In any military conflict since the advent of dirigibles on the eve of the First World War, the dominant military doctrine emphasises the crucial importance given to Command of the Air. Having destroyed most of Ukraine’s airfields, on Monday the Russian Ministry of Defence boasted complete control of Ukrainian air space. Thus it was deemed feasible to send a convoy of military vehicles miles long down the main motorway from Belarus through to the Ukrainian capital.
Yet the Russian/Byelrussian convoy has yet to reach Kyiv. The Ukrainians seem to be back in control of the pockmarked main airfield north of the city, from which they can launch attacks on the incoming Russian vehicles; though they have to rely on helicopters. The discussion in today’s hardline newspaper Vzglyad reveals Moscow’s current preoccupation.
The EU (in reality NATO) has promised Ukraine considerable military supplies, the paper tells its readers; those supplies began reaching Western Ukraine via Poland. The first such train came in on Sunday. And now the EU has upped its game by promising to supply Ukraine with Russian-made fighter aircraft: “fighter planes are a completely different matter”, Vzglyad complains. It is rather as if the opposing team (Ukraine) in a cricket match where only one side (team Russsia) has had access to bats and the other side restricted to bowling and catching balls now has the prospect of bats of its own. So team Russia is now complaining. Thus bullet proof vests and even anti-tank munitions are all in the spirit of the game but really offensive weapons are safe only in the hands of the Russians.
The Russian team have similarly complained about Turkish supplies of Bayraktar TB attack drones to Ukraine that have shown their unusual value in the Middle East, and now slow the progress of the long convoy to Kyiv. They have a record altitude of 27,030 feet and can remain in flight for 24 hours with a munitions loading of some 150 kilograms. They can function day and night. The arrival of Stinger missiles, handheld weapons that can down aircraft, from Estonia, Poland and now the United States, is not great news either, as it means the ability of Soviet aircraft to defend the Russian convoy is seriously depleted.
To a “significant extent”, Vzglyad claims, the Russians have wiped out Ukrainian air power and its infrastructure, so their preoccupation with the imminent arrival of fighter planes that may “revive the Ukrainian air force and nullify a Russian military success” is understandable. It also shows that the Russians may have destroyed equipment thus far but not every pilot and their support staff. The main aircraft expected is the MiG-29.
The Russians are counting on the fact that the aircraft available from the EU will have been partially modernised to fit in with NATO’s needs and Ukrainian pilots will be unfamiliar with these improvements. Moreover the destruction of fuel supplies in Ukraine will make the use of such aircraft very difficult. (And the MiG-29 is notoriously a fuel guzzler.) Getting them in from the West will take time and the Russians can watch for columns coming in from that direction. So time is of the essence.
The conclusions drawn by Vzglyad, and presumably by the General Staff from which the information derives, are not entirely optimistic and that is even without taking into account the potential arrival of fighter planes from the West. They are imminently faced with losing what command of the air they currently possesss. “If the operation [the war] drags out, Polish diesel and American “Stingers” have the ability to prolong the resistance of Ukrainian forces.”