Are Turkish drones stopping Russian advances in Ukraine?
Russia invades Ukraine
Russia has launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine as President Vladimir Putin demanded Kyiv’s army lay down its weapons.
The US, EU and Western allies have ramped up sanctions against Russia, targeting banks, oil refineries, and military exports. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pledged to not surrender and continue fighting to defend his country.
Reports that actual fighting is now taking place are starting to trickle in, with losses on both sides. In an address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for any Ukrainian with military experience to come forward and volunteer to defend the country. He also urgently appealed for citizens to donate blood to help treat the wounded.
On 23 February, the Council of the EU, within the existing framework for sanctions, agreed a package that extended targeted restrictive measures to cover all 351 members of the Russian Duma who voted in favour of the appeal to President Putin to recognise Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. Further sanctions were also imposed on an additional 27 high profile individuals and entities who have played a role in undermining the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. The sanctions also include an asset freeze, a prohibition of making funds available to the listed individuals and entities and a travel ban. Given the circumstances then, this was a suitably strong package, especially when paired with the (positively surprising) German decision to shelve the opening of Nord Stream 2 that would have delivered gas directly from Russia to Germany.
Russia’s military claims to have taken full control of Kherson, a key Ukrainian port city on the Black Sea. Footage showed Russian forces and tanks in the city centre amid reports of erecting checkpoints surrounding the city.
Russian paratroopers landed in Ukraine’s second city Kharkiv amid heavy fighting. Ukrainian officials say a hospital has been attacked and the barracks of a flight school is on fire after an air raid.
Today, Russia’s defence ministry urged Kyiv residents to flee and said it would strike unspecified areas used by Ukraine’s security services and communications. Russia describes its assault on Ukraine as a “special operation”, not an invasion seeking territory.
A US official said a miles-long armoured column bearing down on the capital, Kyiv, had not made any advances in the past 24 hours, frozen in place by logistics problems, shortages of fuel and food, and perhaps pausing to reassess tactics.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has said Russian officials are ready to hold a second round of talks with Ukraine, but added it was not clear if Ukrainian officials would turn up.
The war has triggered the worst refugee crisis in recent years, as nearly 875,000 people have now fled Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
As Russia’s advances on all sides are moving at a much slower pace than initially expected, especially in the North, Russian forces have intensified attacks on several key Ukrainian cities, targeting civilian facilities as well, as Ukraine’s president accused Moscow of wanting to “erase our country”.
Turkish drones dealing devastating damage
Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 combat drones have become famous in recent years, appearing to play decisive roles in various conflicts. But many experts questioned how effective the Bayraktars would truly be against a serious military power.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears to have given them the opportunity to test that theory out.
Footage released by the Ukrainian military over the weekend indicated that TB2s were operating against Moscow’s forces, destroying long Russian military columns in Kherson, near Kyiv. Dozens of lives and equipment were reportedly lost in the Bayraktar strikes.
TB2s have a proven track record of success against several adversaries in conflicts in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, yet they have never faced an army with sophisticated electronic warfare capabilities and state-of-the-art air defence systems.
On Tuesday, the Ukrainian military said that Bayraktar drones had destroyed one tank and two surface-to-air missile systems overnight. In other videos shared on Twitter, Bayraktar drones, in use by the military since at least 2021, are shown blowing up what appears to be a Russian fuel convoy and a group of supply trucks.
The drones are small and lightweight, (around seven times lighter than the U.S. military’s Reaper drone,) with a 12-meter wingspan that allows them to remain in the sky for up to 30 hours at a time. Each drone can each carry four laser-guided missiles, according to promotional material from Baykar Technologies, the company that produces them.
Before Russia attacked, Turkish officials believed the drones could be effective against the Russian military. They pointed to the TB2s’ record of destroying various Russian-made weapons in Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya – in particular, the Pantsir air defence system, which has become a subject of mockery due to its failure to take down the Turkish drones.
Ukraine and Turkey have close defence industry cooperation, a relationship that has flourished in recent years. The TB2’s producer Baykar, which has close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s family, was building a plant in Ukraine before the war.
Ukraine’s drone campaign has contributed to its early successes in slowing the Russian advance, and is revealing unexpected weaknesses on the part of the Russian army, U.S. and European military analysts say. Perhaps more significantly, analysts add, the videos are also becoming an increasingly prominent part of Ukraine’s information war – giving Russian invaders a reason to fear their enemy, and providing a vital boost for Ukrainian morale amid fears of a coming military onslaught. Even so, the drones are unlikely to change the long-term course of the war, analysts point out.
“The footage released by the Ukraine military shows serious defects in Russian air defense cover, which is a surprise for many observers,” says Arda Mevlütoğlu, a Turkish military and aerospace analyst. “The footage is also very useful for PR and psychological warfare.”
Many observers believe that Russia’s offensive is not going as planned, and it was foolish of Moscow to send in the troops without first wiping out Ukraine’s air force, including its drones.
Yet Russia’s failure to take out the TB2s could be down to several reasons. First off, it doesn’t have air supremacy over all of Ukraine’s airspace.
“Russian Aero-Space Forces have local air superiority over certain theatres, but not true air supremacy over the entire Ukrainian airspace,” Can Kasapoglu, director of defence at Istanbul-based think tank EDAM, told Middle East Eye.
“Besides, the Russian military struck a large number of Ukrainian air bases, but some still have operational runways and facilities. Manned and unmanned operations of Ukraine are attacked, but not totally disrupted.”
Robert Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says Russia had the capability to destroy TB2s on the ground and at airfields at the beginning of the war, but failed to do so for some reason.
The footage released by the Ukrainian military indicates TB2s haven’t really been threatened by any air defence systems. Evidence so far shows most sorties being carried out easily and without retaliation.
So far there is only open source confirmation of one downed TB2, although the Russian defence ministry claimed that it shot down three of them over the weekend.
One Turkish source told MEE that the Ukrainians have been using what he calls “hit and run” tactics to overwhelm the Russian troops. The source said TB-2’s low visibility and detectabilty due to their low radar cross section values help them considerably against the Russian defence systems.
“Also open source information suggests the Russians didn’t bring any electronic warfare capabilities with its convoys driving deep into Ukrainian territory,” the source said. The videos of Bayraktar drones visiting death upon Russian convoys have almost certainly been shared by the Ukrainian military to raise morale. But with a large column of Russian vehicles trundling toward Kyiv, many ague that any Ukrainian morale stemming from videos of drone strikes is likely to be short-lived.
Analysts Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans, who run a popular defence blog called Oryxspioenkop, wrote in December that Russia’s most modern electronic warfare systems failed to combat TB2 in Nagorno-Karabakh. They added that surface-to-air-missile systems such as Pantsir, Tor and Buk, which have been deployed in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, also proved to have little ability against the Turkish drones.
“We’ll have to wait until the war is over to make any strong conclusions about how effective TB2 were, but it appears they are playing a role right now and I suspect Russia will redouble its efforts to counter them,” the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Lee said.
TB2 Bayraktar drones produced by Turkey are therefore certainly playing an important role in slowing down Russia’s advance, both on the field, and in terms of morale, but as the next section will show, it is not the only factor in this process.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov announced that a shipment of new Bayraktar TB-2 combat drones has already been put into service.
The announcement was part of a lengthy recap of the past day, posted on Reznikov’s Facebook page.
“New Bayraktars have already arrived in Ukraine and have been put into service. More Stingers and Javelins are to come,” Reznikov said, referring to FIM-92 Stinger man-portable air-defense systems and FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles. If true, this would significantly bolster Ukraine’s defensive capabilities and would help continue the prevention of Russian air superiority.
Ukrainian morale and defense
President Putin believed that he could capture Kyiv and as many as four other cities within 48 hours of launching his invasion, according to British and Ukrainian defence sources. However, Ukrainians’ fortitude and resilience in the face of the offensive has shattered such plans.
More than four days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the smaller country’s defenders continue to frustrate Russian attempts on its major cities.
“Russian forces are continuing to advance into Ukraine from multiple axis but are continuing to be met with stiff resistance from the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” the U.K. Defence Ministry said.
Ukraine retains control of capital Kyiv and its second-biggest city, Kharkiv, despite heavy fighting, according to the latest intelligence update from the U.K. Defence Ministry.
Alexander Syrsky, the Ukrainian general in command of Kyiv’s defense, said in a Facebook post that the “situation is under control” in the capital.
“All attempts by the Russian Occupation Forces to achieve their goal failed. Convoys of occupiers’ equipment were destroyed,” he said, according to an NBC News translation.
“The enemy suffered significant personnel losses. Russian troops are demoralized and exhausted,” Syrsky said. “We have shown that we know how to protect our home from uninvited guests.”
Individual military accounts are difficult to confirm as much of Ukraine remains inaccessible and the situation on the ground shifts constantly.
Ukrainian defenders also maintain their hold on Kherson, a third major city targeted by Moscow planners, a senior U.S. Defense official said Sunday on condition of anonymity.
Russian advances were being slowed by “fuel and logistics shortages, especially in Kharkiv, but also on the advance to Kyiv,” the Defense official said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced during a televised address on Wednesday that nearly 6,000 Russian soldiers have been killed since the start of the invasion.
“Think of this number: almost 6,000 Russians died. Russian military. In six days of war,” Zelensky noted in his speech. “This is without counting the losses of the enemy last night. Six thousand. To get what? Get Ukraine? It is impossible.”
Although these numbers are unconfirmed and may be an exaggeration, countless videos showing destroyed Russian equipment and countless Russian prisoners of war confirm reports that Russia is suffering heavy losses.