GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 719, 10 August 2023

The War in Ukraine: Escalation after drone attacks
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news
On 1 August, the Russian Ministry of Defence reported three drone strikes in Moscow and the Black Sea and accused Ukraine of launching the attacks. The strikes ranging 450 kilometres into Moscow caused damage to several ministerial buildings and oil depots. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denied the claims and stated: “..inevitable, natural and fair process….we don’t attack Putin or Moscow.” He added: “We fight on our territory. We’re defending our villages and cities. We don’t have enough weapons for these.”

On 1 August, RT news reported and BBC corroborated that another Ukraine drone attack took place in Moscow’s business district. The Russian Ministry of Defence states that three drones were involved, with two destroyed in mid-air and the third suppressed by electronic warfare systems, crashing into a non-residential complex.

In response to the drone attacks, on 5 August, Russia retaliated with a series of drones and missiles using cruise missiles and Shahed-136 drones over the Caspian Sea. Russia’s spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated: “There can be no justification for such barbaric actions, they will not go unanswered and their authors and perpetrators will inevitably be punished.”

Following the drone attacks in the Black Sea, on 8 August, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence declared war in the Black Sea against Russia. It stated that Russia’s ports surrounding the Black Sea will be a “war risk zone.”

Issues at large
First, increased drone attacks. According to the reports from Russia, close to 120 drone attacks have been targeted inside Russia and in the Russian-occupied region including Crimea. The attacks have concentrated across Bryansk, Belgorod, and Crimea located in the border area of Ukraine, and few into Moscow. In 2022, Ukrainian energy infrastructures across eastern and western districts were the target of Russia’s military. This shifted by 2023 when Ukraine’s military arsenals became the key target of Russia’s drones. The concentration of these drone attacks has gradually expanded both in Ukraine and Russia from districts of Ryazan, Saratov, Kursk, and Belgorod closer to the border to farther into central cities of Moscow, Kyiv, and Lyiv.

Second, Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Ukraine’s earlier counteroffensive in 2022 involved maximum ground defence and limited airpower. The June 2023, long-delayed counteroffensive demands more air defence with increased drone attacks from Russia. Ukraine which has denied launching drone strikes into Moscow, evidence shows the usage of Ukraine-made drones. Ukraine’s long demand for air power is starting to materialize on the ground as it produces its drones with the support of private funding and aid from the West. This was possible with aid from the US and the UK in supporting Ukraine with air defence missiles, small drones, long-range drones, and munitions to deploy in the drones.

Third, escalation in war through geographic expansion. Observing the frequency and intensity of the drone attacks between February 2022 and May 2023 the fight was restricted to only Ukraine's territory and Russia’s occupied territory. This is now beginning to expand geographically in Crimea, Russia into air and maritime warfare. Geographic expansion of war indicates Ukraine's ability to utilize the weapons supported by the West to launch wider attacks.

In perspective
First, Ukraine’s race to scale up. Despite the denial of accepting the drone strike claims, significant efforts are being taken by Ukraine to develop its drones. According to the reports from The New York Times, the Bober, and the UJ-22 Airborne have been increasingly targeted inside Russia at twice the rate of 2022. This has been possible due to private funding and Ukraine’s government’s incentivizing private companies such as Ukrjet that engage in drone production.  

Second, the threat of escalation. Increased exchange of drone attacks marks the starting point of improvement in Ukraine’s air defence. The drone incursions also mean a trigger for Russia to use its air superiority. In terms of attacks and counterattacks, Ukraine’s gradual progress can be witnessed from holding a strong defence to an offensive stance in the ongoing counter-offensive. Followed by the on-ground exhaustion, and shift into precision striking provides space for both actors to regroup their ground forces. This will drive external players such as the US, NATO, Europe, and Iran to further air defence. Thereby, escalating the war in terms of advanced weapons, and geography to further the war long.

Third, Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal as a trigger. The fallout of war into the air and maritime domain comes after Russia’s move to withdraw from the grain deal. This has become a trigger for Ukraine to launch a war in the Black Sea affecting Russia’s maritime trade. Therefore, with cease of the grain deal and increased exchange of attack in the ports, Ukraine and Russia’s maritime trade, especially oil and grain exports can be expected to be affected. 

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