Ukraine recap: fears of escalation after US drone downed over the Black Sea

There was another of those moments when the world held its breath this week when news broke on March 14 of an incident between a US drone and two Russian jets. The unmanned US Reaper MQ-9 drone, reportedly on routine surveillance duties in international airspace, had to be brought down into the Black Sea after apparently being irretrievably damaged by the jets.

The US Department of Defense has just released footage of the incident, obtained, it appears, from the drone itself, which shows a Russian jet buzzing close to the unmanned Reaper drone and releasing quantities of what is reported to be fuel into its path. The video also reveals damage apparently caused by a collision between one of the jets and the drone.

Pentagon footage courtesy of CNN.

The situation is still playing out. Both sides have claimed that the other was in the wrong. The Kremlin says that there was no contact between its jets and that the drone had crashed after making a “sharp manoeuvre”. The incident, which Russia said was due to increased US surveillance in the region, was a “provocation” which would draw an appropriate response if something of this nature happened again.

The US, meanwhile, accused the Russian pilots of “reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner” with the potential to escalate into a direct confrontation between the two sides.

Both sides are reportedly trying to salvage the wreckage of the drone, a huge intelligence boost for the Kremlin if it gets there first. Ashley S. Deeks, a former US state department lawyer, who now lectures in international law at the University of Virginia, writes here that she views the Russian assertions about the incident “with scepticism” and adds that the incident highlights “the right of countries to operate aircraft and drones in international airspace – even for the purposes of spying on another state”.

Read more:
Downing of US drone in Russian jet encounter prompts counterclaims of violations in the sky – an international law expert explores the arguments

We’ll bring you more analysis of this worrying episode as more details emerge.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the two sides remain locked in a brutal battle for the town of Bakhmut in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The brunt of the fighting on the Russian side has mainly been borne by the mercenaries of the Wagner Group and casualties on both sides are said to be high.

Chris Morris, an expert in military strategy from the University of Portsmouth, believes the cost to both sides in terms of causalities and military equipment far outweighs any strategic value that capturing the town – it’s a regional transport hub – may offer.

Since Vladimir Putin sent his war machine into Ukraine on February 24 2022, The Conversation has called upon some of the leading experts in international security, geopolitics and military tactics to help our readers understand the big issues. You can also subscribe to our fortnightly recap of expert analysis of the conflict in Ukraine.

Morris observes that the spring thaw – or rasputitsa – is hampering both sides as it makes the ground boggy and difficult to manoeuvre, especially for tanks and other armoured vehicles. But Russia has the added difficulty of supplying its war machine a long way from home.

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Ukraine war: a fight to the death in Bakhmut with both sides bogged in the spring thaw

The state of the conflict in the Donetsk region, including at Bakhmut.
Institute for the Study of War

And supplies of new equipment – or the lack of them – are increasingly becoming a problem for both sides. Notwithstanding its propaganda videos showing the ingenuity of Ukrainian engineers in repurposing or generally fixing up captured Russian equipment, Ukraine now largely depends on supplies from its Nato and European allies.

Matthew Powell, an expert in strategy and air power at the University of Portsmouth, says the problem of resupplying armies with equipment and ammunition is nothing new in war. But he notes that some of the weapons being used in Ukraine are expensive and sophisticated and take time to make. And then there’s the issue of training the Ukrainian military to use the latest Nato hardware, which can take months, even years.

What this may mean for commanders in the field, writes Powell, is that they become more risk averse. And the cost of this war is playing merry hell with defence budgets – not good news for economies struggling with a cost of living crisis.

Read more:
Ukraine war: high cost of replacing military hardware will change the nature of the conflict

An issue exercising legal minds over the past year has been the notion of “false flag” operations – hostile statements made or acts committed to pin the blame on another party, usually one’s enemy. This sort of trickery is so named because it is said to date back to the days, in the 16th century, when in naval battles a ship may fly the flag of their enemy to allow them to get close to a hostile warship before swapping colours back and opening fire.

False flag ops, which are a particular part of the Kremlin’s playbook, are not illegal under the rules of war, writes David Turns, a senior lecturer in international law at Cranfield University. But they are hedged about by caveats. At the Nuremberg war crimes trials, for example, a German officer was found to be guilty of a war crime after he fired on enemy troops from a vehicle marked with the Red Cross insignia. But another German officer, who dressed his men in US uniforms during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 was found not guilty because they changed back into their own uniforms before actually fighting. Turns explains the legal niceties here.

Read more:
Ukraine war: ’false flag’ operations – long used as weapons of mass distraction under the rules of conflict

Regional headaches

There were protests in Georgia last week after the government introduced a “foreign agents” law which many believed would have a negative effect on freedom of speech in the country. Similar to legislation passed last year in Russia, the law would make it pretty much impossible for Georgia to join the European Union, something it has long wanted to do and a step that appeared much closer after the EU granted the country candidate member status in June 2022.

The problem in Georgia is that the government’s relations with Moscow are at odds with the people. Natasha Lindstaedt, from the University of Essex, who specialises in authoritarian countries and democratic backsliding, was in Georgia in December and found that the vast majority of people she talked with wanted closer relations with the west. The ruling Georgia Dream party, meanwhile, is run by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a businessman who is understood to retain significant business assets in Russia and is more inclined to look to Moscow.

As Lindstaedt writes here, the government backed down – but Moscow’s man still holds the reins of power in Tbilisi, so Putin’s influence is still pervasive in Georgia.

Read more:
Georgia: ’foreign agent law’ protests show disconnect between pro-Moscow government and west-leaning population

Moldova, meanwhile, is not a neighbour of Russia’s, but Moscow controls a small sliver of territory in the country’s north-east in the breakaway region of Transnistria and there is a mounting concern at the prospect that Vladimir Putin might use the Russian military presence there to create a second front against Ukraine.

Exposed: Moldova’s location makes it strategically very important to both Russia and the west.
Peter Hermes Furian via Shutterstock

We’ve already seen some Russian “false flags” being hoisted there in the shape of accusations that Ukraine and Moldova have been plotting to invade Transnistria. There was also talk of plans to use a “dirty bomb” there. As Stefan Wolff – an expert in international security at the University of Birmingham – points out, the possibility of a second front from Transnistria has meant that Kyiv has been forced to station troops in the region, just in case. “If nothing else,” he writes, “there is a danger of inadvertent escalation that could quickly engulf Transnistria and Moldova and draw in Ukraine and neighbouring Romania – a Nato member and a key ally of Sandu’s government, with deep historical ties to Moldova.”

Read more:
Ukraine war: Moldova could be the first domino in a new Russian plan for horizontal escalation

Lessons from history

It seems like ancient history, but nine years ago this week a referendum was held in Crimea to ask the people if they wanted to become part of Russia. Given the presence of Russian troops in the peninsula, it’s hardly surprising that the result was a resounding, but barely credible, “yes” vote of 96%.

Stephen Hall, who researches post-Soviet politics at the University of Bath, believes this was a massive missed opportunity for the west. Granted, there were sanctions, but they were nothing like as harsh as those imposed since last February. Hall believes this lacklustre response and the failure to act on any of the other “red lines” crossed by Putin over the past few years, will have convinced the Russian leader that the risks involved in the invasion were manageable.

Read more:
Ukraine war: how the west’s weak reaction to Crimea’s referendum paved the way for a wider invasion

If that seems like ancient history, then the recent anniversary of the revelation, 90 years ago, by a young Welsh journalist of Russia’s genocide in Ukraine – known as the Holodomor – are positively prehistoric. But we should remember Gareth Jones, who risked his life to bring the world the news that Stalin’s Russia was deliberately starving the Ukrainian people and was ridiculed by the disgracefully partisan international press for his pains. As Richard Sambrook, a professor of journalism at Cardiff University and a former head of BBC newsgathering, recounts, they certainly haven’t forgotten in Ukraine.

Read more:
Reporting Ukraine 90 years ago: the Welsh journalist who helped uncover Stalin’s genocide

And finally, while we’re at it, this week marked 70 years since Josef Stalin died. James Ryan, who teaches modern Russian history at Cardiff University, compares the great tyrant with the current occupant of the Kremlin.

Read more:
After 70 years, Stalin’s shadow still looms over Russia and Ukraine – but Putin is a tyrant in his own right

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Ukraine recap: spring comes too early for Putin’s tanks – easy targets as they stick in the mud

Reading the international press on the first day of spring in Ukraine, it appears that Russia has jumped the gun somewhat in its “spring offensive”.

It has poured troops and armour into an area around the town of Vuhledar in southern Ukraine in what Ukrainian officials have referred to as the “largest tank battle of the war to date”. The New York Times has an in-depth piece about the battle in which it said newly deployed Russian tank reserves have been “decimated” by Ukrainian ambushes.

Part of the problem faced by the invading forces has been a change in the weather in recent weeks and the appearance of what is known as the “rasputitsa”, or spring thaw. At this time, Russian armour tends to become hopelessly bogged, making for easy targets for precision Ukrainian artillery.

Since Vladimir Putin sent his war machine into Ukraine on February 24 2022, The Conversation has called upon some of the leading experts in international security, geopolitics and military tactics to help our readers understand the big issues. You can also subscribe to our fortnightly recap of expert analysis of the conflict in Ukraine.

It’s a similar situation in the eastern Donbas region where bloody and attritional fighting has continued for months now around the town of Bakhmut with heavy casualties on both sides.

Institute for the Study of War map of the state of the conflict in Ukraine.
Institute for the Study of War

The human cost aside, the conflict is also taking a heavy toll on military hardware and both sides, for example, are reported to be struggling to replace equipment used or captured. That is putting a great deal of pressure on supply chains, writes Matthew Powell, an expert in military strategy at the University of Portsmouth.

Resupplying – and the logistical difficulties involved – was ever a problem for military commanders. But with the enormously complex and sophisticated weaponry being used in Ukraine, the cost and lead-in time for deployment are a lot longer than they used to be, says Powell.

He adds that the sheer cost of some aircraft and the difficulty of replacing them if lost could mean that military commanders and their political masters may become chary about using them. It’s worth remembering that Nato countries will need to replace the tanks (and perhaps, in weeks to come) aircraft it is supplying to Ukraine to ensure their own future security.

Read more:
Ukraine war: high cost of replacing military hardware will change the nature of the conflict

Ominously for those military commanders and their political masters, many experts believe this war is not even halfway done yet. Liam Collins, the founding director at the Modern War Institute of the United States Military Academy at West Point, believes that the conflict will “drag on until the economic and political cost of the war become too great for Russia”.

He says: “Russia is nowhere close to that point, and the war will likely go on for years before Russia reaches a point of an end game.” Collins, a career special forces officer in the US military with 27 years service, has provided six insights about the first year of the conflict.

Read more:
The looming stalemate in Ukraine one year after the Russian invasion

Away from the battlefield

Beijing marked the first anniversary of the invasion by proposing a peace deal, which seems to reveal more about how China sees itself in the geopolitical pecking order than a coherent roadmap to an end to the conflict.

Stefan Wolff, an expert in international security at the University of Birmingham, has perused China’s “Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”, which is focused on achieving a ceasefire and eventually resuming peace talks with the aim of negotiating a political settlement.

Xi Jinping talks with Vladimir Putin via video link: who is the ‘older brother’ now in thir relationship?
EPA-EFE/Mikhael Klimentiyev/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

While the proposal restates Bejing’s oft-repeated position on the sacrosanct nature of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the plan stops short of calling on Moscow to withdraw from Ukrainian territory – a red line for Kyiv.

While China insists it supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity, it abstained from the United Nations vote demanding “that the Russian Federation immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders”. You can draw your own conclusions from that.

Read more:
Ukraine: Beijing’s peace initiative offers glimpse at how China plans to win the war

Ukraine’s friends in the west, meanwhile, continue to discuss ways in which they can further support Ukraine. And one thing that this conflict has revealed is the interesting relationship between the EU and Nato.

One is supposedly a political and economic alliance, the other defensive and military. And ne’er should the twain have met. Except that now, according to Baris Celik, an expert in global governance at the University of Sheffield, the EU’s role is becoming increasingly ambiguous.

Celik reports that Brussels is getting more involved in military matters through its European Peace Facility. This is funnelling billions of dollars to military aid for Ukraine, including a program under which Ukrainian personnel are being trained by the EU Military Assistance Mission (EUMAM).

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Ukraine war is blurring the lines between Nato and the EU on defence policy

One member of both the EU and Nato which has found itself uncomfortably close to the war is Lithuania, which joined both blocs in 2004 and has been an outspoken critic of Putin. After the invasion was announced, the government even encouraged Russian speakers to telephone people in Russia to explain what was really happening in Ukraine and to incite opposition to the war.

Emilija Pundziūtė-Gallois, a research fellow at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania, walks us through some of the measures being taken by her country to oppose the war. She makes it clear that it is the Putin regime, not Russians, that represents such a danger to Lithuania’s security.

Read more:
How Lithuania is spearheading EU and NATO efforts facing Russia

So farewell then…

It was reported on Monday that Gleb Pavlovsky, a prominent political commentator and Putin critic had passed away at the age of 71. (This was after a long illness, in case you were inclined, like one of our readers, to assume he’d had a mysterious fall from a high-rise building.)

In five decades close to the centre of Russian politics, Pavlovsky went from being a dissident, to a Putin apparatchik, to a dissident again. He was arguably the person responsible for both Putin’s image-making and his development of a political system that ensured Russia’s president virtually untrammelled power.

Stephen Hall, who researches authoritarian regimes at the University of Bath, tells the story of the man whose insight into the post-Soviet Russian psyche gave us Vladimir Putin: man of action.

Read more:
Gleb Pavlovsky obituary: the man who turned Vladimir Putin into Russia’s action man

Finally, as the conflict moves into its second year we will be continuing to bring you the best analysis and comment, but the recap will now appear once a fortnight instead of weekly. We hope you continue to find our expert insights useful.

Ukraine Recap is available as a fortnightly email newsletter. Click here to get our recaps directly in your inbox. Läs mer…