Washington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & Security
Washington, DC 20001


Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US intelligence expected a ferocious attack by Moscow, which would immediately activate the enormous Russian air force that its military had prepared in order to dominate Ukraine’s skies. 

However, the first six days have defied predictions, with Moscow acting significantly more cautiously with its air force, to the point that US officials are baffled as to what is motivating Russia’s apparent risk-aversion. 

“They’re not necessarily willing to take high risks with their own aircraft and their own pilots,” a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Despite being vastly outmatched in terms of raw numbers and firepower by Russia’s military, Ukraine’s air force is still flying and its air defenses are still considered effective – a reality that military analysts find perplexing. 

Analysts anticipated the Russian military to try to eliminate Ukraine’s air force and air defenses shortly after the war’s first salvos on February 24. 

That would have been “the natural and generally anticipated next step, as seen in practically every military war since 1938,” said the RUSI think-tank in London in “The Mysterious Case of the Missing Russian Air Force.” 

Instead, Ukrainian air force fighter planes continue to fly low-level, defensive counter-air and ground-attack missions. Russia continues to fly in disputed airspace.

Ukrainian troops equipped with surface-to-air missiles can threaten Russian aircraft and endanger Russian pilots attempting to reinforce ground forces. 

“There’s a lot of stuff they’re doing that’s perplexing,” said Rob Lee, a Russian military specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

He predicted that the conflict would begin with “maximum use of force.” 

“Because every day it goes on there’s a cost and the risk goes up. And they’re not doing that and it just is really hard to explain for any realistic reason.”

The uncertainty about how Russia has utilized its air force comes as President Joe Biden’s administration rejects Kyiv’s proposal for a no-fly zone, which might lead to a direct clash with Russia, whose objectives for its air force are unknown.

Military specialists have seen a lack of coordination between the Russian air force and ground military formations, with many Russian columns of troops being ordered forward beyond the reach of their own air defense protection. 

As a result, Russian soldiers are exposed to attacks from Ukrainian forces, particularly those recently outfitted with Turkish drones and anti-tank missiles from the United States and the United Kingdom. 

David Deptula, a retired three-star general in the United States Air Force who formerly commanded the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, expressed astonishment that Russia did not push more to establish air superiority from the outset.

“The Russians are discovering that coordinating multi-domain operations is not easy,” Deptula told Reuters. “And that they are not as good as they presumed they were.”

While the Russians have underperformed, Ukraine’s military has outperformed expectations thus far. 

Ukraine’s experience in the previous eight years of conflict with Russian-backed rebel troops in the east has been characterized by static trench warfare akin to World War One. 

Russia’s military, on the other hand, gained battle experience in Syria, where they intervened on President Bashar al-side Assad’s and displayed some ability to combine ground moves with air and drone assaults. 

According to analysts, Ukraine’s ability to maintain flying air force planes is a visible indication of the country’s resilience in the face of assault and has served as a morale booster for both its own military and the Ukrainian people.

It has also resulted in the mythologizing of the Ukrainian air force, including a story of a Ukrainian jet fighter who allegedly single-handedly downed six Russian planes, nicknamed “The Ghost of Kyiv” online. 

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Biden led a standing ovation in favor of Ukrainians, applauding their tenacity and criticizing Putin for believing he could just “roll into Ukraine” unchallenged. 

“Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined. He met the Ukrainian people,” Biden said.

The US thinks that Russia is utilizing more than 75 planes in its invasion of Ukraine, according to a senior US official.

Officials assessed that Russia had potentially ready hundreds of thousands of aircraft in its air force for a Ukraine mission before to the invasion. However, a senior US source declined to estimate how many Russian military aircraft, including attack helicopters, would still be available and outside Ukraine on Tuesday. 

Both sides are suffering setbacks.

Leave A Comment

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up to receive latest news, updates, promotions, and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.
No, thanks