Ukraine’s conflict enters a third phase: the drone war

Ukraine’s conflict enters a third phase: the drone war
The first phase of the Russia-Ukraine war was dominated by hit-and-run teams using Javelin missiles to destroy Russian tanks. That gave way to an artillery duel, but now things have changed again as drones come to the fore. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin February 5, 2024

In the first months of the war in Ukraine it was the highly mobile hit-and-run teams wielding the US-made shoulder-launched Javelin tank-killers that dominated the fighting.

That gave way to an artillery duel that has been going on for at least a year, but in recent weeks, low on shells and unsure of more Western supplies, Ukraine has ramped up its drone production and has begun using longer-range drones to target Russian oil refineries deep inside Russian territory, as the war moves into a third phase: the drone war.


St Javelin

Units of only three or four men spread out into the countryside of northern Ukraine where most of Russia’s invading armour was located and largely sticking to the roads. The Ukrainian teams would pop out of bushes and hit tanks with their highly accurate missiles, causing devastating damage to Russia’s invading mechanised infantry. The Russian tanks would “pop their tops” as their spare shells, stored in the rim of the gun turret, exploded, killing the crew in the process.

It was a heady David-triumphs-over-Goliath moment that inspired the world and led the West to start pouring weapons into Ukraine as it suddenly appeared the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) might actually win the war.

But that phase soon gave way to a grinding artillery duel. Following the AFU’s spectacular breakthrough in the Kharkiv region, routing the Russian army and regaining hundreds of square kilometres of territory before also retaking Kherson at the end of September, Russia changed tactics.

As winter fell and the fighting slowed, the Russian forces dug in on the left bank of the Dnipro and built heavy multi-layer defences. At the same time, it brought up even more artillery and intensified its pounding of Ukrainian positions. Ukraine was already running out of ammunition in the summer of 2022 and was already rationing shells, as bne IntelliNews reported from the front line in the intense battle for Bakhmut.

West has been slow to invest into production of ammunition and already admitted in November that it will miss the deadline to provide the AFU with 1mn rounds of the crucial artillery shells by March, providing half that amount.

In Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin has put the economy on a war footing and increased shell production to 2mn rounds a year and has bought in at least another million rounds from allies like North Korea. According to the latest frontline reports Russia is firing at least 10,000 rounds a day, whereas Ukraine has been forced to ration again as it runs low, cutting its return fire rate from 3,000 to 2,000 in January.


Ukraine had the early advantage in drones at the start of the war, adapting cheap commercially available drones by hanging Soviet era grenades under them and dropping them on unsuspecting infantry and tanks. However, Russia learnt fast and has ramped up its imports of Iran-made drones as well as developing and accelerating the production of its own drones. In parallel, Russia has developed effective electronic countermeasures to Ukraine’s drones and experts say it has the upper hand in the drone war at the moment.

Ukraine is pushing back. Social media is now full of tiny workshops of regular Ukrainians building drones, using 3D printing techniques and churning out thousands of them a month. At the same time, the public are crowdsourcing the purchase of new drones from “dronations” that are handed over to the AFU.

“Many of these “hobbyist” drones have been acquired through grassroots crowdfunding efforts, or “dronations.” At just $1,000 per unit, the small drones can be rapidly amassed and repurposed by operators for a specific effect,” the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) said in a note in a recent paper.

According to Kyiv, drone production in Ukraine has increased more than one-hundredfold since the start of the Russian invasion at the Skyeton production facility, and others like it, that make the Raybird-3 drone system, which has been in use since 2018.

Kyiv plans to produce 1mn FPV (first-person-view) drones this year and more than 11,000 medium- and long-range attack drones, Ukraine’s Minister for Strategic Industries Oleksandr Kamyshin said in December. One year ago, Ukraine had seven domestic drone manufacturers. Now it has at least eighty, according to CFR.

Refineries in focus

Drones are being used by both sides to deadly effect. Spotter-Attack pairs identify targets on the battlefield and send in a suicide drone with pinpoint accuracy. In other attacks, once a tank or APC is spotted it can either be accurately targeted by a drone-assisted spotter, or a swarm of drones sent against it. These evolving drone techniques have gone some way to offsetting the shortage of shells and continue to hold the attacking Russian forces at bay.

Now Ukraine has upped its game again using drones with an increased range of up to 1,400 km to strike targets in Russia’s northwest around St Petersburg, down to refineries located on the Black Sea in the European part of Russia.

While Ukraine’s drones are not powerful enough to destroy Russia’s refineries, they are cheap to produce, carry enough explosives to start major fires that cause the refineries to shut down for weeks, and Ukraine has them in large quantities, so they are capable of a sustained campaign of “nuisance attacks”, according to Sergey Vakulenko, an independent energy analyst and consultant to a number of Russian and international global oil and gas companies, in a recent note for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A drone attack on Lukoil's refinery in Volgograd on February 3 started a fire which took a day to put out.

There have been seven long-distance drone attacks since the start of this year targeting Russian oil refineries. In the latest attack on February 3, privately owned oil major Lukoil’s oil refinery in Volgograd was hit, starting a major fire that was quickly put out.

"The Emergencies Ministry alongside a gas rescue team of the Lukoil-Volgogradneftepererabotka company have finished the work to extinguish the fire at the ELOU-AVT-5 pipeline. There were no casualties. The Volgograd Refinery continues its operations as usual," the company’s press service said in a statement the next day.

Volgograd Region Governor Andrey Bocharov said that Russia’s air defences repelled a drone attack on the Volgograd Region, but the fall of the downed drone caused a fire at the oil refinery.


Major oil infrastructure drone attacks YTD





Gazpromtrans railway

January 8

Gazprom Neft

Nizhny Tagil, Sverdlovsk region attack on railway tracks near San Donato station


January 9


Drone attack caused a fire at oil depot in Oryol region

Petersburg Oil Terminal

January 18


Drone attack on Leningrad region since the beginning of the full-scale war but caused little damage

Klintsy oil depot

January 19


Drone attack caused a fire that was put out in three days in the Bryansk region, an important transit hub for transportation of fuel and lubricants for the needs of the Russian troops. Fuel tanks with a total weight of more than 3,100 tonnes burned.


January 21


Drone attack on the port facilities at Ust-Luga in Leningrad Region. Two explosions occurred at the Novatek oil terminal that put the refinery out of action for a week.

Export orientated, the fuel complex processes gas condensate and produces oil products for export to Asia.

Tuapse oil refinery

January 21


Drone attack in the Krasnodar region on the Black Sea coast, one of the ten biggest refineries in Russia. The fire was put out the next day.


February 3


Drone attack in the Volgograd region caused a fire that was put out the next day.

Source: press reports