (Including when they wanted to chide Ukraine over some attacks they didn't stomach.) And sometimes even other [US] government agencies do that.

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This has been a long time policy. One of the first examples was a Ukrainian helicopter raid to attack a fuel depot early in the war.

wiki attacks in Russia

On 1 April (2022), according to regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov and an unnamed US official, two Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopters attacked and set fire to a fuel depot in Belgorod in a low-altitude airstrike with no reported casualties.[7][8][9] Ukraine denied and dismissed the event as Russian propaganda.[10][11] Ukrainian security official Oleksiy Danilov denied Ukraine was behind the helicopter attack,[12][11] with a joke in which he blamed the "People's Republic of Belgorod" instead.[13][14][15]

The motivations for this are not that hard to fathom. Western electorates are extremely cagey about getting too involved in a direct war with Russia. "Believing" that Russia is only targeted on illegally occupied Ukrainian soil helps with that.

Additionally, if Ukraine goofs and mistakenly kills some civilians, that plausible deniability is an extra plus.

It is not that unusual for defensive wars to "stop at borders (wink,wink)" , with an aggressor force staging and retreating across a nominally inviolable border (Afghanistan-Pakistan, 80-89, 01-21, South and North Vietnam, Cambodia). The defending country may then have elaborate operations to target across that border, but officially deny it, not infrequently to the point where no one is fooled.

I also need to add that, apparently, Ukraine does mostly hold up its end of the bargain not to use Western-supplied weapons for those operations on Russia territory. They seem to be carried out with homebrew Ukrainian gear, like the Tu-141 @ Engels air force base, which is some massive Frankentech (marrying a 40yr old Soviet recon drone with modern guidance systems and warhead). Or obsolete S-200 SAMs.

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  • Why is PRB a "joke"? There is a very active separatist movement in the Belgorod Oblast. But even taking that aside, that explosion was so deep in the Russian territory that it could not have been reached by a helicopter from any territory controlled by Ukraine. Feb 6 at 17:04
  • I think this is failing to consider that's been a long time since the war started. And e.g. "Mr Zelensky said attacks on Russian territory were an "inevitable, natural and absolutely fair process" of the war between the two countries." in July 2023 bbc.com/news/world-europe-66352765 The only thing they categorically denied in 2023 was the attack on the Kremlin. The rest were more or less acknowledged, even if not always in the clearest terms. Feb 6 at 17:08
  • They tend to make a more clear statement when the target is a bit more clear/hit newsweek.com/… Even if the statement is sometimes by an anonymous official rferl.org/a/ukraine-energy-infrastructure-attacks/32163666.html Feb 6 at 17:26
  • This isn't failing to consider. I know they are - sometimes - less coy nowadays but the principle still remains: there is plenty of gains to be had from plausible deniability, as explained. As well as historical precedents. If the question has asked: "does Ukraine still always deny targeting Russian soil?", I would have answered that question. Not this one, which doesnt. Feb 6 at 17:28

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