By Henry Ridgwell
Ukraine urgently needs more air defense systems from the West, according to a new report, which warns that Russia could seek to repeat the tactics it used in Syria to bombard Ukrainian cities from the skies.
The analysis from Britain’s Royal United Services Institute says that in the early days of the invasion in February and March, the skies above Ukraine were largely unprotected as the country’s air defense systems were suppressed by initial Russian attacks.
“During this period, Ukrainian fighter aircraft inflicted some losses on [Russian] aircraft but also took serious casualties due to being totally technologically outmatched and badly outnumbered,” the report says.
After several days, however, Ukraine was able to deploy and activate its air defenses. Since then, Ukrainian forces have shot down dozens of Russian fighter jets, helicopters, other aircraft and missiles, notes report coauthor Justin Bronk.
“The Russian Air Force retains a huge amount of potential firepower. It’s just not being able to use it effectively at the moment because Ukraine is still denying them access to Ukrainian airspace above a very low level, because they still have these surface-to-air missile systems. But Ukrainian stocks of missiles for air defense were not nearly intended to last this long. There’s been very high intensity use for a long time,” Bronk told VOA.
Meanwhile, Russia is using Iranian-made loitering drones and long-range missile strikes to pound Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure. The report says it marks a change in tactics by Russia’s armed forces.
“The latest iteration is a more focused and sustainable bombardment of the Ukrainian electricity grid, blending hundreds of cheap Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 loitering munitions against substations with continued use of cruise and ballistic missiles against larger targets.”
Bronk said the West must not become complacent about the need to urgently bolster Ukrainian air defense capacity.
“The West really needs to focus on delivering additional ammunition and eventually the replacement of some systems with systems we can more easily support — because of course these are Soviet-era systems that we don’t use ourselves in the West,” Bronk added.
Western nations have supplied various air defense systems. Ukraine’s defense minister said Monday his country had received the first NASAMS (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems) developed jointly by the United States and Norway. Kyiv also has taken delivery of Italian-made Aspide surface-to-air missiles.
“The priority No. 1 is air defense systems. Our partners know this very well,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Monday.
Germany sent an Iris-T air defense system last month and is supplying dozens of Gepard anti-aircraft tanks. France has sent its “Crotale” air defense system.
The report authors say Ukraine needs more from the West. Advanced fighter aircraft would create an important deterrent, noted Bronk.
“The provision of Western fighter aircraft will also be a huge boon to Ukraine in terms of being able to keep the Russian Air Force back. The Russian Air Force has been extremely risk-averse throughout this. And so, even a small number of Western fighters equipped with missiles and radars that are able to meet Russian fighters on relatively equal terms … would be a really valuable deterrent force,” Bronk told VOA.
He said the likely consequence of Russia gaining control of the skies is tragically evident.
“We know what happens in Syria when the Russian Air Force is able to attack with relative impunity from medium and higher altitudes: large scale bombardments with a lot of unguided bombs — on not just frontline positions but also besieged cities. We remember Aleppo and Homs.”
Those cities were all but destroyed by Russian and Syrian government air strikes in 2015 and 2016 at the height of the civil war. Tens of thousands of people were killed, forcing a withdrawal of rebel forces.
As Russia’s ground forces are forced back in eastern Ukraine, analysts fear the Kremlin wants to repeat the tactics used in Syria on Ukrainian cities.