The following is the latest weekly update on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, written by John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Russian Aircraft Collides With U.S. Drone Over Black Sea
Two Russian Su-27 Flanker fighter jets “conducted an unsafe and unprofessional intercept” of an American MQ-9 Reaper drone performing routine reconnaissance in international airspace over the Black Sea on March 14, according to a news release from U.S. European Command. The Su-27s — presumably from Russia’s 38th Fighter Aviation Regiment stationed at Belbek Air Base in Crimea — “dumped fuel on and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner,” the news release said. Then one of the Su-27s struck the MQ-9’s propeller, forcing its operators to bring the drone down in international waters.
Moscow countered by claiming the drone had conducted a “sharp” maneuver after being intercepted while flying toward the illegally annexed Crimean Peninsula, leading it to go “into an uncontrolled flight” and crash into the sea. However, U.S. European Command on Thursday released footage taken by the drone’s camera, corroborating its version of events. The Russians have reportedly already sought to recover the MQ-9, but its operators reportedly remotely wiped the drone’s sensitive software as it went down.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Reaper drones and other U.S. aircraft had flown regular reconnaissance missions over the Black Sea. Likewise, this is hardly the first time Russia has conducted an unsafe intercept of a NATO aircraft. But the incident on Tuesday was the first known time U.S. and Russian military aircraft have made direct physical contact since the war began. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, phoned their Russian counterparts to discuss the incident. There’s been no indication the Biden administration intends to retaliate.
U.S. intelligence reportedly believes that senior Russian defense officials ordered the Su-27s to harass a U.S. drone over the Black Sea. Moscow may have sought to signal displeasure with U.S. military reconnaissance near Crimea, as Russia’s defense minister suggested during his call with Austin. The incident reportedly occurred 45 miles southwest of the peninsula.
But a U.S. Air Force official said that while the Russian aircraft intended to “interfere with the MQ-9,” the collision resulted from “simple incompetence.” It’s “unclear what damage the Su-27 incurred,” the official said, but the aircraft “would have been severely damaged and probably destroyed” had it struck the drone “a few inches further forward.” Another U.S. military official alleged that the collision “was not a controlled tap.” Instead, the Russian pilot barreled toward the MQ-9 “out of control” and “tried to pull away” before hitting the propellor.
Iranian Artillery Ammo for Russia?
Tehran may be secretly supplying Moscow with much-needed artillery ammunition in addition to the Shahed drones Russia has used to target Ukrainian critical infrastructure. Citing an unnamed “security source,” Britain’s Sky News reported last week that two Russian-flagged vessels had sailed from Iran to Russia in January, carrying 300,000 artillery munitions, tank and mortar shells, anti-tank rockets, and grenades for grenade launchers. The shipments reportedly included 100 million bullets and nearly 10,000 bulletproof vests and helmets.
This report is unconfirmed and should be treated with caution. As open-source analysts quickly flagged, some of the details offered by the source don’t add up. However, Sky News did note that ship-tracking data and satellite imagery confirmed the vessels had sailed from Iran to Russia in January. The report also tracks recent statements by U.S. and Ukrainian officials and a popular Russian Telegram channel, claiming Moscow had received Iranian artillery ammunition.
If true, this would be a boon for the Kremlin. Artillery has played a dominant role in Ukraine’s grinding war of attrition. Russian forces have relied on enormous volumes of artillery fire, peaking at 20,000 to 60,000 shells daily, depending on whom you ask. But both sides now face artillery ammunition shortages. Ukraine is pleading for more shells from the West, while Russia has had to curtail its artillery fire and has sought more ammunition from North Korea, China and now, apparently, Iran.
However, if Iranian ammunition is to achieve a significant battlefield effect, Tehran must make continual, large-scale deliveries. Whether Iran can do so remains unclear, but it seems unlikely that it could sustain a Russian military that’s still firing 10,000 artillery shells daily. The Islamic Republic has focused mainly on developing its missile and drone programs while investing less in ground capabilities. Iran does appear to have active production lines for artillery shells and rockets in calibers used by Russia’s military. But Tehran’s arsenal of artillery systems that fire 152mm shells — the caliber most used by Russia — is tiny, suggesting Iran likely hasn’t invested in accumulating large stockpiles of those munitions.
Russia May Be Preparing Another Large Recruitment Campaign
A Russian media outlet reported last week that Moscow will soon launch a campaign to recruit 400,000 professional enlisted soldiers or kontractniki. Russia’s defense minister had previously indicated Moscow would seek to recruit upward of 100,000 kontractniki by year’s end. If accurate, the new, more ambitious target could indicate Vladimir Putin hopes to avoid another round of politically unpopular mobilization.
The campaign will reportedly begin April 1, meaning it’ll coincide with Russia’s spring conscription cycle. That could risk overwhelming the military commissariats tasked with processing new troops, as the Kremlin learned the hard way during its so-called “partial mobilization” last fall. Moscow would likely also struggle to equip so many troops with serviceable armored vehicles or even simple things like body armor.
More to the point, there probably aren’t that many eligible Russian men willing to sign up to fight in Ukraine. Before launching mobilization last September, Moscow had sought to redress its manpower deficit by offering lucrative short-term contracts to volunteers. That effort likely exhausted much of the volunteer pool and didn’t produce anywhere near 400,000 recruits. Thus, another round of mandatory mobilization may be unavoidable for Moscow, even if Putin doesn’t want to admit it.