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NIAS Europe Studies
Russia: Drone attacks escalate the Ukraine war

  Padmashree Anandhan

On 5 December, the Russian Defence Ministry reported an alleged Ukrainian drone strike on the Russian airbases in Ryazan and Saratov. The drones were identified as “Soviet-made jet drones,” targeting the Dyagilevo airfield in the Ryazan Region and the Engels airfield in the Saratov Region located 300 miles from the Ukrainian border. According to the Ministry, the strike did not affect its aviation as the drones were shot down by the air defences and reported only slight damage to two aircraft, the death of three service members, and the injury of four other members.

In response to the drone strike, Russia carried out missile attacks on “energy objects” using strategic bombers across Ukraine resulting in power outages in Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Sumy, and Odessa regions. Ukraine has made no claims about the drone attacks. However, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal confirmed the functioning of the power grid despite the missile attack target on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.

On 6 December, the Russian Governor of Kursk city claimed another drone attack on an airfield in Kursk which set ablaze oil storage near the airfield. Remaining cautious of the recent escalation, the UK Ministry of Defence said, “if Russia assesses the incidents were deliberate attacks, it will probably consider them as some of the most strategically significant failures of force protection since its invasion of Ukraine.” On the other hand, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the US would not stop Ukraine from building its own long-range strike capabilities, while the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken remained ambivalent: “We have neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia.”

What are the key issues?
First, the geography of the Ukraine war. On 24 February, the war began with the Russian military breaching Ukraine's territory in the DPR and LPR regions. With the Donbas region coming under Russian control, the war began to spread to key port cities of Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and Mykolaiv extending to Odessa in the southern axis and a simultaneous rapid development in the northeast axis from Kharkiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv, and extending further to Kyiv in March. This advancement began to slow down in April when Ukraine's forces put up a strong defence in the northeast region of Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy. This first turning point in the war weakened the Russian posture in the northeast axis with a heavy concentration of Russian forces only in Kharkiv and the southern axis and seriously challenged Russia’s goal to capture Kyiv in western Ukraine. Since then, regular exchange of attacks between Ukrainian and Russian forces continued in the region until the end of August when Ukraine’s strong counteroffensive in early September resulted in the successful recapture of 8,000 sq km in Kharkiv and Kherson. The next turning point happened in November when Russia withdrew from Kherson into the eastern bank Dnipro River, providing a strategic opportunity for Ukraine to launch attacks into the Donbas and recapture Zaporizhzhia where Russia maintains a stronghold. The latest drone attacks into Russia’s farthest regions have raised serious concerns about the scope of the war.

Second, the strained Russian offensive. The nature of the Russian offensive seems to be fluctuating since September. During April and May, there was a steady movement of the troops away from Chernihiv into Kharkiv and Russia began to face challenges from August onwards in terms of logistics, restocking of the military, and positioning of the personnel. This forced Russia to concentrate its forces on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River in November. Since the withdrawal, Russia has diversified its offensive targeting energy grids, infrastructures, and the cyber domain; on the ground too, the attacks have been more sporadic or reactive in nature.

Third, military aid from the west. The west has held a very defensive posture when it comes to sending military equipment and arms to Ukraine. During the course of the war, the type of military support has transformed from medium to high-range weapons systems such as the Howitzers, HIMARS, air defence systems, battle tanks, and drone technologies. In addition, the west continues to augment Ukraine's offensive capacity through regular intelligence support, satellite imagery, and military training, all of which have boosted Ukraine’s military strength.

What does the drone strikes mean?
First, a tipping point or a deviation. There has been slow but a steady improvement in Ukraine’s military strike capacity and range between April and October. The first turning point for Ukraine was its counteroffensive starting from April onwards until November and its ability to launch precision strikes on Russian military bases and supply routes providing a strategic advantage to its troops in eastern Ukraine. Although the drone attacks into Russian territory remain to be claimed by Ukraine, it can be a tipping point that can change the course of the war. For the escalations and turning points in the war, the west’s support has been crucial. The recent drone attacks on its territory may not be a deviation but could serve as a strong warning for Russia.

Second, probable future scenarios for Russia. Russia’s last resort to secure its position in the northeast axis of Ukraine through mobilisation and martial law did not materialize and has ended up being a failure. The increasing support from the west to Ukraine and Russia’s continued challenges in replenishing its weapon and material supply and troops are set to strain Russia’s hold in eastern Ukraine. In the months ahead, Russia can be expected to adopt more off-ground or non-military tactics while it stocks up its military supplies.

Third, the future of western military support. The military support from the west to Ukraine has ranged from ground, maritime, and air defences supplies to intelligence support with the principal goal of bridging the asymmetry. It remains to be seen if the west will come together to put troops on the ground.

Regardless, the west can be expected to continue preventing escalations and reigning in the possibility of direct military engagement between both parties while securing energy and cyber infrastructures and waiting for the sanctions to take effect.

About the Author 
Padmashree Anandhan is a Research Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. She is currently working on the essay on NATO expansion in the Nordic.

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