Geopolitics

The Stakes Of A Ukrainian-Russian Drone Arms Race

A recent unmanned attack could heighten tensions in the conflict zone and have broader geopolitical consequences.

The Stakes Of A Ukrainian-Russian Drone Arms Race

Police officers patrolling Moscow's Red Square

Anna Akage

Last week Vladimir Putin complained that even without accepting Kyiv into its ranks, NATO could place missiles in Ukraine near Russia's borders. Russian media was quick to help prove Putin's point, writing about Washington's current military aid to Kyiv, Ukraine's talks with London on obtaining British Brimstone missiles and Turkish drones in Donbas, which has been a disputed site of conflict since 2014.

Just days later, the Ukrainian military for the first time used the Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drone in Donbas. The incident Tuesday could seriously change the situation in the conflict zone and have consequences for both Russian-Ukrainian and Russian-Turkish relations.

Turkey enters the conflict 

Russian daily Kommersant writes that the main threat now is the military friendship between Ukraine and Turkey. "We have a really special and good relationship with Turkey, but in this case, unfortunately, our fears are confirmed that the supply of such weapons to the Ukrainian military could potentially destabilize the situation on the line of contact," says Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Russian president.

Information about the use of the drone appeared almost simultaneously with the report that the Ukrainian military occupied the village on the line of contact, which means a full-fledged aggravation of the conflict.

Natalia Nikonorova is the minister of foreign affairs of the Donetsk People's Republic, a self-proclaimed quasi-state in eastern Ukrainian. She tells Kommersant that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles — whatever their production and whatever country supplied them to Ukrainian armed forces — was absolutely unacceptable, adding they were an acute factor in destabilizing the situation.

Representatives of Germany, which is involved in resolving the violence in eastern Ukraine, say that drones "are used by both sides of the conflict."

A Russian drone carrying a package

Ogorodnik Andrei/TASS/ZUMA

A technological arms race?

Russian expert Vasily Kashin believes that the use of drones in Ukraine "will necessitate a radical strengthening of the air defenses of both Ukraine and the Donetsk People's Republic. The balance will require either radical rearmament of the republic's air defense forces or direct participation in their air defense against the Russian armed forces."

But the evidence on the ground might be more mixed: The Ukrainian magazine Livy Bereg took a closer look at the number of Russian drones. Originally, Russia was far ahead of Ukraine in military technological progress. Almost simultaneously, the two countries purchased a tactical drone in Israel. However, while Ukrainian procurement was gathering dust in warehouses, the Russians had already established production by 2011. But then Moscow unexpectedly fell behind.

New information about Russia's unmanned aerial vehicles appeared during the forum "Army-2021." In particular, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that by the end of 2021 the number of drones in the Russian army will exceed 2,000 units. It is unlikely that Shoigu's statement is anything but banal propaganda.

What is known for sure is that Russian drones designed or developed for the military are man-operated and do not contain elements of artificial intelligence. Despite having publicly announced ambitious plans to create strike drones, Russia has not completed them. Thus, in December 2020, Putin ordered the Russian Defense Ministry to speed up work on the Hunter drone, which was to become the main opponent to the Ukrainian drone Bayraktar TB2 of Turkish production. But in February 2021, Russia had to admit that flight tests for Hunter will not end before 2023 and its serial production will begin no earlier than 2024.

The drone competition is a reminder that even as peace talks between Ukraine and Russia continue to stall, the local arms race isn't slowing down.

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