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The Air-to-Air War in Ukraine No One Saw Coming

Su-27. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Su-27. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the most sustained air-to-air combat in decades, pitting the Ukrainian Air Force’s prewar fleet of roughly 110 operational Soviet-era warplanes (not one purchased after the collapse of the Soviet Union) versus roughly 1,200 fixed-wing Russian Aerospace Force (VKS) combat aircraft, many relatively new and the rest extensively modernized.

Many observers (including this writer) believed this imbalance of power would result in a one-sided and short-lived contest when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

But that’s not what happened: the Ukrainian Air Force wisely dispersed prior to the war. The Air Force sustained only modest losses from Russia’s initial airbase attacks. Meanwhile, Ukrainian warplanes were visibly fighting on day one.

A half year later, Ukrainian and Russian fighters continue to joust, mostly with long-range missiles, while both sides’ ground attack aviation remains active at low altitudes near the frontline. After heavy losses early in the war, neither side is willing to penetrate deep into enemy airspace.

Nonetheless, losses are heavy, with at least 49 Russian warplanes confirmed lost as of August 30, and 37 Ukrainian. The true numbers are surely higher. But, the majority of verified are attributed to ground-based air defenses, while it’s remained entirely unclear how many fall in air-to-air combat.

This article seeks to identify losses of fixed-wing aircraft attributed to air-to-air combat based on current publicly available evidence. A companion piece looks at the tactical and technical dynamics of the air war over Ukraine.

Counting Kills

Historically, all air forces heavily overclaim kills in air-to-air combat. That problem is even worse in a conflict extensively featuring beyond-visual-range missiles, where gun cameras can’t record evidence of a successful kill.

Indeed, on August 30, Russia’s defense ministry claimed Russia’s military had shot down 278 Ukrainian fixed-wing combat aircraft, more than twice as many as were operational in the Ukrainian Air Force prior to the war. Kyiv’s claims of 234 downed Russian jets are also not credible.

This article therefore mostly disregards official claims, and looks only at kills confirmed either by A) self-reported losses; or B) videos or photos proving an aircraft was shot down/destroyed; combined with C) a claim the loss occurred in air-to-air combat. This is a minimal, but hardly ironclad standard as there remains room for misattribution as to the cause of a particular loss.

Understandably, neither side is keen to report their own losses. Grimly, that means loss data chiefly comes from obituaries for pilots killed in combat, or reporting capture of POWs. Implicitly, that means losses of aircraft crashed on friendly territory, or for which the crew survived and were not captured, are going unreported and thus are under-represented.

Russian Air-to-Air Kills

In the first month of hostilities, obituaries for Ukrainian pilots sometimes mentioned that they fell in air-to-air combat. After March, such details stopped being published, and only a few more possible air-to-air losses can be inferred, usually with unsatisfactory confidence.

Most or all of the Russian air-to-air kills likely involved its single-seat Su-35S fighter and two-seat Su-30SM Flankers, which are assigned air superiority missions. Russia’s MiG-29s have not been deployed in Ukraine, though MiG-31 interceptors and Su-27SM Flanker fighters are apparently playing a limited, mostly defensive role. Russian media claimed a MiG-31 scored the type’s first kill on April 28 downing a Ukrainian Su-24, but did not produce evidence.

Russia’s much-touted Su-57 stealth fighters have reportedly only been used for standoff missile strikes, not air superiority. Technically, the Su-25 and Su-34 can carry air-to-air missiles for self-defense, but there’s little evidence they’re being armed with those missiles.

On the opening day of the invasion, Russian warplanes roved over the skies of Kyiv and carried out mostly unsuccessful strikes on Ukrainian airbases. This set the stage for the following corroborated aerial losses:

  • L-39 jet trainer piloted by Major Dmytro Kolomiyets shot down by Russian fighters as he sought to divert them from Ukrainian aircraft evacuating from Ozerne airbase, Zhytomyr
  • MiG-29 of 40th TAB piloted by Lt. Col. Yerko Vaycheslav Vladimirvoich downed over Kyiv battling Russian fighters, in an air battle in which ostensibly five Russian fighters we downed. He ejected but his parachute failed, possibly due to strafing.
  • MiG-29 of 40th TAB piloted by Vladimir Kokhansky downed while “intercepting enemy aircraft” near Glebovka, Kyiv region
  • Unclear: MiG-29 crashed into Kyiv Reservoir. Pilot Roman Pasulko filmed successfully parachuting but then drowned. Cause of downing unclear.

(TAB= Tactical Aviation Brigade)

Russian airpower was surprisingly scarce in subsequent days, but additional encounters were on February 25 and 28th.

  • Two Su-25s allegedly intercepted by Russian fighters on February 25 while on mission targeting a Pripyat River bridge. Lt. Col. Gennady Motulyak in “N39” was downed. His wingman went on to hit the target.
  • Su-27 piloted by Col. Aleksandr Oksanchenko reported downed on February 25 over Kyiv by a long-range S-400 ground-launched missile while dogfighting with Russian jets and crashed into a residential building.
  • Su-27 lost on February 28 on a defensive mission over Koprivnitsky battling Russian fighters. Ukrainian-Romanian pilot Stepan Ciobanu ejected too late.

Russian air activity surged the first week of March, with heavy losses on March 3 and 4, near Kyiv and Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine.

  • MiG-29 of Major Oleksandr Brynzhal, KIA after shot down over Kyiv Oblast in duel with two (or later sources claim 12) Su-35S jets on March 1. Ukraine claims 2 or 3 of the Su-35s were shot down in return, but without corroborating evidence.
  • MiG-29 on March 13 downed over Chernihiv while “outnumbered” in air battle on March 13; Major Stepan Tarabalka KIA.
  • MiG-29 on March 23 piloted by Major. Dmitry Chumachenko shot down in “unequal” air battle near Tirgoriye, Zhytomyr

Ukraine’s fleet of Su-24M supersonic bombers has experienced extremely heavy losses over the course of the war, with at least 11 confirmed destroyed of 12-14. Two have been attributed to Russian fighters per a pro-Russian source.

  • Su-24M downed neared Dovybush (west of Zhitomyr), allegedly by a “fighter missile”, with loss of both crew on March 30
  • Su-24MR downed near Tumeni, Rivne in “air battle” during a likely reconnaissance mission on May 7.

On June 5, a Ukrainian Su-27P “Blue 38” of the 39th TAB recorded crashing near Orikhiv by what was initially billed as an air-to-air missiles, but which now appears likely to be friendly fire due to a claim from a nearby Ukrainian air-defense battery.

Between August 12-14, celebrated MiG-29 pilot Anton Listopad of the 204th TAB died in his MiG-29 near Kramatorsk, according to rumor attacked by Su-35 jets.

The cause of two later Ukrainian combat losses—the Su-25 of Oleksandr Kukurba on July 26 and the MiG-29 of Yuri Pohorily—remain unclear:

Ukrainian Air-to-Air Kills

As obituaries and other media accounts of Russian pilots almost never attribute the cause/circumstances of death, it’s not possible to corroborate Ukrainian air-to-air claims from these sources.

Furthermore, every Russian aircraft loss visually documented by Ukraine forces is attributed to ground-based air defenses not fighters, as far as this author could find.

However, some documented combat losses in Ukraine lack an attributed cause, and some crashed Russian warplanes have been discovered in remote areas months after they were apparently shot down, leaving causality unclear.

Below is a list combat losses of Russian fixed-wing jets for which the author could find no specific cause attributed:

  • Su-25 “Yellow 28” from 266th AAR found shot down in Kyiv Oblast, likely in February or March
  • Su-25SM “Red-12” (RF-93027) from 18th AAR found destroyed allegedly near Babinci, Kyiv Oblast, likely in February or March
  • Su-25SM of Col. Ruslan Rudnev, reported KIA March 1 per obituary
  • Su-25SM “Red 04” (RF-91958) downed near Chernihiv, pilot KIA on ground after successfully ejecting
  • Su-30SM piloted by Alexei Khasanov, KIA March 5 per obituary
  • Su-25SM piloted by Lt. Col Oleg Chervov, KIA March 7 per obituary
  • Su-25SM “Red 10” (RF-91969) from 18th Attack Aviation Regiment downed March 9 pilot KIA in crash
  • Su-30SM “Red 60” (RF-81771) of 14th FAR downed at 19,600 while attacking Balaklia near Izium, possibly March 29. Pilot Lt. Col. Sergei Kosik ejected and was captured.
  • Su-34 “Red 43” (RF-95858) of the 559th Bomber Aviation Regiment, downed in Berdyansk district, Zaporizhzhia around April 22

Key: Fighter Aviation Regiment (FAR); Attack Aviation Regiment (AAR)

It’s not certain any of these were lost in air-to-air combat, especially as ground-based air defenses appear responsible for the lion’s share of losses. But given the circumstances of beyond-visual-range air-to-air combat, aerial kills may be less likely to be visually documented.

There are other prominent claims that don’t pass scrutiny. An Il-76MD transport plane full of paratroopers was reported shot down near Vasylkiv by an Su-27 on Feb. 25—but no wreckage was ever found.

Another video supposedly shows a dogfight between a Ukrainian and Russian Su-25 (with the latter downed) but likely just shows two Ukrainian Su-25s returning to base, one releasing defensive flares.

Beyond fixed-wing

While outside the scope of this survey, fixed-wing aircraft aren’t the only concern of air-to-air combat.

Ukrainian jets have successfully downed Russian cruise missiles hurled at Ukrainian cities, and been employed to hunt Russian surveillance drones, using by preference R-27T heat-seeking medium-range missiles. Russia also claims its fighters have hunted Ukrainian drones, particularly its notoriously effective Bayraktar UCAVs.

Attack and transport helicopters are also valuable and highly vulnerable targets of opportunity for faster fixed-wing aircraft. Notably, an Su-35 was recorded attempting to gun down a Ukrainian Mi-14 utility helicopter over Odessa Bay, only to miss. Subsequently, it downed the chopper with a missile, killing a high-ranking naval officer.


It’s essential not to over-extrapolate from an incomplete dataset drawing on deeply selection-biased sources. However, it does suggest the technical advantages of Russian fighters (especially long-range radars and fire-and-forget missiles) are working in their favor.

Nonetheless, both sides’ aviation operations are geographically constrained by the robust ground-based air defenses of the other. On the balance, that means Russia’s air force can’t press its advantage into Ukrainian-defended airspace to claim air superiority. That allows Ukraine’s air force to continue flying and impose costs on a foe with a larger number of more advanced warplanes.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National InterestNBC, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor.  He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  You can follow his articles on Twitter.

Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News,, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.