GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 686, 1 June 2023

Russia and Ukraine: A New Drone Warfare
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news
On 28 May, The Guardian reported on the "biggest drone attack" launched by Russia into Kyiv. The Ukrainian military confirmed countering 52 out of 54 Shahed drones. It reported Russia to have used the eastern coast of the Azov Sea using unconventional routes. Kyiv's military administration head, Serhiy Popko, said: "The attack was carried out in several waves, and the air alert lasted more than five hours."

On 29 May, RT reported on Russia's defence ministry claim of launching "multiple high accuracies strikes" on Ukraine's military "airfields" during 28-29 May. According to the report, Ukraine's command posts, ammunition storage, and aircraft were attacked in the frontline across Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kharkiv districts.

On 30 May, drone attacks were reported in Moscow. According to Russia's Defence Ministry, eight drones hit Moscow. As per the report from Politico, the attacks were particularly launched in Western Moscow, which comprises the elite Russian community. According to one of the residents in the area, the attacks were "shocking and confusing."

On 31 May, The New York Times reported: "The dueling strikes reflected the dialed-up tension and shifting priorities ahead of Ukraine's expected counteroffensive. Ukraine has increasingly been reaching far into Russia-held territory, while Moscow has been adjusting its tactics in an effort to inflict significant damage on Kyiv." According to reports, the US is still collecting information on the Moscow attacks and denied supporting any strikes inside Ukraine.  

Issues at large
First, the drone warfare in the Ukraine war theatre. Since the war began, drone attacks into Russian territory and Ukraine's West were sporadic. After 2023, the intensity gradually increased. This can be seen from the drone attacks in the airfields of the Ryazan and Saratov districts, which took place in December 2022, the Belgorod attacks (three to seven kilometres from the Ukraine border) that lasted for two days, and lastly in Moscow. Inside Ukraine, the attacks concentrated in the Donbas region have now changed to recurring attacks in the West, especially Kyiv and Lviv. 

Second, the Bakhmut trigger. Despite the Bakhmut battle indicating strategic significance, it began to be perceived as a symbol of pride by Ukraine and Russia. It was to showcase who could fight long and still win the battle. The timing of the drone attacks can be equated with the Russian victory claims over the Bakhmut battle, as it despises Ukraine's ability to hold control. 

Third, Ukraine's repeated demand to augment its airpower. Ukraine's demand for modern aviation and advanced air defence systems has been long waitlisted due to the concerns of the escalation of war across the transatlantic. The Council of Europe meeting in May was a breakpoint when the UK and Netherlands formed a coalition to train the Ukrainian soldiers for fighter jet training. Denmark and Portugal agreed to join the coalition, followed by the US agreeing to support Ukraine with fighter jets upon training. In response, Russia has criticized the move, stating that despite such support, Ukraine lacks a conducive environment and enough maintenance personnel. The larger strategy behind the surprise call to help Ukraine attain the capability remains unclear, while Ukraine's air defence is on track for a massive upgrade.

Fourth, the diplomatic offensive of Zelenskyy. The US, NATO, and Europe continue to support Ukraine through weapons, economic, and humanitarian aid, but it has never been fulfilling the demands of Ukraine. The Arab League and G7 Summit, which took place in May, allowed Ukraine to reach out to other international actors. Zelenskyy used it to gain diplomatic support from Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. South Korea agreeing to send artillery rounds and Japan agreeing to humanitarian aid has helped expand its diplomatic support.

In perspective
First, a possible escalation in two areas. At the ground level, the attack was concentrated in Donbas and Bakhmut. Since Russia's victory claim on Bakhmut, the attacks have expanded to further east of Russia and west of Ukraine, creating a risk for war escalation. In the case of weapon systems, Ukraine, which lags in the advanced air defence systems, the fighter jets coalition creates a possibility to strengthen it. In the case of Russia, the agreement to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus also equates to an escalation. 

Second, a diplomatic escalation. South Korea and Japan are stepping in support of Ukraine. Similarly, Russia, Iran, Belarus, and China, as per the reports from the US intelligence, may lead to indirect help in the war. 

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