Ukraine at D+526: The drone war at week's end.
N2K logoAug 4, 2023

Russia and Ukraine continue to exchange drone strikes. Russian attacks have concentrated on grain ports and cultural sites. Ukraine's operations have been directed against Russian government offices, lines of communication, and warships. The cyber phases of the war continue to feature nuisance attacks and espionage.

Ukraine at D+526: The drone war at week's end.

Drone exchanges continued overnight. According to the Telegraph, Russia claims to have shot down six Ukrainian drones enroute to Moscow. Ukraine reports that it shot down "almost fifteen" Russian drones headed for Kyiv early this morning.

Ukrainian surface drone strike against Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

Ukrainian surface drones, pilotless boats carrying four-hundred-fifty kilograms of high explosive (said to be TNT), were used against Russian naval units in Novorossiisk. One large amphibious warfare ship, the Olenegorsky Gornyak, is said to have been severely damaged and rendered combat ineffective. Russian sources say the Ukrainian drones were all destroyed and that Russia sustained no damage, but video provided by Ukrainian sources appears to show both the strike and then the Olenegorsky Gornyak listing severely to port and visibly settling while apparently under tow. The videos, media outlets caution, are unverified, but they do appear to show what the Ukrainians say they do. The video, it's worth noting as further evidence of the growing importance of crowd-sources OSINT, appeared in various social media channels.

Reuters reports that the port of Novorossiisk, a major Russian Black Sea port and naval base, in its civilian sections a terminal for both oil and grain exports, was closed temporarily after the drone strike. According to the AP, service began to be restored after a few hours.

A war against Ukrainian cultural sites.

Russia's bombardment of Ukrainian cities continues. Shelling damaged Kherson's St. Catherine's Cathedral, with a subsequent barrage hitting firefighters who responded to the first round of indirect fire. An Atlantic Council essay argues, citing President Putin's repeated assertions that Ukrainian nationality is fictitious, that this is part of a deliberate campaign. "In late July, UNESCO officials confirmed they have now officially verified damage to 274 Ukrainian heritage sites since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion almost eighteen months ago. The list includes 117 religious sites, 27 museums, 98 buildings of historical or artistic interest, 19 monuments, and 12 libraries. Other available data suggests UNESCO’s figures may actually be conservative. In January 2023, researchers from the Smithsonian Institution’s Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab claimed to have already identified almost 1,600 cases of damage to heritage sites in Ukraine." President Putin's comments on Ukrainian nationhood have been echoed and amplified by state media; Russian Orthodox media have expressed comparable opinions.

That Russia has destroyed a large number of important cultural sites is beyond dispute. Whether the damage is incidental or deliberate might be disputed. There's no plausible case to be made for the destruction being excusable collateral damage inflicted in the course of attacks on legitimate military targets (there have been few if any such targets near the cultural sites), but there might be an explanation in terms of simple incompetence: Russian targeting has been careless and indiscriminate throughout the war.

Drones as the preferred weapon against Ukrainian grain.

Why the use of drones near NATO territory, especially against Danube ports, as opposed to air or missile strikes? Russia, the UK's Ministry of Defence thinks, probably views drones as less likely to provoke retaliation. "In the last two weeks, Russia has conducted several waves of strikes against Ukrainian ports on the Danube River using Iranian-produced one-way attack uncrewed aerial vehicles (OWA UAVs). It is highly likely attempting to coerce international shipping into stopping trading via the ports. OWA UAVs have struck targets as close as 200 metres from the Romanian border, suggesting that Russia has evolved its risk appetite for conducting strikes near NATO territory. There is a realistic possibility that Russia is using OWA UAVs to strike this area in the belief they are less likely to risk escalation than cruise missiles: Russia likely considers them as acceptably accurate, and they have much smaller warheads than cruise missiles." Romania has protested the Danube strikes.

Russian sensitivity to the vulnerability of occupied Crimea.

The BBC reports that Ukraine has now claimed responsibility for the attack against the Kerch Strait Bridge on July 17th, the second such strike during the course of the war. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reports that Moscow is growing increasingly sensitive to reporting, even by hard-war mil-bloggers, of Ukrainian operations in Crimea. "A dispute among prominent voices in the Russian information space highlights the Kremlin’s sensitivity to Russian reporting about setbacks in Crimea in particular and possibly in Ukraine in general and has further exposed fault lines within the milblogger community." The ISW concludes that "the issue of strikes against Crimea is a distinctly neuralgic point in the pro-war Russian information space."

Recruiting challenges.

Russia is said by the Economist to be having trouble recruiting enough contract soldiers (that is, volunteers as opposed to conscripts) that it's had to resort to "trickery and coercion." (Also to soap operas--a weepy television series about the women who love the sons and husbands fighting for Russia is in production.) Ukrainian sources, who in fairness are hardly unbiased, tell Al Arabiya that Russian contract soldiers are doing all they can to avoid frontline service. And recruiting is apparently moving into the Near Abroad as well as Russia proper. Reuters reports that Kazakh citizens are being offered enlistment bounties if they'll come across the border and join the Russian army. Russia is running out of young men who don't count.

Cyber attacks continue to gutter on both sides of the war.

The SVR cyberespionage campaign recently described by Microsoft (and summarized by Reuters) is the most prominent of recent cyber operations, but there have been others. The Times describes ongoing disruption of Russian online services by Ukrainian hacktivist auxiliaries.