Friday, 7 January 2022

Keeping The Peace - Bayraktar TB2s Over Ukraine

By Stijn Mitzer
A Ukrainian drone strike on a howitzer belonging to DNR seperatist forces in the contested region of Eastern Ukraine led several countries to voice their concern for the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) in the War in Donbas. [1] Interestingly, this not only included Russia, but also Germany and France. [2] [3] Since the strike, which took place on the 26th of October 2021, tensions between Ukraine and Russia have risen to their highest in years, with a large Russian troop build-up close to the border with Ukraine sparking fears that all out war could be imminent. [4]
Ukraine's use of a Bayraktar TB2 to neutralise a seperatist D-30 howitzer appears to have set the alarm bells ringing in Moscow. Seperatist forces in Eastern Ukraine currently do not possess any surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems that can effectively counter the high-flying Bayraktar TB2. While Russia has reinforced the seperatists' air defences by deploying Tor-M1, Pantsir-S1 and Buk-M1 systems to Eastern Ukraine in the past, this led to the tragic shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, and a decision to repeat these deployments is unlikely to be taken lightly. [5]
What seperatist forces lack in modern SAM systems, they more than make up in electronic warfare (EW) equipment. The Russian military has forward deployed some of its most advanced EW systems to Eastern Ukraine, including the Krasukha-2 and the Repellent-1. [6] Past experience over Nagorno-Karabakh has shown that these proved incapable of disturbing the operations of the TB2, and there is little reason to suggest that these would present a grave danger to the TB2 over any part of Ukraine. [7] [8] This sets the stage for a setting in which Ukraine's use of TB2s can only be deterred through the massive influx of Russian air defence systems or fighter aircraft, both of which ingredients for an all-out war.

What this also means is that the current use of the Bayraktar TB2 in the War in Donbas is essentially constrained to retaliatory strikes under the threat of a severe escalation of the current conflict by Russia. With this in mind, it can be argued that Ukraine's use of the Bayraktar TB2 could actually end up as a stablising factor in the Russo-Ukrainian War. The strike on the howitzer caused no loss of life, and prevented the situation from turning into an artillery duel with Ukrainian forces. Furthermore, the strike served as a warning to seperatist forces that any future provocation could see the use of the Bayraktar TB2 again, possibly contributing much to limit these in the future.
The warning element of the drone strike was further evidenced by the fact that the TB2's operators only struck one out of the three howitzers positioned in the field, evidently judging this a proportionate warning to separatist forces to cease firing. The humanitarian catastrophe brought on by the onset of full-scale hostilities with Russia should prove enough to discourage Ukraine from using its TB2s for anything beyond retaliatory strikes, with supporting an attempt at retaking seperatist-held areas of Ukraine or to destroy their artillery inventory clearly off the table for now.

The DNR D-30 howitzer seconds before its demise at the hand of a MAM-C munition. Note the presence of another D-30 in the lower-right corner, which was not struck.

Russia maintains that "the deliveries of such armament [i.e. TB2s] to the Ukrainian military may potentially destabilize the situation at the engagement line". [9] For its part, Turkey has adopted the stance that it is not responsible for how Ukraine uses its Bayraktar TB2s. Speaking in response to Russian criticism on the delivery of TB2s to Ukraine, Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that ''If a state buys [armament] from us, it's no longer a Turkish product. It might be manufactured in Turkey, but it belongs to Ukraine. Turkey cannot be blamed for this.'' [10] As Turkey is frequently blocked from purchasing armament from the United States and Europe out of fear these could be used against PKK forces in southeastern Turkey, it seems unlikely that Turkey is ever going to impose restrictions on another country where, or where not, it can deploy its Turkish-produced armament.
Russia has historically shown very little consideration for the prevention of destabilising situations. In fact, Russia was at the heart of the Cypriot S-300 crisis in the late 1990s, when it sought to equip Cyprus with the S-300PMU-1 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. Despite pleas by Turkey not to deliver the S-300, Russia repeatedly insisted that the sale to Cyprus would proceed without interference, raising tensions between Cyprus and Turkey to the point of imminent war. [11] Russia proved entirely unwilling to cave in to Turkish concerns that the delivery of S-300s would severely upset the balance in the region, and it ultimately was Cyprus who decided against deploying the SAM system on the island. Some twenty years later, in 2018, Russia delivered S-300s to Syria under the same circumstances, despite Israeli protests that such a delivery could further destabilise the fragile region. [12]

The ex-Cypriot S-300PMU-1 SAM battery now stationed on the Greece island of Crete, where the system ended up after the Cypriot government decided against deploying the system on the island.

Since 2019, Ukraine has taken delivery of at least twelve Bayraktar TB2s for its air force and naval aviation. [13] In September 2021 it was revealed that the country plans on acquiring an additional 24 TB2s over the coming years. [14] Ukraine relies heavily on UAVs for the modernisation of its armed forces, as these cost only a fraction of the price of manned combat aircraft. Armed drones appear to be the only realistic way for Ukraine's Air Force to replace its aging inventory of combat aircraft and building up a realistic deterrent capability, and the future acquisition of more Bayraktar TB2s or even the Akıncı. Turkey appears intend in helping Ukraine in just that.

For all the talk of war, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine can be realistically addressed only through peaceful means. An actual solution to the conflict resulting in a more lasting peace could still be years away however, and provocations will undoubtedly continue in the meantime. The threat of more drone strikes by Ukraine could deter separatists from carrying out any future provocations using artillery, while the presence of the Russian Army along its Eastern border serves as a strong deterrent to Ukraine not to carry out any provocations of its own using TB2s.

Ukraine and Russia are essentially in a deadlock over the situation in Eastern Ukraine. The recent increase in tensions has done much to escalate the threat of war, making negotiations for a peaceful settlement all the more interesting. Although some analysts or global conflict watchers might envision a repeatal of the Nagorno-Karabakh scenario over Eastern Ukraine, the presence of Bayraktar TB2 over Ukraine could conversely contribute much to keep the peace.

[1] Перше застосування "Bayraktar" на Донбасі проти артилерії найманців
[2] Ukraine Angers Russia by Buying Turkish Drones and Wants To Get Its Hands On More
[4] Baptism By Fire - Ukraine’s Bayraktar TB2 See First Use
[5] Tor series surface-to-air missile systems in Ukraine
[6] Latest from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM), based on information received as of 19:30, 10 August 2018
[7] Aftermath: Lessons Of The Nagorno-Karabakh War Are Paraded Through The Streets Of Baku
[9] Turkish strike drone deliveries to Ukraine may destabilize Donbass situation — Kremlin   
[10] Turkey Says Cannot Be Blamed for Ukraine’s Drone Use
[11] Cyprus bows to pressure and drops missile plan
[12] Three Russian S-300PM battalion sets delivered to Syria free of charge — source
[13] Black Sea Hunters: Bayraktar TB2s Join The Ukrainian Navy