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The Russian Air Force Has a Problem: It Doesn’t Control the Skies over Ukraine

Su-34 Russia Ukraine
Russia's Su-34 fighter-bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The poor performance of Russia’s air force is one of the most surprising developments of the war in Ukraine. Russian Aerospace Forces, or VKS, fighter, and fighter-bombers have failed to establish air superiority or to deploy enough combat power in support of Russia’s woefully underperforming ground forces

At the outset of the war, observers assumed that Russia’s overwhelming superiority in numbers and quality of aircraft would allow it to dominate air operations. This has still not happened.

The Ukrainians have shown a surprising capability to integrate their anti-aircraft defenses with their limited air assets to battle the Russians to a stalemate. That is a win for Ukraine. 

Russian commanders have used just a fraction of the country’s air assets. In the war’s first week, their inability to sweep away Ukraine’s air defenses was a major factor in the failure to capture Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other large cities. 

Justin Bronk, a military analyst for Airpower and Technology at RUSI, wrote in early March that Russia had surprisingly failed to commence large-scale air operations. 

“Inactivity in the first few days could be ascribed to various factors, but the continued absence of major air operations now raises serious capability questions,” Bronk wrote, “that the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief, and fly complex air operations at scale. There is significant circumstantial evidence to support this, admittedly tentative, explanation.”

Poor Planning, Poor Execution, Questionable Modernization

Russia vastly overestimated the prowess of its own military forces. Moscow was wrong about how quickly they would dominate Ukrainian forces on the ground, in the air, and at sea. 

Russian commanders believed they would score a quick victory and annex all of Ukraine. In the beginning hours of the war, they did not target any Ukrainian infrastructure – they did not want to rebuild it later. But as Ukrainian forces began to exact a heavy toll on air, ground, and naval forces, Russian tactics changed. 

As the invasion ground to a standstill – and in many places started to be pushed back – Russian forces reverted to their well-known tactic of indiscriminately bombing civilian targets, including large population centers, hospitals, and other infrastructure. 

Russian air forces have carried out piecemeal attacks using small numbers of aircraft – often just a single plane. Ukrainian air defenses have made Russian pilots flinch — they often take a risk-averse approach. 

Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, has never appreciated the necessity of a strategic bombing campaign. The VKS displays the failed approach – it doesn’t have many capabilities beyond ground support. The Russians don’t have enough of the aircraft designed to suppress an enemy’s air defense units, such as U.S. “Wild Weasel” aircraft. 

Russia’s vaunted military modernization program has involved buying newer and more advanced aircraft. But as always happens in Russia, massive corruption and inefficiency have crippled the effort. Meanwhile, a top-down command climate, where junior and mid-level officers are unable to influence the battlefield, has further limited the VKS, much as it has Russia’s army. Realistic training is lacking, and they do not train for the kind of complex air operations that the U.S. and NATO practice constantly. 

Ukraine Striking Back?

Just a few days ago, the Ukrainian Air Force, with its aging fleet of strike aircraft, conducted airstrikes against Russian troops on the small but important Snake Island. 

Ukrainian strikes have reportedly taken out three air defense systems, two patrol boats, and a landing craft in the past week. This strikes another blow against Russian military prestige on the Black Sea. 

Su-34

Russian Su-34. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russian Military

Russian Military Su-34 Fighter-Bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Ukraine Russia

Russian Su-34 fighter-bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia assaulted Snake Island in the early hours of the war, demanding Ukrainians defenders on the island surrender. The now famous reply of “Russian warship, go f**k yourself” was heard around the world.

Weeks after taking the island, the Russians lost the flagship of their Black Sea fleet, the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, when Ukraine’s Neptune anti-ship missiles sunk her off of Snake Island. Ukrainian missiles reportedly set the frigate Admiral Makarov on fire as well. 

Fighting in the Donbas has seen Russian air forces carry out some 300 sorties a day, an increase of 150% over the earlier stage of the war. But as long as Ukrainian air forces and air defenses continue to operate, the war remains in doubt. 

Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Army Special Forces NCO, and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 19fortyfive.com and for another military news organization, he has covered the NFL for PatsFans.com for more than 10 years. His work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.

Written By

Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 1945, he covers the NFL for PatsFans.com and his work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Alex

    May 10, 2022 at 1:55 pm

    Jim Chambers (Fergie Chambers) – a journalist from NY spoke about how he SAW the attacks of Ukrainian fascists on peaceful Ukrainians. He told how he SAW what horrors the Bandera Nazis were doing to the Ukrainians. He said that food and medicine appeared when the Russian Liberators came.

    He told how he SAW Nazi paraphernalia wherever the military of Ukraine abandoned their positions (swastikas, Mein Kampf books, paintings by Hitler, Bandera, etc.).

    He SAW how opponents of the regime of the Ukrainian authorities were detained, tortured and killed. He told how the people of Ukraine are waging their struggle for existence and for peace without Bandera Nazis. He spoke about how the Russian liberators help civilians and the Ukrainians ask the Russians not to leave. The Ukrainians are upset that the Russians came late, they should have come earlier.

    He said: “Our American weapons have only exacerbated the useless bloodshed in a battle that the Ukrainian fascists can never win. I am ashamed to carry an American passport with me. The world desperately needs a Russian victory: at the end of Ukrainian Nazism and at the end of the American NATO empire. World needs victory for freedom.”

  2. Alex

    May 10, 2022 at 1:55 pm

    Graham William Phillips is an outstanding British journalist who objectively and unbiasedly covers events in Ukraine.

    He is in a war zone and interviews all sides. He confirms the existence of Bandera Nazis who brutally torture and kill Ukrainians just because they do not want to see Bandera Nazis in their country.

    He confirms that the Ukrainians are asking the Russian liberators not to leave them anymore and not to leave.

    It is interesting to see how Graham interviews Aiden Aislin, a Briton who fought on the side of Ukraine as part of the Nazi Azov Battalion and was taken prisoner in Mariupol.

    The truth will always see the world thanks to such professionals, and not propagandists, who sometimes have never been to Ukraine and are thousands of miles away.

    No Nazism. We – free people will win.

  3. greenman

    May 10, 2022 at 3:22 pm

    Jim Chambers and William phillips, quoted share a peculiar similarity in the Latin alphabet.
    Strange as it may seem for Jim Chambers, the letter J, is seven letters of the alphabet after C.

    Similarly, for William Phillips, the letter W, is seven letters of the alphabet after P.

    What are the odds of two different names supposedly supporting fictitious neo Nazi stories about ukraine both sharing the same alphabetical difference between the first letter of the surname and Christian name?.

    • Alex

      May 10, 2022 at 3:31 pm

      Thomas Roeper, Scott Ritter, Lee and I can name dozens of independent journalists who help people around the world see the truth. Truth always wins over lies. Even with the help of the best false propagandists from the USA and Britain, the Bandera Nazis have no future.

      • h

        May 10, 2022 at 4:28 pm

        It’s good to see you got a day off at the troll factory in St Petersburg for May 9.

        Resisting a Russian invasion doesn’t make someone a Nazi, by the way, it makes one a patriotic freedom fighter.

        Just because a journalist is born somewhere other than Russia, it doesn’t make their voice independent if they live in Russian controlled areas and are subject to laws controlling coverage of the war which include up to 15 years in prison for criticising Russia’s war of aggression.

        • Alex

          May 10, 2022 at 5:54 pm

          No, Bandera Nazi. I do not write like you from myself and from the Ministry of Lies of Ukraine. And I cite articles by independent journalists. I understand that you have nothing to answer the truth. Eat the truth, bastards.

      • Terry

        May 10, 2022 at 4:48 pm

        Alex-

        THIS Scott Ritter, right?

        “He was convicted in 2011 in Monroe County, Pa., after Barrett Township police presented evidence that in 2009 he had masturbated in front of a webcam being viewed by an undercover officer who was posing as a 15-year-old girl.”

        “Ritter reportedly went by the handle “delmarm4fun.””

        • Alex

          May 10, 2022 at 5:52 pm

          1. You are a liar. He pleaded not guilty and was released early.
          2. What do you say about the rest, Bandera Nazi? They beat you with the truth and win.

  4. Him

    May 11, 2022 at 1:50 am

    Alex and the Russian trolls refuse to comment on Soviet Russia being allies with Nazi Germany at the start of WW2.

    Alex cites Bandera being allies with the Germans in WW2 — but, Alex, the total number of Bandera’s forces were so small compared to the entire Soviet Russia ALSO being allied with the SAME Nazi’s.

    Alex keeps copying and pasting the same junk, but refuses to comment on anything that shows the Russians were the ones allied with the Nazis at the start of WW2. That’s why the Russians are doing exactly what the Nazis did.

    If you compare the number of Bandera’s troops allied with the Nazis, compared to the Russian troops allied to the Nazis – there were more Russians with the Nazis.

    Alex, I know you won’t respond – but you’re spending your short life on earth being a propagandist for brutal dictators. You use your life to keep your Russian people in bondage to dictators. What a waste of your life.

  5. Alex

    May 11, 2022 at 12:15 pm

    A bit of truth.

    The head of the UN monitoring mission, Matilda Bogner, said that the organization has reliable information about the torture of Russian soldiers in Ukrainian captivity:
    “Ukraine and Russia must promptly and effectively investigate all allegations of torture and ill-treatment of prisoners of war,” she said.

    The military-civilian administration of the Kherson region announced their intention to appeal to Putin with a request to include the region into Russia:
    “We intend to live as part of the Russian Federation. We fully cooperate and feel as one with the regions of Russia.”

    Pfizer, Moderna, Merck, Gilead are testing medicines in Ukraine, bypassing international safety standards, reducing the costs of research programs and gaining significant competitive advantages. Coronavirus vaccine manufacturers have been involved in US military biological activities.

    Along with American pharmaceutical companies and Pentagon contractors, Ukrainian state structures are involved in military biological activities, the main tasks of which are to conceal illegal activities, conduct field and clinical trials, and provide the necessary biomaterial.
    The American side expanded its research potential both in the field of creating biological weapons and in the field of obtaining information about antibiotic resistance and the presence of antibodies to various diseases in the population of specific regions.

    Ukraine has long become a training ground for Western countries to create biological weapons components and test new samples of pharmaceuticals.

    The United States, as part of its military biological program in Ukraine, used Mariupol as a regional center for work with the cholera pathogen.
    Evidence was obtained of the emergency destruction of documents confirming work with the US military department. A preliminary analysis of the surviving documentation indicates the use of Mariupol as a regional center for the collection and certification of the cholera pathogen.

    The selected strains were sent to the public health center in Kyiv, which is entrusted with the functions of further sending biomaterials to the United States.
    This activity has been carried out since 2014, which is confirmed by the acts of transfer of strains.

    Pentagon spokesman John Kirby on Fox News recalled that the United States supplied weapons to Ukraine long before the start of the Russian special operation.
    “The Biden administration was supplying weapons long before the invasion. The first billion dollars that the president allocated for Ukraine did indeed include assistance with lethal weapons … The United States, Canada, Britain, other allies actually helped prepare the Ukrainians, ”Kirby quoted the TV channel as saying.

    As military experts and analysts had previously assumed, Ukraine would have brought down all its military power on the Donbass in any case, but Russia was the first to come to the aid of Donyuass.

    The world is watching. The world sees. Lies are dying.

  6. Joseph V

    May 12, 2022 at 8:37 am

    Isn’t it interesting that an article about Russian failure to control Ukrainian airspace never mentions the actual number of Russian aircraft losses? Not even a range of estimates. And of course it’s that the Russians didn’t understand the necessity of a strategic bombing campaign, not that they decided the American practice of bombing civilian population centers into the Stone Age before illegal invasions is not one to be followed. This is propaganda to make Americans feel better about our political leaders sending billions of our dollars and possibly thousands of our men and women to Ukraine because muh Pootler.

  7. Mike

    May 12, 2022 at 11:00 am

    What a load of propaganda Russia has shot Ukrainian air forces to pieces,They started a go crowd me page that is begging for spare parts so they can take inactive aircraft out of storage and the west has provided that.That’s the only way they have had any functional aircraft.These aircraft so outdated capable of gaining any ground that they have lost to the Russians.Including a failed attack on snake island!

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