KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine is still assessing the military significance of the sudden appearance of Russian balloons in its skies this week. But the use of balloons has a long military history — and is the latest example of how low-tech devices are also being used in a war that features the most advanced weaponry in the world.
In Ukraine, modern drones buzz above bloody trenches that evoke memories of World War I. The combatants blast away with both cannons and precision-guided artillery. Russia is sending conscripts and ex-prisoners to attack Ukrainian positions in human waves that recall the methods of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who led the Red Army into Berlin in World War II, while also firing so-called hypersonic missiles at Ukrainian cities.
The Soviet military often used unpowered balloons before World War II, and they made a resurgence in the Cold War, according to military historians. They have also been widely used by the United States and its allies. And there are reports that Ukraine is deploying its own balloons over Russian-controlled territory.
Over the years, balloons were mainly used to disperse propaganda leaflets, although they sometimes were equipped with reconnaissance equipment or explosives, Piotr Butowski, an aviation expert, wrote recently in the War Zone, a website that covers military affairs.
The peak of spy balloon activity during the Cold War occurred in January and February 1956, when almost 3,000 balloons were launched over Russia by the U.S. and its allies, he wrote. They became such a nuisance that the Soviets built specially designed planes to shoot them out of the sky.
Ivan Kyrychevskyi, a Ukrainian defense analyst, said one reason balloons are making a comeback now is that Ukraine has largely figured out how to counter the threat posed by Russia’s use of Iranian-made drones.
“The Russians are trying to test us with these balloons to see if they can use them to attack either civilian or military targets,” he told the Ukrainian media outlet Espreso TV. “This tool was used by the grandfathers of these occupiers who are now fighting against us.”