Hudson Institute

Ukraine Military Situation Report: Ukraine’s Unconventional Military Options

Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
Ukrainian soldiers receive training at an undisclosed location in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on March 6, 2024. (Photo by Jose Colon/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Ukrainian soldiers receive training at an undisclosed location in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on March 6, 2024. (Photo by Jose Colon/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Fresh off a Hudson Institute field tour in Ukraine, Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers a military situation report about the war there, focusing this week on Ukraine’s unconventional military options. 

A previous Hudson Institute policy memo analyzed the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ military courses of action for disabling the Kerch Bridge in occupied Crimea. This special edition presents an open-source defense intelligence analysis of three additional options, as well as a current battlefield assessment in the final section. 

The Military Necessity of Exploring Ukraine’s Unconventional Options

A week on the ground in Ukraine made one aspect of the current war abundantly clear: the incumbent situation is not a stalemate. Assessing it as one could lead to catastrophic consequences for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and for Europe’s defense architecture. 

There is no doubt that Russia holds many advantages and that the situation on the ground remains dangerous for Ukraine. Indeed, the battlefield geometry is largely static, while Russia holds the upper hand in force generation and artillery. Moreover, while the Russian military’s engineering units have prepared a deep and multi-layered defensive complex, Ukraine lacks similar structures that can stabilize the front when the situation worsens. 

Furthermore, the Kremlin can continue to conscript and further mobilize from a large manpower pool of millions of personnel, while Ukraine could not even finalize its recent mobilization draft. Worse, Russia’s partners in crime, North Korea and Iran, have boosted the Russian military’s warfighting prowess with systematic arms transfers. Cumulatively, these factors have led to sharp differences in the force-on-force and force-to-terrain capabilities of the belligerents, favoring Moscow in the long run. 

But this war is not the sprint that the Kremlin envisioned it would be—it is a marathon. While Russia may possess the stamina for a long-running conflict, Ukraine has demonstrated increasing skill in employing unconventional military options to combat Russia’s many advantages.

This special edition, while neither an intelligence forecast nor a set of specific defense policy recommendations, examines three such options. Each of them holds the potential to help Kyiv gain ground in this marathon conflict. 

Option 1: Targeting the Joint Russia-Iran Drone Plant and Other Military-Industrial Facilities inside Russia

Targeting the joint Russia-Iran drone plant deep inside Russian territory would carry both military and political weight for Ukraine. Such an attack would also resonate with Tehran, sending a strong message to the Islamic Republic and its formidable Revolutionary Guard Corps to reduce their roles in the conflict.

The threat posed by Iran-originated Shahed loitering munitions, now produced in Russia under the Geran family, is growing. Recently, Russia has increased its use of these drone warfare assets, and Russian combat formations are now able to unleash scores of the weapons each week. 

Moreover, new variants of the Shahed line have become increasingly effective. As a recent edition of this Hudson newsletter detailed, a large number of new Shaheds, including the jet-powered Shahed-238 variant, have become operational. Other platforms of the baseline feature warheads equipped with tungsten balls, shrapnel, or thermobaric warheads. A new class of the family possesses special coatings that decrease the drones’ radar signatures. Drone wreckage has even shown that some Shaheds carry Kyivstar SIM cards and modems that allow them to map out Ukrainian air defenses in advance of follow-on attacks. 

There is no underestimating the magnitude of the threat that Shahed munitions pose for Kyiv. The drones are causing three specific problems for Ukraine. 

First, they are depleting the nation’s already scarce air defense resources. By triggering sirens in an area of attack, even a fully intercepted wave can paralyze operations in critical facilities like the Port of Odesa. Second, Shahed salvos divert Ukraine’s maneuver short-range air defense (M-SHORAD) assets, such as its 35mm-class Flakpanzer Gepard anti-aircraft guns, to protect population centers. These assets are better utilized fulfilling their designed function, which is accompanying heavy armor and mechanized formations to protect them from air threats. Third, Shahed drones are being employed in mixed strike packages alongside missiles, further complicating the picture for Ukraine’s air defenses.

Recent media posts indicate that the new drone plant in Tatarstan, operated jointly by Russia and Iran, is the likely source of many of the Russian military’s Shahed loitering munitions. As such, the factory offers a legitimate target for Ukrainian strikes. Unchecked, the plant will continue to produce thousands of Shahed variants, further plaguing the skies. To ensure its national security, Kyiv needs to put constant pressure on the facility, if not eliminate it altogether. 

Open-source intelligence suggests that the plant is located in Yelabuga, Tatarstan, in Russia’s special economic zone. To strike it, Ukraine would have to hit a facility some 900 miles from its border, while Ukraine’s longest-range drone, the UJ-26 Beaver, only has an approximate range of 620 miles. Open-source data suggests that the UJ-26 carries a relatively small, 44-pound warhead, so reducing its combat payload is not a viable option. 

Instead, Ukraine will have to boost the range of the kamikaze drone without making the warhead smaller, should it opt for launching the UJ-26 into Tatarstan. Since a small number of drones would likely fail to seriously damage the Yelabuga factory, which is almost certainly protected by dense air defenses, a large salvo would also be necessary

Another option for Ukraine would be to launch a Shahed drone strike of its own against the plant. Interestingly, in late 2023, the chief executive officer of the Ukrainian defense industry company Ukroboronprom, Herman Smetanin, stated that Kyiv has been pursuing a Shahed drone of its own. A typical Shahed-136 has a range of roughly 1,600 miles and delivers a warhead weighing between 80 and 100 pounds. While Ukraine has not yet produced a drone with a range exceeding 620 miles, its defense technological and industrial base (DTIB) is likely capable of successfully copying and producing long-range Shahed loitering munitions to target the drone plant in Tatarstan. 

While striking that factory would carry significant symbolic value, conducting a systematic long-range campaign against other Russian defense industrial facilities would also hurt the Kremlin. Ukraine’s recent strike against Russia’s Taganrog Aviation Plant, which hosted A-50 Beriev airborne early warning and control (EW&C) aircraft, is a telling example of this type of campaign, as is Ukraine’s January 2024 attack on the Shcheglovsky Val defense enterprise in Tula, a facility that manufactures the Pantsir short-to-medium range air defense system. 

Ukraine could also use its growing arsenal of Neptune anti-ship missiles, which recently gained a land-attack capability and extended range, in a mixed strike package alongside loitering munitions. Moreover, a large transfer of Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), ideally including the unitary warhead variant, could help the Ukrainians get the job done. Neptune missiles and the ATACMS could easily reach many defense industrial plants located near Ukraine.

Option 2: Temporarily Seizing Russian Territory

While the Russian military is formidable, the Soviet-remnant siloviki elite’s adventurist military dreams have made it vulnerable to internal threats. During the June 2023 armed mutiny by the Wagner Private Military Company, for example, the shadow army seized control of Rostov-on-Don, and the Southern Military District headquarters within the city, in a matter of hours. The group then moved north, stopping just short of Moscow.  

In 2023, anti-Kremlin Russian paramilitary groups, dubbed the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, raided the Russian city of Belgorod, sparking clashes there. Evidence suggests that these paramilitary raids were coordinated with Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence (GUR). The GUR’s widely known chief, General Kyrylo Budanov, has already expressed his interest in striking deep inside Russia.

This week, another raiding party composed of Ukraine-supported, anti-Kremlin Russian groups hit Belgorod and Kursk, making incursions along the Russian border. The attackers hit the state administration building in Belgorod with drones, while Russian media and Telegram channels claimed that Tochka-U tactical ballistic missiles and Vampire heavy rockets were also used in the operation. Reportedly, the attack involved the Siberian Battalion, a pro-Ukraine paramilitary group manned by Turkic Buryat and Yakut fighters. According to news outlets, the raid employed artillery and armor, showcasing sophisticated planning. 

The March 2024 Kursk and Belgorod attacks, following in the footsteps of the 2023 armed incursions into Russia, were at best probing efforts. Nonetheless, they provided Ukraine with a template for dispatching surprise forays at larger scale, potentially using additional fire-support elements to temporarily seize and control terrain. 

Such a military strategy would heighten the domestic threats to the Kremlin, worsening the security perceptions sparked by Wagner’s thwarted uprising. In addition to the armed Russian and Belarusian opposition, Ukraine can employ other battle-hardened groups more effectively, such as the Georgian Legion, which excels at fire-support operations in mobile detachments, as well as several Chechen battalions that would gladly take part in the raids. 

Option 3: A Ukrainian Military Campaign in Transnistria

The Russian military has a 1,500-strong forward presence in the breakaway Transnistria region of Moldova. While Russia’s Ministry of Defense claims that the Kremlin has fielded only one battalion there, available writings suggest a larger deployment has occurred. Moreover, the area hosts a large military storage facility for the Kremlin, the Cobasna ammunition depot. 

From a geostrategic standpoint, the Ukrainian military enjoys the upper hand in any offensive initiative against the Russian contingent in Transnistria. Since the region is surrounded by Moldova and Ukraine, the Kremlin cannot reinforce its forward-deployed troops there. Moreover, the bulk of the military personnel in the area are conscripted from the local pro-Russian population.

Targeting and expelling the Russian presence in Transnistria would score important political and military points for Kyiv. Above all, Russia’s expansionist presence in the area poses a threat to the Ukrainian city of Odesa. Before the current war, the Kremlin had assembled a large amphibious force of assets from Kaliningrad, the Black Sea Fleet, and the Eastern Military District, possibly aiming at a landing to seize Odesa. Had the Russian military managed to conduct such an ambitious operation—which was stymied by the Ukrainian coastal defenses’ sinking of the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Moskva in April 2022 and the deterrence signal it sent—Russia could have attempted to link Odesa to its forces in Transnistria.

Seizing Russian-held territory would equip Ukraine, which has long been on the defensive, with leverage in escalation dominance against the Kremlin. Of course, such a bold move would come with risks. A large-scale strike could trigger a humanitarian situation in Moldova and neighboring Romania. Shelling near the Cobasna military depot could prove very dangerous. But none of these risks are inevitable. Ukrainian troops conducting systemic incursions into Transnistria augmented by targeted drone strikes could force the Russian contingent in the breakaway province to abandon its positions. Since Ukraine, a victim of the unfolding invasion, would not run a war of conquest in sovereign Moldovan territory, such a military operation should be married to fast diplomatic talks with Chisinau, as well as a border security deal between the two nations.

With elections set for later this year in Moldova and European Union accession on the table, the nation’s intelligence services expect that the country is likely to be exposed to intense Russian hybrid warfare efforts in 2024. Proactively depriving Moscow of its leverage in Transnistria could help the country’s pro-Western president, Maia Sandu, set a geopolitical course forward. 

Battlefield Update

Last week, the balance of power on the battlefield remained relatively unchanged. Russia remained on the offensive, expanding territorial control in the eastern and southern sectors. Ukraine remained largely on the defensive and continued its efforts to push back advancing Russian combat formations. The Ukrainian military’s localized counterattacks slowed down the Russian advance, though Kyiv’s recent choice to preserve its manpower and withdraw from Avdiivka illustrates that Ukraine’s political-military leadership is well aware of its recent setbacks. 

According to recent reports, Russia currently controls approximately 18.5 percent of Ukrainian territory. While this is down from 26.4 percent in the spring of 2022, the Russian push remains strong and menacing on multiple axes.

In the east, one of Russia’s main strategic priorities continued to be increasing its hold on Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts while Moscow maintained its positions in the south. Along the eastern front line, hotspots such as Kupiansk, Svatove, Bakhmut, Stepove, Avdiivka, and Mariinka witnessed heavy positional fighting over the last week. In the south, Russia pushed Ukrainian defenses, with a particular focus on Robotyne and Verbove. In Robotyne, numerous reports suggest that trenches, ongoing Ukrainian strikes, and electronic warfare (EW) efforts are slowing down Russian advances. 

According to the United Kingdom’s Defense Intelligence, in an attempt to slow down Russia’s progress and perhaps a large-scale offensive in the future, Ukraine recently accelerated the fortification of defensive positions. In addition, despite mounting pressure, Ukrainian combat formations continued to hold their positions along the bridgehead across the Dnipro River near Krynky. But holding the tactically important position is getting harder and costlier for Ukraine every day. 

While the character of Russia’s aerial assaults did not change significantly this week, their intensity and frequency saw a substantial uptrend. As in past strikes, the recent attacks targeted civilian centers. In Odesa, where Russia intensified its efforts, five people were killed in a strike less than one-third of a mile from a high-level meeting between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. On March 10, Ukrainian forces neutralized 35 out of the 39 Shahed drones that Russia launched from occupied Crimea and Krasnodar. These strikes also included several S-300 missiles modified for attack roles. 

According to Russian sources, on March 9, Russia struck a Ukrainian Patriot air defense system in Donetsk. While the destruction of the targeted launcher vehicles was confirmed by visual evidence from the battlefield, attempts to identify the specific destroyed Ukrainian assets are pending further investigation. 

Ukrainian forces persisted in their strikes against critical Russian platforms and facilities. They conducted an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attack in Rostov Oblast featuring dozens of drones, allegedly engaging an A-50 Beriev aircraft parked at the Taganrog plant. Russia uses this facility for the maintenance and repair of its rare aerial assets, including the A-50, making it a critical hub for the sustainability of Russian air power. 

Ukrainian strikes also caused economic damage in Russia. According to British intelligence, Russia’s oil refining capacity might have temporarily plunged due to the Ukrainian UAV strikes, leading to higher gasoline prices as Russia’s elections near.

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