‘The War Is 24/7’: Russia Is Launching Night Raids in the Donbas

Ukraine wants night vision tools to fight back.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A Ukrainian service member wears a headlamp in the dark
A Ukrainian service member wears a headlamp in the dark
Servicemen are seen inside a bunker in Popasna, in Ukraine's Donbas region, on April 14. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

Russia is trying to overrun Ukrainian positions in the contested Donbas region by conducting night raids, two Ukrainian sources told Foreign Policy, leaving Ukraine in desperate need of night vision drones to launch counterattacks.

The use of more night raids—sometimes including Russian special forces, the sources said—is a sign that the Kremlin is increasingly trying to use its numbers advantage over Kyiv as losses pile up for both sides on the flatter terrain in the eastern part of the country. A senior U.S. defense official speaking to reporters on Monday described the battle in the Donbas as “a real gunfight” that has already seen Ukraine deploy 74 of the 90 M777 howitzer artillery units provided by the United States.

“We need a lot of drones, including strike and thermal imaging drones, because a lot of things are happening during the night,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and a former minister of economy. “Russia counterattacks during night, and sometimes we are in need of that.” He said that Ukraine is not able to fight back without night vision capabilities of its own.

Russia is trying to overrun Ukrainian positions in the contested Donbas region by conducting night raids, two Ukrainian sources told Foreign Policy, leaving Ukraine in desperate need of night vision drones to launch counterattacks.

The use of more night raids—sometimes including Russian special forces, the sources said—is a sign that the Kremlin is increasingly trying to use its numbers advantage over Kyiv as losses pile up for both sides on the flatter terrain in the eastern part of the country. A senior U.S. defense official speaking to reporters on Monday described the battle in the Donbas as “a real gunfight” that has already seen Ukraine deploy 74 of the 90 M777 howitzer artillery units provided by the United States.

“We need a lot of drones, including strike and thermal imaging drones, because a lot of things are happening during the night,” said Tymofiy Mylovanov, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and a former minister of economy. “Russia counterattacks during night, and sometimes we are in need of that.” He said that Ukraine is not able to fight back without night vision capabilities of its own.

Mylovanov said that defending troops in the Donbas have enough drones without imaging capabilities to fight during the day, but at night, Russia can threaten to attack around much of the perimeter of the contested territory. The senior U.S. defense official, who spoke to reporters on Monday on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the Pentagon, said that Russia has begun to focus its efforts in the northern Donbas on the towns of Izyum and Lyman in recent days, and Russian troops have also made small gains to the west of the city of Donetsk. But Ukrainian forces have pushed Russian troops out of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, to within 2 miles of the border.

Ukrainian officials and lawmakers also said that Russia has fired artillery against Ukrainian positions at night, although U.S. deliveries of new howitzer pieces have helped narrow the advantage. “We do have a lot of attacks at night,” Oleksandra Ustinova, a Ukrainian lawmaker, said in a telephone interview. “The war is 24/7.”

Ustinova said that Ukraine’s positions in Kharkiv, Donetsk, and facing south are “pretty good,” but Russia is making gains in Luhansk. “They are trying to get Severodonetsk,” a big city northwest of Luhansk, she said. “So unfortunately, it’s been hell there.”

Even before Russia began upping the tempo of night raids, drones have become an ubiquitous feature of the battlefield in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion more than two months ago, with Ukrainian-owned, Turkish-made Bayraktar drones taking out scores of Russian vehicles during Russia’s halting advance on Kyiv. Ukraine also reportedly deployed the Turkish drones to take out Russian air defenses and resupply vessels on the occupied Snake Island in the Black Sea. And both sides have liberally used off-the-shelf DJI drones from China to keep eyes in the sky over the battlefield.

But despite repeated requests for months, the United States has so far demurred on Ukrainian requests to provide drones, beyond the one-way Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost loitering munitions that can hover over Russian targets—such as tanks or armored vehicles—for hours before launching a deadly kamikaze strike.

“Ukraine keeps trying to pretend like they’re going to get armed fancy drones,” one congressional aide familiar with the requests said, who requested anonymity to discuss ongoing arms transfers. “That’s not going to happen.” The Trump administration reinterpreted U.S. laws to allow the Pentagon to export armed drones (a change that the Biden administration has not overturned), but the aide said that the new team in the White House is skittish about selling those advanced weapons to non-NATO countries.

But Ukraine has also had to prioritize, pushing drones far down a list of weapons requests that is topped by multiple rocket launch systems, even as Washington worries that arming Ukraine with specific new systems will escalate the conflict with Russia.

“There is a huge list of weapons, because there has never been a war like this since World War II,” said Ustinova, the Ukrainian lawmaker. “Would you ask someone whether they need a gun or a bulletproof vest? Both are needed, but when you get to choose, of course the gun would be the priority.”

Yet the demand for night vision goggles among Ukrainian troops dates back to even before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces were shelling Ukrainian positions in the Donbas. The U.S. military prides itself on its ability to “own the night” dating all the way back to the 1989 invasion of Panama that saw airborne troops descend into the country under the cover of darkness. But more than three decades later, the Pentagon is trying to help Ukraine fend off attacks from Russian troops using the same kind of gear.

“It’s a real situation, each army is looking for night vision goggles to be aware of what is going on on land during the night,” a second Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about sensitive military requests, told Foreign Policy. “We were looking for them even in peaceful times.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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