In 3 to 6 months, Kyiv will receive F-16s, Russian pilots will keep off Ukraine’s borders

Russia still cannot put up with the loss of its Wunderwaffe — Kinzhal missiles, so it will have to change its shelling tactics.

The recent days have seen the shame of the air and air defence forces of the aggressor country — the Russian Federation. In particular, Russia managed to lose at least four aircraft and their entire flight crews within hours, and suffered a public defeat with the downing of its most vaunted Kinzhal missile. In addition, the Russian air defence forces in the occupied territories of Ukraine also missed several strikes in the deep rear — Luhansk and Donetsk, so that Russia suffered significant losses in manpower and equipment.

In an interview with Glavred, the co-director of foreign policy and international security programmes of Razumkov Centre Oleksiy Melnyk told us how Russia would respond to the destruction of depots behind Luhansk and Donetsk, whether it is realistic to shoot down a Storm Shadow missile, when Ukraine can get F-16 aircraft, and how drones from Great Britain will help Ukraine.

“Cotton” sounds are heard in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. In particular, in recent days there have been explosions in Luhansk. How will this affect Russia's defence capabilities, given Ukraine's impending counteroffensive?

The fact that "cotton" occurs so far from the front line, more than the firing range of, say, HIMARS indicates that Ukraine has more means of destruction that allow it to hit Russian targets in the operational rear. One Israeli military expert called them "tasty targets."

Until recently, Russia was confident that in Luhansk it could neglect certain security measures and concentrate depots or personnel. But the latest explosions in Luhansk hit their targets precisely at the places of concentration of personnel or depots with equipment and ammunition. In addition to the direct consequences, the destruction of manpower or equipment, this also has a long-term impact, because now Russia will have to take measures to somehow neutralize this threat. That is, now the Russians will be forced to disperse these formations, that is, break them into smaller ones, or pull them away. But all this takes time and money. So, the further the supplies are from the front line, the longer it will take them to be delivered to the units for use in combat operations, and the less the intensity of firing will be.

Therefore, the ability of Ukraine to strike at a greater depth will have both an immediate effect and, in the long run, a positive effect on the ability of AFU to conduct offensive operations.

Does this give us an opportunity to launch strikes on the territory of Russia? The statement about the transfer of Storm Shadow missiles went with a map where the range of these missiles reached at least Rostov.

Based on the norms of international law, any military facility of the aggressor country is a legitimate target for destruction. That is, Ukraine has every right to strike military facilities or civilian infrastructure used for the war. There is only the factor of political constraints. Our partners have repeatedly called, and the Ukrainian authorities have assured them, that the weapons transferred to Ukraine will not be used against the recognized territory of the Russian Federation. Of course, this does not apply to the annexed territories, including the Crimean peninsula.

But if Ukraine strikes them with Ukrainian-made missiles, there should be no conflicts or even discussions with partners. In principle, this is not just a theoretical question, because if you look at Russian media reports, the border territories of Kursk and Bryansk regions are under fire almost every day.

Although the reports from the Russian side talk about hitting civilian houses and the alleged terrorizing of the Russian population, in reality these villages have been abandoned for months. People were forcibly evicted, but if Ukraine strikes at these points, then, of course, there are not empty houses.

There is no question of any "red lines" or uncontrolled escalation. The Russian territory, or rather military facilities on its territory, are already under fire. There is no difference between barrel artillery, mortars or rockets, but the effective range will be greater. Therefore, it is a matter of time and taking into account the wishes of our partners.

So, if this does not concern the occupied territories, we can strike the Crimean bridge, if I got you right?

Absolutely. There is a map of the internationally recognized borders of Russia. These borders, no matter how Putin tries to joke that Russia does not end anywhere, end before the beginning of the Crimean bridge. That is, the entire bridge is a territory illegally annexed by the Russian Federation. The same applies to the territory of the separate areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

As for the Russian claims about shooting down such missiles, it is worth mentioning that Russia previously claimed the destruction of Western weapons systems even before they appeared in Ukraine. Just recall their statements about the number of the hit HIMARS, although recently there was even an official confirmation that at that time not a single system was hit. If we talk about the destruction of Storm Shadows, the Russian Wunderwaffe immediately comes to mind — the Kinzhal missile, and the fact that the Russian Federation still cannot put up with the fact that it was destroyed. Such is the nature of an antidote, because at a certain point a modern system gives an advantage, but it is temporary. The enemy develops technical or tactical countermeasures. Yes, this missile is a difficult target to destroy, but it is impossible to say that it cannot be destroyed at all, because the question is how quickly the enemy will be able to adapt to it.

You mentioned Bryansk region, so I want to use this opportunity and ask you — how would the incident with Russian aircraft there affect the Russian military's ability to strike Ukraine? Roughly speaking, how much will this prevent the Russians from flying up to our borders?

There is no information, who is responsible for this case. The official Ukrainian position of not recognizing the involvement of the AFU is absolutely correct, because even if Ukraine is really involved in it, no one will object to it. The probability that it was the Russian air defence forces that could have done this should not be ruled out either, because they could well have fired "friendly fire" at their aircraft.

How will this affect the future tactics of the Russian air force? It is obvious that the crews or fellows of the fallen pilots will try not to repeat their fate. I don’t know how they will do it, whether by changing tactics or routes, but they will definitely take it into account.

If earlier they were sure that they could drop a bomb 30–40 km from the front line or the state border with impunity and nothing would threaten them, now they will think much earlier. So, because of this, the depth of damage to the Ukrainian territory will decrease, along with the accuracy (although the Russians used to talk about "high-precision" weapons). They will drop bombs, cause damage, but most likely, it will be just a trick, because their main task will be to avoid being hit by Ukrainian air defences. Even though Ukraine denies its authorship.

Such cases may occur in other areas of the front — will it be possible to drive the Russians away in this way?

Theoretically, yes. A purely mathematical calculation is in effect here. Ukrainian air defence systems have a certain firing range, and it is clear that these systems must be deployed as close as possible to the front line, but so as not to become a target for a Russian strike. Russia, despite all its problems, has extremely large capacities. For example, in addition to the A-50 AWACS aircraft, which we heard a lot about during its operation from Belarus, Russia has a number of other aircraft working as observation points. All of them are dangerous Russian weapons, which allow it to see the territory of Ukraine at a depth of up to 500 km. Therefore, it is much easier to perform this task where active hostilities are taking place. If we look at Bryansk region, there are no active hostilities there, and probably less attention was paid to its defence. If we are talking about Ukrainian air defence, then there the task was to inconspicuously deploy the system and then to redeploy it. It is easier than in the area of Bakhmut, where the main observation and firing assets of the Russian Federation are concentrated.

But it is theoretically possible, and it is obvious that our military is planning such operations. When there are conditions for hitting targets at a greater depth, they will surely take advantage of them. The conditions include, first of all, the technical specifications of the systems themselves. The greater the range is, the more efficiently and safely they can be used against the enemy.

A situation similar to Chernihiv and Sumy regions is also observed on the southern border. After these aircraft were shot down, the Russians began to actively launch drones from the southern direction. If Russia theoretically has problems with aircraft and pilots, how will it replace them?

First, Russia still has many planes and pilots. Another question is their level of training and readiness for such operations. In this case, it was a group of 4 or 5 aircraft. From the very beginning of the invasion, the Russian Aerospace Forces did not demonstrate the ability to conduct modern large-scale operations. And it is unlikely that anything has changed, because the problem is obviously not in pilots or squadrons. The problem is much broader, because Russia did not prepare for such operations, as earlier it was simply not necessary. And planning such operations takes much more time and requires people who know how to do it.

Therefore, there is no real deficiency. But if we talk about the changes in tactics that have been observed in the recent months, Russia has largely learned to use drones effectively, to launch missiles, even those that do not carry explosives and serve as false targets. In addition to the direct targeting and hitting targets on the territory of Ukraine, with these attacks Russia is trying to expose the Ukrainian air defence system and strike at it. The more missiles are fired by the AUF at Shaheds, the sooner they will run out of missiles by the time a Russian manned plane arrives. This is probably what they hope for in the Russian Federation.

If Russia, as you said, does not currently have that many trained pilots, how long will it take to train such pilots?

What is the difference between a strike aircraft pilot and a civilian or even a military transport aircraft pilot? What makes the concept of "piloting an aircraft" — takeoff, en route flight, landing, etc. — is only the initial element of training for a fighterbomber pilot. Further, all this must be done automatically, because a military pilot is an extremely complex type of operational activity that requires, in addition to individual training, also group training. Plus a lot of different skills are needed to overcome the air defence system, to interact with other crews.

That is, training a pilot is, relatively speaking, 10 percent of what training a military pilot requires. An hour of flight of a modern aircraft, each flight of a combat aircraft costs tens of thousands of dollars. The more complex and modern the aircraft is, the more expensive the training will be. If we imagine that Russia has unlimited resources, then there is a certain load that the pilot can master within a certain period of time. These are the factors that do not allow Russia to build up its potential in the foreseeable future — weeks or months. All this refers to those pilots who are already in service and can at least lift the plane into the air and land it safely.

If Russia is determined for a protracted war and starts recruiting cadets and training pilots, then it will take 5–7 years. So, most likely, those cadets may never see the fronts of Russia's war against Ukraine.

There were reports about the transfer of long-range drones with a range of more than 200 km to Ukraine by the UK in the coming weeks. How much will they strengthen us?

Undoubtedly, this is a significant strengthening of Ukraine's capabilities not only in defence but also in the offensive. If a modern drone is equipped with a modern complex navigation system, it can hit targets with great accuracy even despite electronic countermeasures (because we know that Russia has a powerful electronic warfare system). This will help Ukraine a lot.

There were also reports about the beginning of AFU pilot training on F-16 aircraft in the UK. When can we theoretically count on the transfer of these aircraft and how will they change the situation at the front?

If I am not mistaken, this is the first practical signal about the training of Ukrainian pilots by partners using F-16s. This is especially pleasant to hear it from the British, because since the beginning of the full-scale invasion they have been extremely responsible about their statements. Therefore, it can be assumed that in the near future, as today is the middle of May, Ukrainian pilots will begin practical and theoretical training. Modern training equipment allows training a pilot on the ground for piloting an aircraft. For example, the co-pilot for a civilian "Boeing", who must also be able to land the plane if necessary. It's not cheap, but much cheaper than training on a plane. If there is still no political decision on the transfer of F-16s to Ukraine, it is possible to take a certain financial risk and start preparations in order to shorten the whole process.

The pilots whom Ukraine will send for retraining must be, on the one hand, young enough, and on the other, experienced. The talk we sometimes hear about the training taking a year or two is not relevant to this category of pilots, because intensive training of a flight crew may take about 3-6 months. In addition, there are extra parameters — technical state, logistical issues, airfield network. But if everything is done in parallel, then we can talk about half a year.

And if we don't have F-16s, how will it delay the war end?

In modern warfare, air power is a key factor. Any planned operation always begins with the use of air power. It must ensure the success of land forces, because it prepares the ground for land forces. The military academic community has always believed that without the air arm, it is not worth starting a war at all.

But Russia's war against Ukraine has changed many stereotypes. Russia had a convincing advantage, both quantitative and qualitative, over Ukrainian air force, but Ukraine at least preserved its air power. If we look at the naval component, Ukraine has practically been left without a Navy since the first days of the war, because part of it was destroyed or captured. At the same time, Ukraine, not having a navy, managed to inflict a convincing defeat on Russia at sea and to destroy the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, to liberate the north-western part of the Black Sea, effectively denying Russia the opportunity to conduct operations there and generally to be present in that part. This is probably a unique case in history when a country that does not have a navy was able to defeat a country that possessed a fleet.

The same applies to the air force, to some extent. We are very short of military aircraft, but the fact is that the prospect of obtaining modern aircraft is months at best, so there are means of compensation. We have already talked about drones and missiles. That is, if you know a weak point, you can try to compensate for it with other resources.


Олексій Мельник

Співдиректор програм зовнішньої політики та міжнародної безпеки, координатор міжнародних проектів

Народився в 1962 р. в Хмельницькій області. Закінчив Чернігівське вище військове авіаційне училище льотчиків (1984), Інститут іноземних мов міністерства оборони США (1993), Школу командирів ескадрилій Університету військово-повітряних сил США (1994), Курс управління повітряним рухом військово-повітряних сил США (2001), Королівський коледж оборонних наук Великої Британії (2007).


1980–2001 р. — служба в Збройних Силах, підполковник запасу, учасник миротворчих операцій ООН (1996, 1997). Остання посада в Збройних Силах України — заступник командира авіаційної бази з льотної підготовки.

2001–2004 р. — Центр Разумкова.

2004–2005 р. — ДП «Укроборонсервіс».

2005–2008 р. — Міністерство оборони України, начальник організаційно-аналітичного управління забезпечення роботи міністра оборони України — перший помічник міністра оборони.

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