Drones continue to play a prevalent role on both sides of the contact line in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, despite restrictions put in place by the Minsk agreements. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are currently used by the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine for surveillance and by Russian and Russian-led separatist forces for surveillance and electronic warfare.
On September 17, the Press Center of Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) reported that a Russian Orlan-10 UAV (no. 11057) crashed in government-controlled Novohrodivka, Donetsk Oblast, after possible technical failure. As @DFRLab reported, the Orlan-10 drone is typically used in an electronic warfare system that includes three Orlan-10 UAVs connected to a communications command and control vehicle. The Russian Orlan-10 drone has frequently been seen since the outbreak of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014, advertised as Russia’s “eye in the sky to watch over NATO.” Russian use of these drones is a repeated violation of the Minsk agreements.
A New Ukrainian Drone?
On September 14, the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) announced the successful test of the new “Sokil” UAV system. The Sokil reconnaissance and attack system uses one reconnaissance drone and three attack UAVs, and can carry high-explosive, blast fragmentation, or thermobaric munitions. This is a part of Ukraine’s recent military modernization efforts.
Videos of test show a drone with a kamikaze-like attack, exploding upon guided impact with the target. The test was conducted at a military range in Honcharivske, Chernihivska Oblast, and despite strong winds, was successful. The UAV was produced by “Chezara,” a Ukrainian electronics enterprise, in cooperation with Polish partners.
In a statement released with the announcement, Secretary of the NSDC Oleksandr Turchynov emphasized the importance of “high-quality unmanned aerial vehicles” for the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF). Turchynov revealed that new UAVs with a longer range and increasingly “powerful combat characteristics” should be expected in the near future. Photographs from the test show a sizable explosion from the Sokil UAV system.
The Unofficial Approach
Mainstream defense producers are not the only ones working on new military drones. Last month, Ukrainian volunteer engineers reportedly tested an “undetectable” UAV called “Margaryta.” The Margaryta is allegedly capable of stealth intelligence gathering, operating “quickly” and “silently,” and able to conduct long-distance scouting missions. The volunteers claim that high-end tracking systems are unable to detect the device, and that it flies further and longer than what is currently in service.
Drones have and continue to play an essential but problematic role in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Mini and mid-range UAVs allow the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine to safely and security monitor the situation on the contact line, with UAV imagery providing crucial information such as the status of critical infrastructure and evidence of violations to the Minsk agreements (@DFRLab frequently refers to UAV imagery posted by the OSCE SMM). However, UAVs are not always used in peace building efforts–@DFRLab reported the use of drones in pinpoint propaganda campaigns by Russian-led separatists and the use of drones in warfare by Russian, Russian-led separatist, and Ukrainian forces.
New UAVs present additional challenges to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. As @DFRLab previously reported, Ukraine’s continual efforts to ramp up its military modernization brings to question the future of the Minsk peace process and prospects for a full ceasefire in the Donbas.
While Ukraine is developing new UAVs with both surveillance and attack capabilities, there have been no recorded instances of the Ukrainian Armed Forces using UAV attack capabilities, whereas similar Russian drones have been deployed to attack and/or disrupt along the contact line. The only de-escalatory use of drones along the contact line and not in violation of the Minsk agreements is use by the OSCE SMM.