- Ground forces successfully intercept many Russian missiles
- Fighter aircraft play a complementary but limited role
- Hundreds of missiles and drones targeted Ukrainian power grid
- Moscow says the tactic is legit in its ‘special operation’
- Kyiv says it amounts to a war crime and demands more weapons from the West
KYIV, Dec 22 (Reuters) – As Russian cruise missiles headed for their target this month, a Ukrainian pilot chased them in an old Soviet MiG-29 fighter jet and snagged two of them. between them, but couldn’t shoot: they were approaching a big city and it was too risky.
He said he passed the targets on to Ukrainian air defenses on the ground who shot them down, as they have launched hundreds of missiles since October, mitigating the impact of a Russian air campaign aimed at destroying the country’s power grid.
“Fortunately for us, they made it through,” the 29-year-old pilot, whose code name is Juice, told Reuters, describing the Dec. 5 incident.
Such skirmishes are common in the skies over Ukraine, and their results directly impact the lives of millions of people who are left without heat, electricity or running water in the freezing winter if the defenses fail.
Ukraine calls these attacks a war crime, aimed at intimidating innocent civilians. Russia says the power grid is a legitimate military target in its “special operation”.
The Pentagon said Russia’s missile strikes were partly designed to deplete Kyiv’s air defense stockpiles and ultimately to dominate the skies above the country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy traveled to Washington on Wednesday to seek “weapons, weapons and more weapons,” including a Patriot missile battery that would bolster the country’s defenses against incoming missiles and drones.
Attacks on energy targets disrupt daily life, including vital services like hospitals and schools, and threaten to further cripple the economy. It is already expected to decline by at least a third this year as shops and heavy industry struggle to keep the lights on.
Russia has launched nine large-scale airstrikes – typically firing more than 70 missiles at once – since Oct. 10, knocking out electricity, running water, mobile signals and heating.
According to Reuters calculations based on Ukrainian data, Ukraine’s missile downing record ranges from around 50% to 85%, with the most recent attacks nearing the upper end.
After Friday’s most recent attack, he said he shot down 60 of 76 incoming missiles.
Still, those that pass inflict serious damage. Ukraine has been forced to implement emergency power cuts across the country, and much of the Kyiv region has been without electricity and water for several days.
‘CAT AND MOUSE’
Scattered across a country twice the size of Italy, air defense units are deployed mostly near cities and key infrastructure, while fighter pilots like Juice cover the vast spaces in between.
It’s a big challenge. Juice says he didn’t shoot down a single drone or missile in his MiG-29, which rolled off the assembly line before Ukraine gained independence from Soviet Moscow in 1991.
“Our jets are not capable enough to do that effectively,” said the pilot, who is constantly in high readiness at a location in central Ukraine that he would not disclose.
He said it was difficult to spot incoming targets with old radar, especially low-flying, slow-moving Shahed drones that look like moving trucks on the radar screen.
On some occasions, such as December 5, Juice was unable to shoot targets because he was too close to densely populated areas.
It is ground-based air defense units that shoot down the vast majority of missiles and drones, not aging warplanes, air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said.
“Missiles and drones fly along waterways to get as low as possible and disappear from radar. If they’re low enough, they just disappear… Then they reappear; it’s a game of tag and mouse,” Ihnat said.
After major missile barrages, a multi-day pause tends to follow as Russian intelligence assesses what has been hit and what has been missed, tracks the repositioning of Ukrainian air defenses and looks for weak spots to exploit. , Ukrainian officials told Reuters.
“The air defenses don’t stay in one place: we can’t cover the whole country…” Ihnat said.
For Ukraine, intelligence gathering by domestic and Western spy agencies plays a major role in preparing for Russian airstrikes, Denys Smazhnyi, a senior air defense training official, told Reuters.
“So we usually know what objects are under attack, we can build around those objects a kind of air defense,” he said.
DECREASE IN MISSILE STOCKS
Ukraine’s military intelligence chief said Russia may only have enough high-precision weapons for a few more major airstrikes.
But Ukrainian officials also acknowledge that their own stockpiles of defensive weapons are dwindling as the invasion nears the 10-month mark.
Despite Western supplies of air defense systems to Ukraine, including sophisticated American NASAMS and German IRIS-T systems, Soviet-era systems form the heart of Ukraine’s air defenses, Ihnat said.
“Our Soviet air defense system is running out – that is, the S-300 and the BUK, which are the basis of it. We cannot maintain it indefinitely because all the unique spare parts of these systems are made in Russia,” he added.
Western air defense systems supplied to Ukraine have worked well, but supplies fall far short of needs, according to the two air force officials.
“Russian equipment is getting old, we are losing missiles. I am not saying that they will run out in a few days or weeks… It will always depend on the intensity of Russian attacks,” Smazhnyi said. .
On Dec. 7, Russia launched more than 1,000 missiles and rockets at Ukraine’s power grid, its operator said.
On Wednesday, the United States announced $1.85 billion in additional military aid for Ukraine, including a transfer of the Patriot air defense system. Smazhnyi said such systems would provide protection against ballistic missiles to which Ukraine is now exposed.
Ihnat said IRIS-T production was already at maximum capacity, so Ukraine should focus on getting as many NASAMS supplies as possible.
“We almost went through a month of winter, we have one more, then February, which is short. I think we will survive. But it is better to provide missiles than generators,” he said.
Juice, who is fluent in English, said many of his Air Force peers are taking English lessons in their spare time in anticipation of Ukraine one day receiving Western aircraft such as the American F-16 multirole fighter.
There were no signs that an F-16 delivery was imminent or agreed, and Ihnat said the pilots were acting on their own.
“Everyone understands that sooner or later we will switch to F-16s or another type of aircraft and knowledge of English will be required.”
Reporting by Tom Balmforth; edited by Mike Collett-White and Tomasz Janowski
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