On October 26, the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) for the first time used the Turkish-produced Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) to strike at forces of the so-called Donetsk “People’s Republic” (DPR) militia in Donbas. According to the official statement of the AFU General Staff, enemy units used a battery of D-30 howitzers to fire on Ukrainian positions in the area of the settlement of Hranitne (Donetsk Oblast). Two AFU service members were wounded during the shelling, and one was killed. After several attempts to stop the shelling through diplomatic channels—via the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM)—the AFU’s commander-in-chief, Major General Valeriy Zaluzhny, ordered Ukrainian units to deploy a Bayraktar TB2 to fire on and suppress the enemy’s offensive capabilities. The UCAV did not cross the line of contact, but it destroyed one howitzer gun with a guided bomb. In order to minimize casualties, a small ordnance was used—an 8.5-kilogram МАМ-С modification. This succeeded in halting further shelling of the Ukrainian positions. Within hours, the AFU posted a video of the strike online (Facebook.com, October 26).
The incident marked Ukraine’s first employment of this modern UCAV in combat since its purchase from Turkey in late 2018. In the first few years following the acquisition, many in the AFU top brass believed that a deployment of those Turkish strike drones on the front lines was too premature, impractical or even dangerous considering possible consequences coming from Moscow in response to this weapon’s use against the Russia-backed separatists. But the situation changed in light of several episodes of Turkish military units using the Bayraktar TB2 against Moscow-supported forces in the Syrian theater and, especially, after these drones’ much-commented-on performance in the recent war in Karabakh (September 27–November 9, 2020). Thus, since 2020, the AFU started to use these UCAVs more often in exercises, mostly to rehearse intelligence-gathering but also to practice aerial targeting of missile-artillery systems (Ukrinform, May 26). The first flight of a Bayraktar TB2 near the front lines in the Donbas “Joint Forces Operation” (JFO) zone occurred on September 28, 2020 (Tyzhden, October 14).
One of the interesting aspects of the October 26 strike was the informational support to the operation provided by a number of famous Ukrainian military bloggers. Many of them had earlier been invited to observe and cover the Joint Efforts 2021 exercise. This may be a sign of General Zaluzhny taking a new approach when it comes to the AFU’s media policies. Considering the importance of quickly and widely disseminating one’s informational narrative in modern-day conflicts, this shift perhaps could not have come soon enough. One of the bloggers, Donbas war veteran Martin Brest, bemoaned the fact that his posts on the Bayraktar UCAV strike received more online attention and reactions than the official press release published by the state-funded General Staff (Facebook.com, October 31).
The AFU’s offensive use of a combat drone in Donbas immediately saturated media debates in Ukraine. The majority of local experts and even non-professionals positively reacted to the strike. For example, Taras Chmut, a veteran, military expert and the head of The Return Alive Foundation non-governmental organization (NGO), wrote that Kyiv has shown its aspirations to peacefully resolve the conflict, but at the same time, it has made clear through the UCAV strike that the AFU is always ready to hit back—without even needing to cross the contact line (Facebook.com/TarChmut, October 26).
Reactions also quickly poured in from abroad. Turkish journalists called the aerial drone assault “a shock for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin” (Yeni Akit, October 26), and many underlined the success of this operation (Milliyet, October 30). Meanwhile, some German media outlets insisted that the usage of drones is prohibited according to the 2014/2015 Minsk ceasefire agreements (Twitter.com/ARDMoskau, October 27); others cited officials from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs who expressed “deep concern over the escalation.” The French foreign ministry took the same position (Ukrinform, October 28). Yet experts such as Alex Kokcharov, of IHS Markit, disagreed, arguing that the Minsk agreements are silent on the issue of combat UAVs but, in fact, strictly ban the use of heavy weapons like howitzers near the line of contact (Bild, October 27). Ukrainian officials have justified their combat employment of the Bayraktar TB2 as self-defense, which is allowed according to the Minsk agreements. Moreover, the Embassy of the United States in Kyiv declared that “official Russian rhetoric suggesting Ukraine is aggravating the situation is not only misleading, it serves to escalate tensions” (Telegram, October 29).
The UCAV strike unsurprisingly drew a quick and sharp response from Russia. The reaction on social media came in several stages. First, Russian bloggers denied the fact, claiming that the posted video of the drone strike was fake, filmed not in Ukraine but in Karabakh; then, they sought to deny Ukraine’s success, writing that the bomb purportedly missed its target or failed to explode (Telegram, October 26). After several publications in state media confirmed the episode, most focused on accusations of the alleged violation of the Minsk agreements. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov also took this view, asserting that those Ukrainian actions could lead to a destabilization of the situation (Lenta, October 27). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov contended that Ukraine was trying to draw his country into some kind of action and denounced such steps as provocative (RBK, November 1).
At the same time, Russia launched several disinformation campaigns, dispersing false news stories that, despite the ceasefire agreements, the UAF captured the Donetsk Oblast village of Staromarynka (Strana.ua, October 27) but then lost it again following a counterattack by the DPR “militia.” The authors of Strana.ua (famous for its pro-Russian positions) even concluded that this escalation was preplanned by Ukraine to prevent the certification process of Gazprom’s Nord Stream Two natural gas pipeline (Strana.ua, October 29). The other possible vein of disinformation was inadvertently spread by US media outlets, which reported on the massive deployment of Russian troops “near” the Ukrainian border (Washington Post, October 30; Politico, November 1; see EDM, November 8). That information was denied by Ukrainian military intelligence (Facebook.com/DefenceIntelligenceofUkraine, November 1). Dmytro Zolotukhin, a former deputy minister of information policy of Ukraine, also insisted that such steps are typical for the Kremlin when it loses the initiative on the battlefield. As he argued, Russia often tries to intimidate the West with the possibility of a full-scale war in Donbas (Tyzhden, November 2). And so the Russian response may offer the best evidence of the effectiveness of Ukraine’s actions on October 26.