Last week, Slovakia became the first country to donate a sophisticated Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft gun system to Ukraine, as leaders in Kiev stress the need for more and better air defense weapons to blunt Russia’s punitive air bombardment.
But the Slovak system alone is not enough to rebuild Ukraine’s damaged anti-aircraft network. While Kiev prepares to face Russian President Vladimir Putin’s renewed offensive in the eastern Donbas region, Ukrainian leaders still stress the need to defend their airspace and the importance of Western support to do so.
This is confirmed by the Slovak Ministry of Defense Newsweek that it had sent an S-300 system to Ukraine. The transfer was facilitated by Germany and the Netherlands, who sent Slovakia US-manufactured Patriot anti-aircraft fire systems to free the S-300, which Slovakia inherited after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993.
“We believe that this system will help save as many innocent Ukrainians as possible from further aggression by Putin’s regime,” the Slovak Defense Ministry said in a statement released last week.
Ukraine is believed to have had about 100 S-300 batteries before the invasion began, a total of about 300 launchers. Open source figures indicate that it has lost at least 21 of the launchers – the equivalent of seven batteries. Newsweek has contacted the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense to request a comment.
This seemingly constant, albeit slow, erosion of Ukraine’s anti-aircraft stock is of great concern to leaders in Kiev. The longer the fighting continues, the more launchers will be destroyed. Ukraine will also eventually run out of missiles.
Russia has already claimed to have destroyed the Slovak S-300 in a missile attack in the Dnipro. The office of the Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger rejected the allegation as “disinformation”.
Since the invasion began, Ukrainian officials have called on Western countries to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a request repeatedly rejected by NATO for fear of direct confrontation with Russian forces.
NATO nations also confused a planned delivery of Russian-made fighter jets to Ukraine, leading to frustration in Kiev. Providing long-range anti-aircraft systems would be a way to reduce the Russian threat with less risk of escalation.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba traveled to Brussels to meet with NATO foreign ministers on Thursday. Among his armament requests were “heavy air defense systems” such as the S-300.
Greece and Bulgaria also have S-300s that could theoretically be sent to Ukraine. But doing so would undermine these nations’ own military readiness. Neither Athens nor Sofia have yet shown any willingness to transfer their S-300 to Ukraine.
The failure to eliminate Ukraine’s anti-aircraft fire systems was a conspicuous one of Russia’s armed forces. Ukraine’s air force, long- and medium-range anti-aircraft systems and portable shoulder-fired surface-to-air weapons have all eroded the Russian air force. Ukraine claims to have shot down 154 planes and 137 helicopters since the invasion began on 24 February.
Ukraine has received about 25,000 portable anti-aircraft weapons since the start of the invasion, Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday. The Ukrainians, he said, are “extraordinarily grateful” for this support.
But these shoulder-fired weapons cannot reach the heights of great height that the S-300 and other similar systems can. Nor can they intercept Russian ballistic missiles that have done so much damage to Ukrainian military and civilian targets as well as infrastructure.
The better Ukraine’s long-range anti-aircraft gun umbrella, the lower Russian planes will be forced to fly. This makes them more vulnerable to portable weapons carried by Ukrainian land forces.
Russian planes still enjoy greater freedom in the air than their Ukrainian opponents. Last week, Russian planes flew about 250 excursions a day, according to the Pentagon. Ukraine’s forces, meanwhile, have generally been limited to between five and 10 expeditions.
Recent Russian aviation activity has been centered in the east and south, with Moscow troops believed to be planning a major offensive in hopes of capturing the Donbas.
Russia’s advance to the east has been limited. Its troops have had greater success in the south, establishing a land corridor from the annexed Crimean peninsula to the occupied Donbas.
“Russia has concentrated a lot of aircraft in that area,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s former defense minister. Newsweek of the eastern front. Air defense reinforcements would “obviously” make a difference to the military balance in the east, Zagorodnyuk said, if Ukraine can provide them in time.
Andriy Ryzhenko, a retired naval captain and former deputy chief of staff of the Ukrainian navy, told Newsweek that the Slovak S-300 will not make the big difference alone. “But it helps anyway,” he said.
Ryzhenko said Russia’s air force is Ukraine’s biggest problem. “Air strikes are their only dominance,” he explained. “It compensates for their loss of ground,” he added, referring to Ukraine’s successful counterattack across all Russian axis of invasion.
A Russian victory in the east could turn the war in Putin’s favor. Success in the Donbas could even give Russia a springboard to once again threaten Kiev and the rest of Ukraine’s coastline. Another messy defeat like the one inflicted on the Russians outside Kiev would further weaken Putin’s position and narrow his chances.