Drones reshaping Ukraine war amid spike in usage by both sides

Drones reshaping Ukraine war amid spike in usage by both sides

The Ukraine war has become increasingly shaped by drone warfare, with both Russian and Ukrainian forces deploying increasing numbers of the unmanned craft, as well as anti-drone platforms with technology sourced from a range of nations, including the United States, China, Turkey, Israel and Iran.

While U.S. officials say Russia is being supplied by the Iranians, both sides are also relying heavily on their own domestic production of heavily weaponized and surveillance-oriented drones.

The advanced and multifaceted nature of Ukraine’s fleet was on display earlier this month when explosive-laden kamikaze drone boats — manufactured inside Ukraine — inflicted severe damage on a Russian tanker and Russian warship in separate attacks over a 24-hour period.

One of the attacks, on Aug. 4, featured an overnight strike on Russia’s Black Sea navy base at Novorossiysk off the coast of Russian-occupied Crimea. It was arguably the most devastating naval blow suffered by Russia since the April 2022 sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet which had played an integral role in supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The catch, according to analysts, is that Ukrainian forces hit the Moskva with Western-provided anti-ship cruise missiles, whereas the more recent strikes were carried out by domestically-produced Ukrainian drone boats.

“Not long after the sinking of the Moskva, Ukraine began using naval drones with greater regularity,” according to an Ukraine Military Situation Report published Wednesday by the Hudson Institute under the title, “A Game of Drones in the Russia-Ukraine War.”

Can Kasapoglu, a senior fellow at the think tank, wrote in the assessment that Ukrainian forces have since introduced “next-generation unmanned surface vehicles with a longer operational range than their predecessors.”

“Their success with these vehicles, including during this week’s strike near Novorossiysk, is prompting broader changes to Ukrainian military policy,” Mr. Kasapoglu wrote, noting that Ukraine’s defense ministry announced this week that it intends to proceed with future attacks on Russian vessels in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

The assessment coincides with a period of ongoing uncertainty over the status of a two-month-old Ukrainian counteroffensive that has made only modest gains so far against dug-in Russian forces along a 600-mile front line stretching across Ukraine’s east and south. U.S. and NATO officials have publicly defended the counteroffensive, which has moved at a much slower rate than Kyiv and its supporters had hoped.

Pro-Russian military bloggers claimed Wednesday that Ukrainian units had made a significant sortie across the Dnipro River into the Russian-held parts of the key city of Kherson, a first breach in a part of the longstanding line dividing the two armies. The unconfirmed accounts said the Ukrainian landing parties had been driven back.

Despite the appearance of a stalemate on the ground inside Ukraine, Russia has accused Ukrainian forces of carrying out cross-border drone operations inside Russia on an increasingly frequent basis over the past several months. Kremlin officials have detailed intercepting at least a dozen separate Ukrainian drone salvos just since the middle of July.

The most recent example came Wednesday, with Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin asserting that Russian forces had shot down two Ukrainian drones that had approached the Russian capital overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday.

The drones were intercepted on their approach to Moscow and there were no casualties, Mr. Sobyanin said, according to The Associated Press. The mayor claimed that one of the drones came down in a district south of Moscow, while the other fell near Minsk highway, west of the city.

A separate area northeast of the Russian capital was rocked by a massive explosion later on Wednesday, although Russian officials sought to tamp down speculation that the blast may have been caused by yet another enemy drone strike. Russia’s state news agency TASS reported that it occurred in the area of the boiler house of the Zagorsk optical-mechanical plant in the Sergiyev district near Moscow.

A large explosion at a factory in a city near Moscow sent a massive mushroom-shaped plume of smoke into the sky Wednesday, according to initial reports that said the blast blew out the windows of several nearby houses.

International news outlets reported that one person was killed and more than 50 injured by the explosion, which sent a large mushroom-shaped plume of smoke into the sky and blew out the windows of several nearby houses.

Citing an unnamed source, TASS reported that “according to preliminary data, the cause of the explosion was not a drone” and occurred “in the area of the boiler room,” but Ukrainian officials said video and local accounts of the explosion contradict the official accounts.

Tensions next door

Tensions are also on the rise between Russia’s ally Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north, and Poland, a NATO ally immediately to the west.

The Polish government announced Wednesday that it is planning to deploy an additional 2,000 troops to its border with Belarus, citing fears of illegal migration into Poland. The situation has sparked concern of a return to chaos that gripped the border two years ago during the lead-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

At the time, large numbers of migrants from the Middle East and Africa suddenly began arriving at the border from the Belarusian side with their travel facilitated by flights and visas provided from the government of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko — something Warsaw described as a form of “hybrid warfare.”

The fallout from Russia’s war against Ukraine has brought other concerns, including the presence of Russia-linked Wagner Group mercenaries in Belarus this summer after their short-lived mutiny in Russia.

The Lukashenko government has recently said it seeks to make fighters the core of a “contract army” that will help upgrade Belarus’ military capabilities.

The Lukashenko government began carrying out military exercises on Monday near its borders with Poland and Lithuania, another NATO member nation.

Lithuania, like Poland, has also increased its border security since thousands of Wagner fighters arrived in Russian-allied Belarus under a deal that ended their armed rebellion in late June and allowed them and their leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to avoid criminal charges.

Leaders of the two NATO nations have said they are braced for provocations from Moscow and Minsk in a sensitive area where both countries border Belarus as well as the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. They commented early in August after two Belarusian helicopters flew briefly at low altitude into Polish air space. Belarusian authorities denied their helicopters entered Poland.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration sought to highlight its own distaste for the Lukashenko government on Wednesday by leveling fresh economic sanctions against a slate of Belarusian individuals and entities.

A statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the sanctions were intentionally timed to mark the anniversary of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko “fraudulent” re-election three years ago.

Mr. Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, claimed victory in a widely-discredited election in 2020, cracking down on top opposition figures and regime critics after the announced result set off massive popular demonstrations and international criticism.

“Since 2020, the Lukashenko regime has repressed Belarusian citizens, arrested peaceful protesters and community leaders, cracked down on opposition groups and civil society organizations, and subjected those detained to sham trials, all to maintain Lukashenko’s illegitimately acquired authority,” Mr. Blinken said. “The United States will continue to support the people of Belarus in their pursuit of a democratic future in free Belarus where human rights are respected,” Mr. Blinken said.

Mr. Lukashenko, long known by critics as “Europe’s last dictator,” refused to leave office in 2020 after an election that most international observers said was won by pro-democracy activist Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Ms. Tsikhanouskaya fled the country shortly after the vote and was later sentenced by the regime in absentia to 15 years in prison.

U.S. officials sharply criticized the election at the time, as well as an aggressive crackdown that the Lukashenko government engaged in after the vote, jailing thousands who had flooded the streets in several Belarusian cities calling for the autocratic leader’s ouster.

Shunned by the West, Mr. Lukashenko has moved closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin and strongly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In early 2023, Mr. Putin announced that Russia would station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a move widely seen as a provocation toward Europe amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

Thursday’s sanctions announcement by the State Department said eight individuals and five entities were being targeted for “enabling Lukashenko’s domestic repression and facilitating Russia’s war against Ukraine.”

Visa restrictions were also announced against “101 regime officials and their affiliates for undermining or harming democratic institutions in Belarus, including several judges responsible for issuing politically-motivated sentences against Belarusians for exercising their fundamental freedoms.”

The U.S. Treasury Department, which oversees sanctions against foreign targets, said the actions announced Wednesday mean “all property and interests” that those targeted have in the United States or in possession or control of U.S. persons are now “blocked.”

The impact of such sanctions, which some U.S. national security analysts describe as largely symbolic, can be difficult to gauge.

The Biden administration has similarly relied on sanctions to try and contain Russia’s access to drones from Iran. The Treasury Department has imposed sanctions over the past year on individuals and companies accused of producing or transferring the unmanned weaponized aircraft that Russian forces have used to attack civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

Mr. Kasapoglu assessment for the Hudson Institute on Wednesday maintained that “the majority of Russian air strikes” occurring in Ukraine now involve Iranian-made “kamikaze” drones.

“These Iranian loitering munitions .. are mass-manufactured and affordable, making them efficient weapons of terror,” the analyst wrote. “They come equipped, respectively, with 20 or 40 kilograms of explosive warheads.”

For its own part, Ukraine has received drones from the United States and Turkey. And, recent months saw Israel — the arch-enemy of Iran — approve the export of anti-drone systems to help Ukrainian forces counter the Iranian-made vehicles being relied upon by the Russian side.