Pro-Russian militants have always had generous access to a range of Russian weapons—armored vehicles, battle tanks, anti-tank weapons, small arms—including weapon systems that are used by the Russian armed forces, but not by its Ukrainian counterpart. While Russia once tried to retain plausible deniability by supplying weapon systems shared with the Ukrainian armed forces, thereby allowing their proxies to claim they had pilfered them, Moscow has given up on these pretenses. Pro-Russian fighters and Russian military in the Donbass openly flaunt their possession of Buk-M1 anti-aircraft systems, T-72 B tanks, certain models of Kalashnikov assault rifles, and other weapons systems that are used by Russia and not Ukraine. Pro-Russian fighters have matched the equipment of the Ukrainian military, and more so. However, the Ukrainian military has always possessed a weapon system hitherto out of the hands of their Russian-supported opponents. Air power.
It’s true that the Ukrainian Air Force has only played a limited role in the armed conflict in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. While Ukrainian fighter jets and transport carriers were used to some effect in the beginning of the conflict, the militants’ acquisition of various air defense systems from Russia, including the Buk missile system that is likely responsible for the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 tragedy, eliminated any advantage that Kyiv once had from the air. Following pro-Russian attacks on Ukrainian military aircraft, most notoriously the shoot down of Ukrainian transport carrier in Luhansk that killed all 49 passengers in mid-June, the conflict remained almost entirely on the ground. Ukraine’s air superiority became obsolete.
Recently, however, the pro-Russian militants of the self-declared “republics” in southeast Ukraine have announced their intent to build their own air force. In mid-January, leaders of the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic”, told the strongly pro-Kremlin Life News network that they would build an air force. While speculation about the possibility of Russia introducing aircraft onto the pro-Russian side of the conflict has existed for some time, the Life News segment added to worries previously expressed by some experts that the creation of a rebel air force might provide a cover for Russian air power. The introduction of aircraft on the side of anti-Kyiv fighters would be a drastic move away even from the ever more flimsy notions of Russian plausible deniability, with passing off Russian combat jets (not to mention pilots) as captured hardware from the Ukrainians a tough sell for even the most hardened Putin sycophant.
While announcement of the creation of an air force in Luhansk might have been simple tough talk in an environment of war, there is ample evidence that the pro-Russian militants, and the Ukrainians, are taking the prospect seriously. On January 26, the head of the press center of the military headquarters of Ukraine, Vladyslav Seleznev, announced that Ukrainian forces had destroyed several aircraft controlled by pro-Russian forces. Speaking to Ukrainian publication, Ukrayinska Pravda, Seleznev announced that in an undisclosed location of the “the zone of the ATO, a special operation was carried out that destroyed [militant-controlled] aircraft.” The militants “planned to use them against our forces which are located in the ATO zone,” stated Seleznev. The Ministry of Defense announced that Ukrainian forces specifically destroyed a handful of non-combat trainer aircraft and four Soviet-era Mi-24 military helicopters. If the report is true, it would indicate that the Ukrainian military is very worried about the possibility of Russian aircraft entering Ukraine under the guise of a rebel air force. While it’s unlikely the destroyed aircraft in militant-controlled territory were operational or of much military value, Moscow could have used the existence of a small air force to transfer functioning aircraft to Donbas.
If Russia transfers military aircraft to their clients in Eastern Ukraine, it could signal a game-changer in the conflict. Not only would the move be the most blatant step yet toward completely undeniable support for the pro-Russian fighters, but could assist in a larger militant offensive deeper into Ukraine. While Ukrainian air power is largely worthless in militant-controlled areas of Donbas, Ukrainian aircraft could play a more important role in the event of a major offensive, especially if Russia decides to create the dreaded “land corridor” to Crimea or beyond. In return, Russian-supported air cover for its ground forces and proxies in Donbas would become an extremely valuable asset.
While the announcement of the creation of a rebel air force might very well have been done with the approval of Moscow, Ukraine certainly isn’t taking any risks regarding the possibility that Russian aircraft could be introduced into the conflict. Thus, claims that Ukrainian forces have destroyed a militarily useless stockpile of aircraft express their fears that Russia might once again raise the stakes of this asymmetrical war in a drastic fashion. Stay tuned.
Chris Dunnett (@ccdunnett), Ukraine Crisis Media Center