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Russia played a risky game with a drone that exploded, striking a Ukrainian port just a few hundred meters from NATO territory

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  • Russian forces have been routinely attacking Ukraine’s southern cities and ports in recent weeks.
  • Some drone strikes have targeted areas along the Danube River, which borders NATO member Romania.
  • Western intelligence says Russia has “evolved its risk appetite for conducting strikes near” NATO.

Russian forces have been increasingly carrying out explosive drones attacks on Ukrainian ports, even in areas near Ukraine’s borders with NATO territory, and Western intelligence suggests the series of calculated moves show Moscow’s “appetite” for risk has changed.

Moscow began a coordinated effort to target Ukraine’s southern cities, ports, and grain storage facilities in mid-July after it killed the critical Black Sea grain deal, which had allowed Kyiv to export food and fertilizer beyond a Russian blockade in a bid to avoid a global food crisis. Since the deal collapsed, Russia has relentlessly bombarded Ukrainian economic interests and civilians near the Black Sea and even threatened military action against vessels it believes are bound for Ukraine.

But these attacks have also crept toward NATO territory, something Western officials have warned of since the 17-month-long war began. Specifically, Russia has used Iranian-made one-way attack drones — widely known as “Shaheds” in a reference to the types of drones — to carry out several waves of strikes on Kyiv’s ports along the meandering Danube River, which separates southern Ukraine and NATO-member Romania and feeds into the Black Sea.

Britain’s defense ministry said in a Friday intelligence update that Russia “is highly likely attempting to coerce international shipping into stopping trading via the ports.” It added that the Iranian-made drones have landed as close as 650 feet from the Romania border, “suggesting that Russia has evolved its risk appetite for conducting strikes near NATO territory.”

A recent video filmed from the Romanian side of the Danube River — which showed a giant fireball erupt in the aftermath of a Russian attack on the city of Izmail — highlighted just how close the drones are to NATO territory.

Ukraine’s defense ministry said an attack on Izmail this week left over 40,000 tons of grain damaged.

“This grain could have fed millions of people in China, Israel, and many African countries. Terrorists can use starvation as a weapon. russia has demonstrated this once more,” the defense ministry wrote on Twitter.

UK intelligence said there’s “a realistic possibility” that Russia is using the Iranian drones “to strike this area in the belief they are less likely to risk escalation than cruise missiles: Russia likely considers them as acceptably accurate, and they have much smaller warheads than cruise missiles.”

In some areas along the Black Sea, Russia has made use of notoriously inaccurate missiles like the Kh-22 — an anti-ship missile referred to by NATO as the AS-4 Kitchen — to hammer Ukrainian cities over the past few weeks, leading to international outrage and condemnation. The persistent strikes have killed and injured scores of civilians and left buildings, including historic sites, in ruins.

“Russia’s attacks on civilian and port infrastructure in Odesa, Izmail, and Reni devastate places where people live and work,” US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink said on Wednesday. “As Russia continues to weaponize food, these escalatory attacks also represent a total assault on Ukraine’s ability to get badly needed grain to people around the world.”

Meanwhile, the bombardment near Romania comes as some NATO countries worry that Russian allies are encroaching on NATO territory to the northwest of Ukraine.

In late July, Poland accused Wagner Group mercenaries living in exile in Belarus and training the country’s military of moving into position near its border and said that two Belarusian military helicopters violated its airspace. Minsk has denied the allegations, but nonetheless, Wagner’s presence has led officials in NATO members Poland and Lithuania to express concern over the group’s activities.

Speaking to reporters this week, White House National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby downplayed the concern and said the mercenaries do not appear to be an immediate threat to NATO.

“We’re not aware of any specific threat posed by Wagner to Poland or to any of our NATO allies, and we’re watching that, obviously, closely,” he said, reiterating that the US is still committed to “defending every inch of NATO territory.”

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