Ukraine War: Drones Are Transforming the Conflict, Bringing Russia on to the Frontline

Drones thus provide a means to penetrate deep into Russian and Russian-occupied territory, extending Ukraine’s reach to several hundred miles behind the current frontlines. Even if the damage inflicted in the recent attacks inside Russia was only slight, it served as an important demonstration of Ukraine’s offensive capabilities. Their ability to evade air defenses exposes yet more Russian vulnerabilities and serves as an important, morale-boosting tactical victory.

At the same time, it is also a psychological blow for Russia that demonstrates Ukrainians’ ability to hit the enemy at home and to answer drones with drones. And it demonstrates, too, that earlier doubts about the effectiveness of Ukrainian drone warfare was based on overestimating Russia’s air defense capabilities.

Yet, for now, drones have not decisively shifted the course of this war in Ukraine’s favor in a strategic sense. For that to happen, Ukraine will need more capable air defense systems against the kamikaze drones Russia currently deploys to devastating effect against infrastructure and civilian targets.

And drone attacks alone are unlikely to inflict the losses and damage necessary for Russia to end its invasion. Ukraine will also need more long-range artillery and missile systems which can deliver more powerful strikes against Russian bases and installations, both in occupied territory and in Russia itself.

At the same time, supplies of drones from Russia’s most important military backer, Iran, need to be more effectively curtailed.

Is escalation Inevitable?
US secretary of state Antony Blinken said Washington had “neither enabled nor encouraged” Ukrainian drone strikes against military bases in Russia (although the US defense department is reported to have at least tacitly approved the attacks).

Throughout the war to date, NATO has been keen to avoid escalation beyond Ukraine, and this has included limiting the equipment and arms that have been supplied to Ukraine. Ukraine’s drone strikes against military facilities inside Russia do not necessarily signal the end of this strategy. Targeting the bases from which cruise missiles were launched at Ukraine is a legitimate defensive tactic to limit these strikes.

But it also shows a wider willingness on the part of Kyiv to attack Russia beyond occupied Ukrainian territories and at least tacit western approval of such an approach. Moscow will have to plan on that basis, allocating scarce military resources to the defense of key targets far from the front line. This will limit further Russian capacityto defend illegally annexed Ukrainian lands, let alone to escalate the intensity of its current efforts to capture more territory in Donbas.

Properly integrated into a wider Ukrainian and western military strategy, drones could in this way be an important contribution to forging a path towards Russia’s defeat.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security, University of Birmingham. David Hastings Dunn is Professor of International Politics in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.