The War Zone hasn’t yet been able to geolocate the supposed target using commercial satellite imagery that matches what is seen in the video, which appears more like a large above-ground warehouse or barn. There’s also a distinct lack of secondary explosions as one would expect when rocket fuel and explosives cook-off. It’s still possible a Kinzhal hit the base, but the video is suspect at a minimum.
The use of Kinzhal to hit this target is also further evidence of how Ukraine’s air defenses remain a potent deterrent to Russian forces. They have been remarkably effective against Russian aircraft, and have had some success against cruise missiles, as well, but that has not stopped cruise missiles from delivering successful attacks to targets in Ukraine’s far west. Regardless, it is becoming crystal clear that Russia remains unwilling or unable to fly manned strike aircraft against targets that far west given the Ukrainian counter-air threat.
But beyond Kinzhal’s standoff range and it being designed to defeat air defenses, it isn’t clear why this target necessitated its use. The hardened nature of the supposed weapons bunker would potentially make a ballistic missile a good choice to destroy it, but Russia has far more conventional Iskander-M ground-launched ballistic missiles that can be employed to do so.
But considering air defenses were clearly a reason to use such a high-end capability to hit the weapons bunker, it further begs the question of how a lowly Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicle managed to get over the supposed target area to film the attack.
Orlan-10’s range is typically stated to be between 120 and 150 kilometers, or between around 75 and 93 miles. However, it is said to be able to conduct operations out to a range of 600 kilometers, or almost 373 miles, in an „off-line mode“ along a preplanned route where it can record video footage, but not transmit it in real-time. One of these drones recently reportedly crashed in northwestern Romania more than a week ago, suggesting that they have been employed in this general region of Ukraine before. With these ranges in mind, an Orlan-10 could potentially fly to this part of Ukraine from southern Belarus, but could also have been launched from Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria. Nevertheless, the fact that it was just flying around this remote target area indicates that recording the strike was well worth losing the drone over or that it happened in a different area altogether.
There’s also an element of further messaging to NATO here, allegedly using one of Russia’s most advanced offensive capabilities against another Ukrainian base close to the border. You can read about our coverage of the Russians’ strike on a former NATO training base near the Polish border last week here.
Also, as we predicted before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine kicked off, the Kremlin would eventually use the conflict to showcase its most advanced capabilities and weapons innovations. This also fits into the strategic messaging component.
Above all else, maybe the most pressing question is why was this capability used now? Why weren’t Kinzhals used during the opening hours and days of the conflict to blind command and control, knock out air defenses, and neuter the enemy’s ability to effectively fight in a coordinated manner? That question is still very much up for debate as is Russia’s overall capacity to execute a modern integrated military operation. But in the meantime, the peculiar use of standoff weapons, and in small numbers, tells a lot about Russia’s stocks of precision-guided weaponry — although these revelations are not really all that new — and especially when it comes to the more expensive and advanced standoff kind. Maybe it is a sign that Iskander-M stocks are already running low.
In the end, not everything adds up here. That’s just the reality. It is just as possible we are seeing a standard Iskander-M attack in the video as one by Kinzhal, although maybe we will get more proof otherwise. The fact that sources in the U.S. government have also confirmed Kinzhal’s use points to the possibility that maybe its target was different than what was claimed, and this would fit with the discrepancies with the video. It’s also possible that the U.S. assessment will change as this is still a very new development.