Russian ‘spy’ balloons over Ukraine are often decoys designed to draw fire

Russian ‘spy’ balloons over Ukraine are often decoys designed to draw fire

KYIV, Ukraine — Amid everything else, balloons — presumably sent by Russia — are also menacing Ukraine.

Top Ukrainian officials this week joined the new worldwide focus on the threat of unmanned aerial balloons and their potential use for espionage and disruption. The officials said they routinely shoot down small objects that could be used by Russia for spying but mostly seem to be decoys intended to draw the Ukrainian military’s attention, and ammunition, from more important targets.

On Wednesday, Kyiv’s city-military administration said on its Telegram channel that “around six enemy air targets” were spotted above the Ukrainian capital, setting off air alarms. According to preliminary information, the statement said, these were “balloons that move under the influence of the wind” and “could carry corner reflectors and certain intelligence equipment.”

“Most of these probes were shot down,” the military administration said. Russian officials have not confirmed that they launched these, or any, balloons.

The widening worldwide interest was set off by the discovery of a Chinese spy balloon over the United States last month, which the U.S. military shot down after tracking it across the country. At least three other objects believed to be balloons were also shot down in U.S. or Canadian airspace officials said.

While balloons seem to be having a moment, Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for Ukraine’s air force, said that his country was focused far more on the latest barrage of Russian missiles that were fired at Ukraine overnight, including Kh-22 ballistic missiles that are almost impossible to intercept.

Ihnat cautioned against drawing too many parallels between the huge Chinese balloon that set off the recent frenzy and the alleged Russian balloons spotted over Kyiv, which are much smaller — about five feet in diameter — and appeared to mainly to be designed as decoys.

“The balloons could be launched from the territory of Russia or Belarus, using air currents that will carry them in the right direction,” Ihnat said.

Social media showed images of what were said to be some of the shot-down balloons, which were carrying small objects with reflective material.

“They’re trying to distract us,” Ihnat said, adding that the Russians hoped that Ukrainian forces would fire on the balloons, thereby depleting the military’s missile stocks and revealing their locations. However, he said Ukrainian forces were able to distinguish between a shiny balloon and an enemy drone, Ihnat said.

“I wouldn’t play up this topic,” Ihnat said in a telephone interview. “These are not new. They’re your grandfather’s methods, invented during the Soviet Union.”

The incident on Wednesday followed a similar spotting of a balloon over the city of Dnipro on Sunday. Moldovan and Romanian officials also reported that objects “similar to a weather balloon” had crossed into their airspace on Tuesday, resulting in Moldova closing its main airport for one hour, and Romanian forces scrambling two military jets.

“In this war, the Russians are using all available means to create nightmares, to disturb our Ukraine today,” Ihnat said. “Tomorrow will be a different method.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to knowThe latest: Fighting in eastern Ukraine continues as Russian forces make minor gains in their attempt to encircle the city of Bakhmut. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked Western allies for fighter jets as Russia mounts a spring offensive. Read the latest here.

The fight: Russia has been targeting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure with missile and drone strikes since October, often knocking out electricity, heating and water in the country. Despite heavy fighting, no side has made significant gains for months. Western allies agreed to a new wave of elaborate weapons, including Leopard tanks, hoping it may change the balance on the battlefield.

A year of war: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war has set off a historic exodus of his own people, with data showing that at least 500,000, and perhaps nearly 1 million, have left Russia since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. Despite that and extensive sanctions, the Russian economy has remained more resilient than many expected. There are signs, however, that Putin’s luck may be starting to run out.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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