Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expanded invasion of Ukraine has become “a war of drones,” according to many observers in Russia and the West, with both sides using these unmanned vehicles to inflict damage on the other (Newizv.ru, June 1). Up to now, most attention has focused on how these drones have been used to attack military units and civilian targets and on the measures each side has been taking to limit such damages. Some Russian commentators have devoted particular attention to drones because they view them as compelling evidence that the West is now deeply involved in the conflict, since Ukraine does not have the capacity to produce all the technologies involved on its own. (See, for example, Tsargrad.tv, May 31.)
But Ukraine’s attacks on Russian naval bases over the past eight months (see EDM, November 8, 2022; RIA Novosti, May 12) and particularly on naval vessels over this past month (Riamo.ru, May 27), as well as growing indications that such attacks reflect the use of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (Newizv.ru, June 1), has prompted the editors of Moscow’s Nezavisimaya gazeta to warn that the problem is far larger than anyone is yet talking about publicly since this trend means that “the world ocean is becoming dangerous for the Russian fleet” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 28). This indicates that Moscow is becoming more concerned that, however limited Ukrainian successes in this area have been up to now, the increased use of drones raises the possibility that this new kind of war could leave Russia’s already troubled fleet in a difficult position or knock it out of action altogether. (For background on the Russian Navy’s profound and longstanding problems, see EDM, April 25, 2019, February 8; Svpressa.ru, December 9, 2021; The Insider, October 17, 2022.)
The immediate cause of these editors’ worries has been a series of drone attacks on the Russian Navy’s Ivan Khurs, a 4,000-ton intelligence gathering ship, over the past month and the increasingly alarmist coverage these attacks have received in the Russian media (Moskovskij komsomolets, May 24; Glavny.tv, May 26; Riamo.ru, May 27). Despite this overheated rhetoric, Russian officials have insisted that these attacks were thwarted and, in any case, provided evidence that they had not inflicted sufficient damage to prevent the ship from steaming back under its own power to the Sevastopol base in occupied Crimea.
What makes the Nezavisimaya gazeta editorial on May 28 potentially so significant is that it says the attacks on the Ivan Khurs must force Moscow to “reflect on the security of Russian ships on the oceans of the world” as these attacks “should be considered not in isolation but as links in a chain of events,” which began with the explosions on the Nord Stream pipelines in September 2022 (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 28). Ukraine did not have the capacity to inflict that damage, the paper argues, thus, one must assume that the assault was carried out by, or at least with the direct assistance, of Western countries. That attack was followed, the editorial continues, by strikes on the Russian base in Sevastopol and now on the Ivan Khurs. Given that Ukraine is not capable of building the weapons and guidance systems involved, that means these subsequent attacks, including those on the Ivan Khurs, involved other Western countries as well—yet another indication that the conflict is escalating.
Moreover, Nezavisimaya gazeta says, “No one should be under any illusions that attacks will limit themselves geographically.” The ways in which the attacks on the Ivan Khurs and the Nord Stream pipelines are linked, the editors argue, are proof of that. Consequently, “in order to not become mere witnesses of events,” the paper says, Moscow must “prepare for the further development of events on the world ocean.
On one level, of course, this is simply propaganda to frighten Western countries that any further aid to Ukraine, in what has become a central part of the war, is fraught with danger. But on another, and quite possibly more importantly, it reflects underlying concerns in the Russian capital that drones have not only changed the nature of the war in Ukraine but are also transforming the role of naval forces more generally. If damaging and lethal attacks can be launched hundreds or even thousands of kilometers from their targets, and if they can be carried out in ways that will not involve direct losses by the side carrying them out, the temptation will certainly grow to employ such means. And such actions would put those involved on the path to radical escalation, even if what they intend is nothing more than using new technologies to strike conventional targets, such as taking out an intelligence ship like the Ivan Khurs.
At the same time, those fears will certainly exacerbate the debate within the Russian defense establishment over how much and even whether to develop the Russian blue-water navy—a force that is already overstretched and for which Moscow lacks both the funds and the shipbuilding capacity to expand. Indeed, problems with its own shipbuilding capacity have already forced the Russian government to turn to Iran for assistance in this area (see EDM, June 24, 2021; Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, December 12, 2021; Profile.ru, December 23, 2021; Casp-geo.ru, January 5).
This debate in turn will only sharpen the divisions between those who see the navy as a force that new technologies might easily put out of commission—an argument that some in Moscow have already used to oppose the construction of new aircraft carriers—and Russian admirals, who see a large navy as essential to both national defense and their own standing in the Russian elite. These naval officials are also confident that they can block any drone attacks on these vessels (see EDM, July 29, 2021; Window on Eurasia, January 28, 2022).
In short, the current discussions in Moscow about the Ivan Khurs and the attacks on it are only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger political fight that is likely to play into other conflicts, not only among the current Putin elite but also in the succession struggle that inevitably will take place.