On the Edge: Security, protracted conflicts and the role of drones in Eurasia

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Our new report, ‘On the Edge: Security, protracted conflicts and the role of drones in Eurasiaexamines the proliferation of drones and loitering munitions (often descried as suicide drones) across Eurasia. It charts their increasing use along the borders of separatist areas, aims to shed some light on the acquisition of large Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) Chinese drones in Central Asia, and asks why this has happened and what the likely consequences might be.

Thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, the people of Eurasia still live with conflict and repression that are part of the post-Soviet legacy. The year 2020 saw the most serious violence since 1994 erupt between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region also saw an upturn in violence, whilst Russia maintains its hold over Crimea. Georgia’s separatist regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – are also the site of ongoing clashes. These multiple conflicts impact the lives of civilians and abuses of human rights are common in the contested border regions. Moreover, the political cultures of the five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – remain autocratic and opaque, limiting democracy and human rights. 

Drones heating up ‘frozen’ conflicts

The post-Soviet conflicts are often been described as ‘frozen’ as a result of ceasefire agreements in the 1990s, the presence of peace-keepers and supposed ongoing negotiations. Yet there have been no real solutions or conclusions, and over time the factors affecting a solution to the conflicts have changed as the conflicts have become internationalised. Furthermore, the type of warfare has shifted from primarily separatist guerrilla action to include regular state armies. This has seen a significant militarisation of the region, enabled by outside support.

Map of Eurasia

The disputes over break-away territories are also enmeshed in the increasingly contentious relationship between NATO and Russia. The ‘border’ between NATO and Russia lies in the states that ring Russia’s western front. For historical and political reasons, anti-Russian feeling runs deep in Georgia and Ukraine, and both countries seek closer integration with NATO.  It is also in NATO’s interests to integrate these states in to their sphere of influence. The Kremlin does not wish to see NATO on its borders and has, analysts say, deliberately encouraged destabilisation in Georgia and the Ukraine in order to stall, or end, their integration with NATO. This wider international power conflict, then, has an enormous bearing on the way in which the territorial integrity of these states is approached by the international community, and what support and military equipment has been available to governments and separatists.

In contrast, Nagorno-Karabakh is peripheral to NATO interests, yet it suits Russia to have influence, and arms deals, in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, so there has been little incentive to resolve the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

For the five Central Asian states, the shared context is different, but also a result of a broader set of issues. There is a perceived terrorist threat in the form of either returnees from Syria, or spill-over from Afghanistan, a concern shared by Russia, China and the US. Secondly, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks connectivity across a ‘New Silk Road’ through investment in other countries’ infrastructure, has shifted some of Central Asia’s historic economic, security and defence reliance away from Russia towards China. The combination of these two factors has created an opening for the acquisition of military drones.

The proliferation of large and small drones, as well as loitering munitions across the region has gathered pace in the last few years and, aside from providing all important propaganda for states at war and for autocratic leaders, the threat of new unregulated technologies are directly contributing to increased violence in these often-overlooked areas.

Drones internationalising conflicts

The fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh has certainly become internationalised and the issue of drones is at the centre of that. Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drones have given the Azeri forces capabilities well beyond those they possessed.

The TB-2s changed the dynamics of the conflict, firstly because they helped the Azeri forces conduct riskier surveillance missions well behind the front line, and secondly, as a result, Azerbaijan has been able to inflict more damage on opposing forces’ supply lines. Neither of these tools were previously available to Azerbaijan and the new capabilities, say analysts, may have prolonged the violence in 2020 compared to previous periods of fighting.

Civilian flee Azerbaijani shelling on Stepanakert

The very public involvement of Turkey in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh risked expanding the conflict across the region. Turkey has provided other military assistance but the publicity and hype around the use of armed TB- 2s significantly increased the visibility of Turkey’s support.

In the Ukraine in 2014, drones similarly gave separatists in the Donbas an edge over Ukrainian forces. Reconnaissance drones were used to gather intelligence on Ukrainian troop movements, a capability that Ukraine could not match at the time.  It then became a matter of public, patriotic pride for the Ukraine to develop a military drone, resulting in the crowd-funded ‘People’s Drone. The race to match or overtake the technological advantages of adversaries creates an ongoing militarisation, particularly when it becomes a matter of national pride. At the same time, the focus on new military advantages obscure the possibility of real solutions for peace and security.

As well as the pressing problems of drone use in Eurasia, there is the also the possibility that several more states will begin operating armed drones in the near future. Russia, involved in all of these conflicts, is said to be readying its Orion armed drone for use. Similarly, Ukraine is testing its Gorlytsa armed drone, and has also purchased the ubiquitous Bayraktar TB-2.

Status Symbols

Kazakhstan’s Wing Loong drones at a military parade in Astana, May 2017 Credit Kalabaha1969

Where large armed drones are already present in Central Asia, it is hard to know to what extent they are operational or whether they remain simply status symbols for the strongmen leaders of the three states that have them. Nevertheless, since drone warfare is notoriously secretive, unaccountable and has the propensity to stray outside of international law wherever they are in use, the large armed drones in Central Asia represent a significant problem for proliferation. China reportedly already uses its Wing Loong drones to at least monitor the Uyghur in the western Xinjiang province that borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

While the use of drones is Eurasia is not yet having the same devastating impact and global repercussions as other sites of drone warfare, such as Libya, Yemen and Syria, the proliferation of drones in this region has brought many of the same issues to the fore. The increased use of force through greater risk-taking; the reliance on ‘precision’ strikes; the use of propaganda, hype, and rumour around these relatively new systems to fight info-wars; the problematic border use that adversely affects human rights; and the unaccountable acquisition of armed drones are all present in Eurasia.

Together these issues highlight the urgent need for a global agreement on the use and proliferation of military drones. In Eurasia, although new technology may be providing strategic advantage to some, new weapons systems are only obscuring the need for political and humanitarian solutions to the unresolved and ‘frozen’ conflicts, prolonging and perhaps increasing violence, hindering rather than helping to find real peace and security.

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