Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg spoke recently of his fear that the war in Ukraine could spin out of control into a full-blown confrontation between Russia and the west. “If things go wrong, they can go horribly wrong,” he told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

Stoltenberg’s remarks came on December 9, a few days after Ukraine is thought to have launched a series of drone strikes at airbases deep inside Russian territory. The following day, December 10, Russia reportedly used Iranian-supplied drones in response, attacking the key southern port city of Odesa and leaving 1.5 million people without electricity. Since then, the air war has further escalated.

Russia and Ukraine have deployed a wide range of military and commercial drones since the early days of the war. But their increasingly frequent – and effective – deployment indicates a potential new stage of escalation with important consequences for Ukraine and its western backers.

Both sides have used drones in a variety of roles, including intelligence gathering and combat operations. They have also been used for the documentation of war crimes, and by journalists reporting from otherwise inaccessible war zones.

While much of the emphasis has been on the use of aerial combat drones carrying out strikes against Russian forces from the air, Ukraine has also deployed drones successfully against Russian naval assets in occupied Crimea. In this particular attack, aerial drones were coordinated with marine drones, which work similarly to more traditional torpedoes.

Another relatively new feature in the war in Ukraine is the widespread and highly effective use of small commercial drones, many of them operated by civilian volunteers to gather intelligence. This has contributed to increasing the situational awareness of Ukrainian forces, identifying Russian positions and monitoring troop movements.

The now-abolished international special monitoring mission to Ukraine pioneered this use of drones in the country to check on the ceasefire established by the first of the failed Minsk agreements of September 2014. But the sheer scale of their use after the beginning of the Russian invasion dwarfs anything that happened before February 2022.

Will drones help Ukraine win?

Clearly, the Ukrainian use of drones shows the benefits of this technology. Drones have a longer range than many of the missiles Ukraine has in its current arsenal. They are cheaper, don’t require the same level of training that aircrews in manned aircraft would need, and don’t put Ukrainian troops at the risk of loss or capture.