KYIV, Ukraine – President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said recently that the Ukrainian military shot down its 200th Russian plane – a figure few would have believed before the war began.
“Russia has not lost so many planes in any war for decades,” Zelensky said in his nightly video message last Friday.
This number cannot be independently verified. Yet it underscores one of the most striking facets of the war: instead of dominating the skies as expected, Russian pilots are so vulnerable that they hesitate to enter Ukrainian airspace.
Here are some of the reasons why Russia underperformed so much in the air, while Ukraine exceeded expectations.
Q. At the start of the war, the consensus was that Russia would conduct major air operations and potentially deliver a fatal blow to Ukraine. What happened?
To answer this question, I took a short drive outside Kyiv today. Russia was so confident in its air power that on the first day of the war, February 24, it sent about two dozen helicopters loaded with paratroopers to take Hostomel Airport – a military and cargo airport – unless 10 miles northwest of the capital.
Russia planned to secure the base and then call in many more troops to land there, with the intention of seizing kyiv within days.
But the Russians were pushed back after several days of heavy fighting. The airport is a graveyard of burnt-out buildings and charred vehicles piled on top of each other. But the Ukrainian troops are at their base, civilians are combing through the ravaged city. This episode set the tone for Russian air operations well below expectations.
Q. It was just a battle. Russia has many more warplanes and much more modern aircraft than Ukraine. Why doesn’t this translate into a Russian military advantage over time?
It is believed that the Russians have at least 15 military aircraft for every Ukrainian aircraft, and some estimates indicate that the balance is even more skewed.
Yet, from the start, Russian warplanes and helicopters have been fired upon from the sky. Russian pilots quickly became risk averse. Sometimes they briefly venture into the air over Ukraine to briefly fire their weapons – but there are many instances where they fire from afar, never entering Ukraine.
“They stay over the Black Sea, or they stay in Russia and fire guided missiles. They’re just not comfortable flying in Ukraine for an extended period of time,” Professor Phillips Payson O’ said. Brien, a military expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “That means they can drop bombs, they can launch missiles, but they can’t control airspace in battle.”
Q. It seems Ukraine is doing most of the damage from the ground with their air defense systems. Is that the case?
Yes, but their air defenses were relatively limited, especially at the start of the war.
The Americans helped with a large number of Stinger missiles. A single soldier fires these missiles from his shoulder, and they are very effective in shooting down low-flying helicopters.
But perhaps Ukraine’s most underrated weapon in this war is the S-300 surface-to-air missile system. This is a huge Soviet-era air defense system that fires missiles from the ground that shoot down jet fighters.
Ukraine has a relatively small number – and it is not said how many. Russia has apparently eliminated some of them – and desperately wants to eliminate them all, but has been unable to do so.
“These are extremely important for Ukraine,” Obrien said. “They don’t threaten all Russian flights. They can’t threaten all flights. But they can make pilots nervous enough that wherever they want to fly there is a potential threat.”
Q. How are these developments playing out on the main battlefield in eastern Ukraine?
If Russia controlled the skies, its planes could hang around, loiter over the combat zone and target Ukrainian troops whenever they saw them. This would make Ukrainian ground forces very vulnerable and they would have to constantly worry about being hit from the air.
But the Ukrainians were able to move much more freely than expected at the start of the war.
Russia is still bombing from long range and inflicting great destruction. But that’s not as accurate or efficient as having aircraft directly above the battlefield for long periods of time, where they can adapt to the situation on the ground.
In the capital kyiv, Russian troops were within 10 miles of the city during the first weeks of the war and airstrikes were frequent. Now life is returning to normal in many ways – stores are open, people are on the streets, traffic jams are becoming commonplace.
The locals still follow the war closely, but the fear of a Russian attack has greatly diminished in the capital.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent for NPR. follow him @gregmyre1.