This follow-up paper assesses the evolving dynamics of Russia’s 2023 winter strike campaign in Ukraine, approximately 10 days after it has begun in earnest. The analysis focuses on recent developments in Russian tactics, including changes in UAV strategies, the evolving use of precision missiles, and the ongoing challenges in protecting critical infrastructure.

1. Along the Forward Edge of the Battle Area (FEBA)

The effectiveness of Ukrainian Air Defence (AD) along the FEBA has prompted Russia to adapt its aerial strategies. Russian helicopters are reportedly being shot down rapidly, leading to an increased reliance on Su-34/35 aircraft to launch and loft glide bombs from distances ranging between 50 to 70 kilometres of the FEBA. 

The inaccuracy of FAB glide bombs has led to a growing reliance on KAB laser-guided bombs by Russian forces. Approximately 100 of these precision-guided munitions are launched daily at Ukrainian targets. It is worth noting however that the KAB bombs are only accurate when the target is illuminated/’painted’ by an appropriate designator, either mounted on another drone or ground-based and operated by reconnaissance, forward observation, or special operations soldiers.

Zaporizhzhia. There have been reports of increased military activity in the vicinity of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) since the Russian’s seized the plant on 4 March 22. Explosions and noise heard from this direction are in line with the current understanding of the situation, which is that ZNPP is being used by Russian forces as cover to launch Grad or Smerch Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) and artillery from. These positions allow Russian forces to shell Ukrainian positions in Zaporizhzhia Oblast as well as Krivyi Rih and Nikopol, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast without fear of counter-battery fire which could damage the ZNPP and cause an environmental disaster.

Imagery showing Russian firing positions on the rooftops of six of the reactor buildings at ZNPP. Highly likely Grad or Smerch MLRS, June 23. Source: bellona.org

 

2. Russian One-Way Attack – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (OWA-UAV) Tactics

There’s been a noticeable reported change in Russian drone tactics recently, using SIM cards for GSM-based navigation, focusing on riverbeds and highways. This is likely to improve low observability (via terrain-masking below radar horizons in river valleys), operational effectiveness, and improved navigation.

i. Highways. The use of highways is highly likely implemented for ease of navigation. Following established roads offers a clear path to follow when navigating remotely through onboard cameras. UAVs using optical navigation helps avoid GPS and radio frequency jamming.

However, with the increased presence of anti-missile groups along highways, we may see even more reliance on riverbeds to evade them.

ii. Riverbeds. Riverbeds are often natural valleys that provide concealment and low observability for UAVs, making them hard to detect by ground-based anti-air defence. The terrain and topography along river valleys help mask them from Ukrainian radar systems. By choosing riverbed routes with lower ground and natural cover, Russian UAVs highly likely aim to minimise exposure to AD units.

iii. SIM Cards. Downed Russian Shahed OWA-UAVs have recently been found to contain 4G modems with Ukrainian Kyivstar SIM cards. SIM cards are likely being used to track downed OWA-UAVs, improve navigation, and make real-time adjustments to flight missions. By using GSM networks, Russian forces can mitigate against the jamming of GPS. The downside is that they have an increased electronic signature making them easier to detect by UAF AD and Electronic Warfare (EW) assets.

Ukrainian SIM card found on Russian OWA-UAV. Source: @Commsrisk

 

3. Shahed Drone Swarms and Missile Integration

In line with our previous assessment, we are seeing Russia use Shahed OWA-UAVs to overwhelm Ukrainian air defence with accompanying precision missiles. However, as we have only seen a single Kh-59 missile accompanying recent drone swarms, we have assessed the following plausible scenarios for why.

i. Trial and Proof of Concept. Russia employs Shahed OWA-UAVs accompanied by a single Kh-59 missile to trial the concept of overwhelming UAF AD. This approach aims to assess the effectiveness of using a specific number of Shahed OWA-UAVs to saturate UAF AD before initiating a follow-up precision strike.

ii. Conservation of Valuable Missiles. Russia opts to use the older Kh-59 missile instead of more valuable ones (e.g. Kh-101, Kh-555 and Iskander) to conserve resources. By saving more advanced missiles for later in the winter, particularly during harsh weather conditions in January, Russia aims to maximise the impact of its higher value missiles.

iii. Testing Drone-to-Missile Ratios. Russia experiments with different OWA-UAVs-to-missile ratios, such as 25 Shaheds to 1 missile or 15 Shaheds to 1 missile, to determine the optimum combination for the greatest effect. This is to refine the coordination between drones and precision missiles, potentially scaling up the deployment based on the most effective ratio (for example 150 Shaheds to 15 cruise missiles.

iv. EW Support Role with Cruise Missiles. The missile is equipped with an EW payload and fired in tandem with Shahed OWA-UAVs, playing a support role by jamming UAF radars to ensure safe passage for the Shahed OWA-UAVs. This is to enhance the survivability of Shaheds during their missions, utilising munition-carried EW capabilities to disrupt UAF radar systems.

4. Infrastructure Protection

Khmelnytskyi. The recent OWA-UAVs attacks near Khmelnytskyi Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) on 28/29 November 23 (and previously 25 October 23) demonstrate Russian intent to target power infrastructure on a national scale, extending beyond the eastern and populated cities of Ukraine. This deliberate effort by Russia to disrupt Ukraine’s energy stability by any means necessary is in line with our winter strike campaign assessment. Despite international condemnation, Russia persists with scant regard for safety or environmental impact. 

A Shahed OWA-UAVs is highly unlikely to penetrate a reactor building enough to pose a radiological threat. Therefore, there is a realistic possibility the attacks were not solely aimed at the infrastructure but at nuclear power specialists residing near the plant. As previously assessed, Russian forces will likely look to target employees of Ukrainian energy infrastructure this winter. This will not only disrupt the operational continuity of critical energy facilities but also instil fear and uncertainty among the specialised personnel vital for their functioning.

Rear Positions. These attacks are probably intended to force the Ukrainian Forces to reallocate their scarce AD systems, which are in high demand. This move not only creates vulnerabilities in the FEBA but also provides Russia with a window of opportunity to leverage air and aviation assets in support of ground manoeuvres should AD units be moved away from the ‘zero line’.   

With Ukrainian AD stretched thin and prioritising ground operations near the FEBA, the protection of critical infrastructure in the rear is paramount. 

5. Conclusion

The evolving dynamics of Russia’s 2023 winter strike campaign reveal some strategic recalibration in response to challenges met so far. The shift to Su-34/35 aircraft and KAB bombs along the FEBA are to counter the effectiveness of UAF AD and improve accuracy of strikes. The discovery of 4G modems and SIM cards among downed OWA-UAV indicates enhanced tracking and navigation albeit with increased vulnerability. The deliberate targeting of infrastructure near Khmelnytskyi NPP confirms previous assessments that Russia is determined to disrupt Ukraine’s energy infrastructure at any cost. As the winter strike campaign unfolds, the protection of critical national infrastructure in rear positions is vital, necessitating long-term solutions that extend past the reliance of AD. We will continue to monitor trends and adaptations as the strike campaign continues over the winter months.