Michael Peck

Apr 10, 2023

Business Insider

Ukraine and Russia are fighting a grinding battle on the ground around Bakhmut. Russian aircraft, some operated by mercenaries, are also being used in fighting around the city. Those jets are used sparingly and often at night, likely to test Ukraine’s defenses, an expert said.

After months of struggling to capture the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Russian ground troops still haven’t been able to wrest all of the city away from tenacious Ukrainian defenders.

One reason is lack of air support. Despite large numbers of advanced aircraft and munitions, Russian airpower has proven marginal in Ukraine, where the battles have mostly been between infantry, tanks, and artillery.

Yet the Russian Air Force is still conducting airstrikes with limited success, including around Bakhmut.

“I don’t think the Russian Air Force is that effective,” Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses think tank, said during a March 9 episode of the Geopolitics Decanted podcast.

Russian pilots are flying at night to avoid Ukrainian man-portable air-defense systems — or MANPADS, a term for shoulder-fired missiles like the US-made Stinger — that have had some success in downing Russian aircraft and helicopters, Kofman said.

Unlike longer-range surface-to-air missile systems that have radar to detect targets, MANPADS are usually heat-seeking missiles operated by ground troops who have to spot aircraft with the naked eye before firing. While this makes the system light enough to be carried by a foot soldier, it also makes detecting and identifying aircraft at night harder.

Russian aircraft “are bombing in Bakhmut, particularly at night so that they can avoid most types of MANPADS. It’s only one particular MANPAD system, I think, that Ukraine has that’s effective at night,” said Kofman, who returned from a trip to Ukraine, which included a visit to the Bakhmut combat zone, in early March.

“So the Russian Air Force has been making bombing runs, and even while I was there, I could hear sort of the distant echo of Russian jets,” Kofman added during the podcast, noting that Ukrainian jets are also still active but in a limited role.

In addition to supporting ground forces, Russia may be probing to see if Ukraine still has enough radar-guided anti-aircraft missiles, such as those fired by the S-300, a Soviet-era system still used by both Russia and Ukraine.

“It’s clear that they are pushing more airpower into the fight for Bakhmut, and they’re also testing to what extent Ukraine has radar-guided air-defense still up and available,” Kofman said.

“Because they know that availability of ammunition, basically missiles, for radar-guided air-defense is a problem for Ukraine and has been since October.”

“You can see that the Russian airpower is kind of playing in the margins but looking for ways to push itself into the fight,” Kofman added.

Some of those Russian pilots may actually be working for Wagner Group, a private military contractor that has earned a reputation for brutality in Ukraine. The mercenary group has become notorious for using criminals freed from Russian prisons in return for agreeing to fight in Ukraine.

While those criminals are barely trained and frequently used as cannon fodder in attacks on Ukrainian forces, Wagner also fields professional contract soldiers whose lives are risked more sparingly and who receive more battlefield support, including from Russia’s military.

Former military pilots working for Wagner would fall under the latter category. A retired Russian air force general named Kanamat Botashev may have been one of them.

Botashev was shot down and killed after he volunteered to fly an Su-25 attack jet in Ukraine. In June 2022, a downed Russian Su-25 attack jet pilot told his Ukrainian captors that he was employed by Wagner.

Ukraine would not be the first conflict for Wagner’s aerial mercenaries. The company reportedly sent pilots and mechanics to support one faction in the Libyan civil war. US Africa Command said in May 2020 that Russia had sent at least 14 MiG-29 and several Su-24 fighters to Libya to support Wagner Group mercenaries.

The top US Air Force commander in Africa at the time described the pilots of those jets as “guys that may be retired” and “guys that they’re finding out there who have flown these types of aircraft” and said there was concern about their proficiency, including “their ability to put weapons on the appropriate targets.”

Recruiting experienced former military pilots would not be a surprising move for Russian forces in Ukraine. In addition to its other struggles, Russia’s air force has been plagued by a shortage of fully trained pilots.

The shortfall is so dire that the air force has committed instructor pilots to battle, which will only deprive its flight-training schools of skilled teachers for rookie pilots.

“With a military culture that assigns the most dangerous missions to the most experienced crews, attrition in the VKS has fallen disproportionately on this cadre, reducing the overall effectiveness of the force and its ability to train new pilots,” researchers at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute said in a 2022 report on the first five months of the war.


Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.