Of all the surprises that Russian President Vladimir Putin has encountered since he invaded Ukraine last month, perhaps the biggest has been that Russia is yet to gain air superiority.
On paper, Russia’s military prowess implies that along with quick ground victories, the Russian air force should have been able swiftly to take control of the skies. Going into the conflict, Russia’s 1,391 aircraft to Ukraine’s 132 —complemented by 948 helicopters to Kyiv’s 55 — have yet to give Putin the kind of aerial dominance required to eliminate Ukraine’s resistance. Russia’s overall defense budget of $45.8 billion is almost 10 times that of its neighbor.
Experts ranging from former air force personnel to government officials believe that Russia’s failure comes down to a combination of poor preparation by Moscow, a clever use of resources based on intelligence by Ukraine and the targeted donations of arms from Western allies to Ukraine.
“As far as I understand, they were able to save a large part of their air force by moving planes from airfields before the Russians destroyed them, based on intelligence ahead of attacks,” said Gen. Riho Terras, a former commander of the Estonian Defense Forces.
Sophy Antrobus, research associate at Freeman Air and Space Institute and former officer in the UK’s Royal Air Force, agrees that in the early stages of the war, Ukraine appeared to take intelligent steps that are now paying dividends.
“They’ve been clever in that they didn’t deploy all of their resources that could take down Russian aircraft. This possibly led Russia into a false sense of security, and Ukraine has been able to keep defending its air while reinforcements from allies arrive,” she said.
Those reinforcements include S-300 anti-aircraft systems, Stingers and Javelin missiles that have been used by Ukraine so far. The presence of such missile systems marks a dramatic upgrade for Ukraine.
Rep. Mike McCaul, the ranking member on the US House Foreign Affairs Committee told CNN that S-300s, which are Russian-made, have “higher-altitude” capability than Stinger missiles, which the US has also sent to Ukraine.
“The S-300s are the high-altitude — sort of like our Patriot battery of missiles — anti-aircraft system. The fact that they are in country and more are coming is going to be very effective.” While these missile systems might be effective, there is still a question mark over how long Ukraine can hold off Russia — both in the air and on the ground.
Read the full analysis here.