Ukraine war: Drones transform conflict, bringing Russia to the frontline

Jens Stoltenberg is the secretary-general for NATO. He expressed concern about the possibility that the conflict in Ukraine could become out of control, triggering a confrontation between Russia and the west. He says, “If things go wrong, they can go sour.” He spoke to NRK, a Norwegian broadcaster.

Stoltenberg’s remarks were made on December 9, just a few days following the launch of a series by Ukraine of drone strikes on airbases deep in Russian territory. In response to Ukraine’s drone strikes on Russian airbases, Russia used Iranian-supplied aircraft the next day. They attacked Odesa, a major southern port, and left 1.5 million people without power. Since then, the air conflict has intensified.

Since the start of the war, Russia has deployed many military and commercial drones. However, their increasing frequency and deployment effectiveness suggest a new escalation stage that could have important consequences for Ukraine’s western backers.

Both sides have used drones in various roles, including intelligence gathering or combat operations. They are also used to document war crimes or by journalists reporting from inaccessible war zones.

While the main focus has been on Russian air combat drones striking from the air against Russian forces, Ukraine has also successfully deployed drones against Russian naval assets in occupied Crimea. Aerial drones were coordinated by marine drones, which operate in the same way as traditional torpedoes.

Another new feature of the war in Ukraine has been the widespread and extremely effective use of small commercial drones. Many of them are operated by civilian volunteers to collect intelligence. This has led to increased situational awareness, identification of Russian positions, and monitoring of troop movements.

The now-defunct international Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine pioneered drones to check the ceasefire created by the first failed Minsk Agreements of September 2014. However, their use after the Russian invasion was unprecedented.

Are drones a way to help Ukraine win?

The Ukrainians are using drones. Drones are more effective than many of Ukraine’s existing missiles. They are more affordable, require less training than manned aircraft pilots, and do not pose a threat to Ukrainian troops.

Drones can penetrate Russian and Russian-occupied territories, extending Ukraine’s reach to many hundred miles from the frontlines. Even though the damage done in recent Russian attacks was minor, it demonstrated Ukraine’s offensive capabilities. Their ability to escape air defenses exposes even more Russian weaknesses and is an important tactical victory that boosts morale.

This is a psychological blow for Russia, as it shows that Ukrainians can hit the enemy at their home and answer drones with drones. This also shows that the earlier doubts regarding the effectiveness of Ukrainian drone warfare were based on overestimating Russia’s air defense capabilities.

But, for the moment, drones are not strategically influencing the course of this conflict in Ukraine’s favor. Ukraine will need better air defense systems to combat the powerful kamikaze Russian drones used to attack infrastructure and civilian targets.

Drone strikes are unlikely to cause the loss and damage Russia needs to end its invasion. Ukraine will require more long-range artillery and missile systems for more effective strikes on Russian bases and structures, both within the occupied territory and abroad.

However, Russia’s biggest military backer, Iran, must be stopped from supplying drones to the country.

Is escalation inevitable?

Antony Blinken, US secretary-of-state, said Washington had not “encouraged nor enabled” Ukrainian drone strikes against Russian military bases (although it is believed that the US defense ministry approved the attacks at least tacitly).

Nato has been trying to avoid any escalation of the war beyond Ukraine. This has included restricting the supply of arms and equipment to Ukraine. The end of this strategy does not necessarily mean that Ukraine’s drone strikes against Russian military facilities are over. It is legal to strike at the bases where cruise missiles were launched against Ukraine as a defensive tactic to limit these attacks.

This also indicates that Kyiv is willing to attack Russia even beyond the occupied territories of Ukraine and has at least tacit Western approval. Moscow will need to work on this basis and allocate limited military resources for key targets far from the frontline. This will limit the Russian ability to defend illegally annexed Ukrainian land and reduce the Russian effort to capture additional territory in Donbas.

If drones are integrated into a larger western and Ukrainian military strategy, they could be important to paving the way to Russia’s defeat.

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