Ukraine Situation Report: Are Air Losses Pushing A Shift In Russian Tactics?

Russian airstrikes, especially those involving glide bombs, have dwindled after a spate of recent losses, according to Ukrainian authorities. Just in the past week, Ukraine’s Air Force has claimed to have shot down five Russian combat jets, four Su-34 Fullbacks and a Su-30SM Flanker, over eastern and southern regions of the country and the western end of the Black Sea. Though all of these claims remain unconfirmed, The War Zone had previously highlighted evidence of a shift in focus and asset deployment on the part of Ukrainian air defenders and noted that it could lead to exactly this kind of disruption in Russian air operations.

Ukrainian Air Force Col. Yuri Ignat, the service’s top spokesperson, said that Russian air operations had notably decreased, particularly over the southern Kherson region, following the spate of claimed shootdowns, in a recent interview. Lt. Col. Volodymyr Fityo, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Army, separately said there had been a drop in Russian aerial activity in the skies over and around the cities of Kupiansk and Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine recently.

On December 22, Ukraine’s Air Force said it had downed a trio of Su-34s along areas of the southern frontlines, which includes Kherson. The Ukrainian Air Force subsequently announced the destruction of another Su-34 in the skies near the occupied city of Mariupol in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine and the downing of the Su-30SM over the western Black Sea. The service stated both of those shootdowns occured on December 24, but said initially that more information was needed to determine if the Su-30SM had actually been knocked out.

A screen shot of a machine translation of a Facebook post from the official Ukrainian Air Force page discussing the claimed Su-34 and Su-30 shootdowns (as well as the intercepting of two air-launched cruise missiles, a Kh-59 and a Kh-31P, and 28 Iranian-designed drones) on December 24. Ukrainian Air Force via Facebook

The War Zone has not been able to independently verify any of these shootdowns and, at the time of writing, the Russian government does not appear to have confirmed or denied any of these claimed losses. The Russian-language Fighter channel on Telegram, which has strong ties to Russia’s Air Force, said that there were losses on December 22, but denied that the Su-34 and Su-30SM were destroyed on Christmas Eve.

It’s also unclear what weapons may have been used to shoot down any of these Russian aircraft, but there has been speculation that U.S.-made Patriot surface-to-air missile systems may have been employed. Ukrainian Air Force spokesperson Ignat did tout longer-range Western-supplied air defense capabilities, which includes Patriot, in his interview about the recent losses and their apparent impacts.

“The enemy realizes that our systems, including the long-range ones provided by our partners, can be deployed to other areas, not just where the Russian Su-34s were downed. We can undertake such operations on different fronts; the issue is getting more of these systems,” Ignat said. “We are looking forward to the assistance that has already been announced, including the supply of additional Patriot, Iris-T systems, etc.”

A separate press release today from the U.K. Ministry of Defense highlighted recent successes by Ukrainian air defenders and lauded the country’s work in bolstering its ability to defend against Russian aircraft, missiles, and drones.

“While Ukraine was highly vulnerable to attack from Russian aircraft, drones, and missiles in the early months of the invasion – with support from the UK and our allies, its Armed Forces are now able to intercept and destroy the overwhelming majority of incoming ordnance – protecting their civilian population and vital infrastructure,” U.K. Defense Secretary Grant Shapps said in a statement included in the release.

The War Zone had already noted at the beginning of December that there appeared to be a shift in Ukrainian air defense tactics, techniques, and procedures following an unusual claimed shootdown of a Russian Su-24M Fencer swing-wing combat jet over the Black Sea. Ukraine’s Air Force had also shot down another Su-34, as well as an Su-35 Flanker-E fighter and three Mi-8/Mi-17 Hip-series helicopters, all in one day as they flew in Russian airspace with Patriots back in May.

The claims about the recent Su-34 and Su-30SM losses only reinforce the prior assessments. This all also appears to be particularly tied to countering Russia’s steadily increasing use of ‘dumb’ bombs (and now cluster munitions) with stand-off glide bomb kits this year, which you can read more about here. Those weapons, which have maximum ranges of a few dozen miles, have given Russian pilots an additional way to attack targets while staying further away from hostile air defenses and have become a major tactical issue for Ukrainian forces.

Reported Russian strikes today on the city of Kherson, the capital of the region of the same name, may actually further point to this change in aerial activity. Ukrainian authorities say this was the most severe barrage on Kherson in months, but it was reportedly carried out primarily by ballistic missiles and ground-based artillery systems. Iranian-designed kamikaze drones may also have been employed. Ukrainian authorities say it is unclear how many people may have been killed or injured, but that the city’s main train station was a major target. Approximately 140 individuals were there awaiting a train to evacuate the area.

Ukrainian forces similarly used their initial deliveries of Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) short-range ballistic missiles from the United States to disrupt Russian helicopter operations. That came after Russian attack helicopters, Ka-52s especially, had become a major issue for Ukrainian forces after the start of their major counter-offensive operations earlier this year.

In other major news from Ukraine just today, the Ukrainian Air Force claims to have destroyed the Russian Navy’s Ropucha class landing ship Novocherkassk in the port city of Feodosia on the occupied Crimean Peninsula. Russian authorities have confirmed that the ship was at least damaged, killing one person and wounding two others, in what they say was a cruise missile missile strike launched by Ukrainian Su-24 Fencers. Russia’s armed forces also say they shot down aircraft, but have so far provided no evidence to substantiate that claim. There is evidence that the ship has been completely destroyed. You can read more about what is known so far in our separate reporting about this incident here.

Before diving into more developments from the conflict in Ukraine, The War Zone readers can review our previous rolling coverage.

The Latest

Work toward further changing the nature of the air war over Ukraine in the form of F-16s for the country’s Air Force is progressing. At least six Ukrainian pilots are now learning to fly U.S.-made F-16 Viper fighters in Denmark after completing a basic training program in the United Kingdom, according to the U.K. and Ukrainian Ministries of Defense.

Since August, the Royal Air Force (RAF) has been leading a program for Ukrainian aviators that includes “learning general handling procedures, instrument flying, medium and low-level navigation, and formation flying” using piston-engine Grob Tutor T1 trainers and English language courses, according to an official press release from British authorities today. The RAF does not operate F-16s itself.

A Ukrainian pilot prepares to get into an RAF Grob Tutor T1 trainer as part of a training program in the United Kingdom. Crown Copyright

The “aviation-specific English language training” is explicitly intended to help “increase their ability to engage with coalition training and support,” according to the U.K. Ministry of Defense. Proficiency in English has been cited as a significant issue with regard to training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s in the past.

It is worth noting that Ukraine has been sending pilots with existing combat jet experience on Soviet-designed types to learn how to fly F-16s. However, basic flight training in the United Kingdom would give them additional knowledge of general NATO-standard practices and procedures that could help speed up the process of getting them proficient in the cockpit of a Viper and otherwise work with their Western trainers.

“Once they [the Ukrainian pilots] have completed their training with the RAF, pilots will be trained by another European nation on advanced flying training,” a press release from the U.K. Ministry of Defense explains. “This will prepare them for training on the F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, overseen by Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United States, which lead the Air Force Capability Coalition.”

“A further ten Ukrainian trainee pilots took part in the language training and remain in the UK to continue with practical basic flight training, as well as to learn important skills such as aviation medicine and centrifuge training,” the release adds. “Alongside the pilot training, dozens of Ukrainian aircraft technicians are also receiving English language training, geared towards engineering.”

Ukrainian pilots are also training to fly F-16s in Arizona in the United States and a training hub to support the Air Force Capability Coalition has been established in Romania with the help of Dutch Vipers. Just last, authorities in the Netherlands confirmed that 18 of its F-16s are already being prepared for transfer to Ukraine’s Air Force next year. The Danish government has pledged 19 of these fighters and Norway has said it will provide an unspecified number of the jets to Ukraine, as well.

Fighting has been ongoing along various areas of the frontlines in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. Russian forces appear to have made some advances in recent days, including in and around Kreminna, Avdiivka, Kupyansk, and Bakhmut in the east, and Kherson in the south. At the same time, the total gains appear to be relatively limited and to have come at a significant cost.

Otherwise, the ever-growing devastation across Ukraine’s front lines, together with the kind of trench warfare that comprises a significant portion of the fighting today, continues to evoke comparisons to scenes from the First World War.

Mobile warfare is still very much found in Ukraine, as well. The video below shows a Ukrainian Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, supplied by the United States, firing its 25mm automatic cannon and then firing its defensive smoke grenade launchers all while moving in reverse.

Amid the developments in the east and south, the Ukrainian government has recently been erecting new fortifications in the northern Chernihiv region. This would help bolster the country’s defenses against any future Russian attempts to open another front in this part of the country.

The video below, reportedly shot somewhere in Eastern Ukraine, interestingly shows a U.S.-supplied 8×8 Stryker wheeled armored vehicle helping to get a pair of pickup trucks out of the mud. The Stryker has been criticized in the past as being susceptible to getting stuck in muddy terrain. Mud, in general, continues to be a significant factor that both sides of the conflict have to contend with.

The video below shows a damaged Ukrainian Humvee being towed by a German-made Bergepanzer 2 armored recovery vehicle.

Drones continue to be a major component of the fighting in Ukraine. The picture below reportedly shows a Ukrainian operator perched in a tree to get a better line-of-sight to maintain the link with their uncrewed aerial system.

The video below shows clips of so-called first-person view (FPV) kamikaze drones piloted by Ukrainian operators attacking a BMPT Terminator armored fighting vehicle and a T-80 tank. The attack on the T-80 highlights the maneuverability of these uncrewed aerial systems. This particular one is not only able to dodge an anti-drone “cope cage” armor screen on top of the tank’s turret, but also get at the vehicle at all despite it seeking cover under a highway overpass.

FPV drones (as well as small weaponized ones configured to drop small munitions) continue to be employed against small groups of Russian forces, and even single individuals, as well. The brutal video below (viewer discretion advised) is a stark reminder that we are now in an age of warfare where precision guided aerial attacks have become ‘democratized.’

The Russian Ministry of Defense has released the video below showing members of the Black Sea Fleet training in anti-drone operations using shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, also known as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), and AK-12 assault rifles. Particularly notable is that the ship in question has stations for personnel to brace assault rifles and other small arms up against to help them shoot more accurately at aerial threats.

The video below is said to show a Russian TOS-1A thermobaric rocket launcher being destroyed, though its unknown its unknown if a drone or other weapon was responsible. The secondary explosive would be from unfired rockets. This would not be the first time one of these vehicles has been observed suffering a catastrophic detonation as a result of an attack.

In addition to aerial drones, Ukrainian forces continue to expand their arsenal of other uncrewed systems. There are reports that a new uncrewed surface vessel designed to carry out kamikaze attacks, called the Mamai, is now in service. This design can reportedly hit top speeds of up to 68 miles per hour (110 kilometers per hour). A higher speed would make it harder to intercept. Ukraine has already been making good use of explosive-laden USVs for months now in attacks against Russian ships and infrastructure (including bridges).

The Cold War-era Mi-2 Hoplite light helicopter seen below was reportedly acquired via crowdfunding and turned over to Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence directorate, or GUR, for use as a medical evacuation platform. The GUR has used crowdsourcing in the past to acquire a UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter to bolster its aviation capabilities, which are often used to support special operations raids and other covert and clandestine activity.

In addition, Ukrainian forces continue to also make use of various improvised weapon systems. A modified BMW sedan modified to fire 122mm artillery rockets and a motorcycle with a .50 caliber M2 machine gun rigged up in the sidecar are among the less-than-standard platforms that have recently been seen in use.

The picture below is said to show a group of Russian paratroopers with an array of different small arms, including a KSG-series shotgun from U.S. manufacturer KelTec. Where this weapon was sourced is unknown, but it could have been acquired prior to the conflict on the commercial market. There are a multitude of other possibilities, too, including capturing an example from Ukrainian forces who might have acquired it themselves in one of various ways.

A Russian Tor-series surface-to-air missile system has emerged with new add-on armor. The array looks as if it might be similar in form and function to Russian explosive reactive armor (ERA) that uses bag-like containers rather than metal ones, which has previously been seen on some Russian tanks and other armored vehicles.

As the new year approaches, there has been much talk about what 2024 might hold for the conflict. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, said recently that the country’s military needs to change its tactics and acquire additional technological advantages if it hopes to succeed. He also said that he had been mistaken in believing that Russia would abandon the fight after enduring the losses of personnel and materiel that it has over the better part of the past two years. Zaluzhnyi has also advocated for the mobilization of more Ukrainians to help bolster the country’s ranks, speaking to Ukraine’s own losses.

On the Russian side, there continue to be reports that new recruits are being sent to the front lines without adequate training or sufficient weapons and other equipment.

European Union (EU) Foreign Affairs High Representative Josep Borrell said that he did not believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be willing to give up on his ambitions to totally dominate Ukraine, even if offered a deal that would officially cede him existing occupied areas of the country, according to an interview with The Guardian published this past weekend. Borrell added that he felt that Ukraine’s very existence remains threatened and that the outcome of the conflict there would have direct ramifications on the future of the EU, which the current Ukrainian government is working to join.

The publishing of the interview with the EU’s Borrell also came after The New York Times reported that Putin was using backchannels to signal interest in a ceasefire deal of some kind after nearly two years of war. That report had already stood in stark contrast to recent public statements from the Russian President and other officials in the country about the ongoing conflict.

The entirety of the European security landscape has already been transformed by the conflict in Ukraine. This includes the expansion of NATO, which has now taken an important step toward welcoming in long-neutral Sweden. The Turkish government has been a major roadblock to the Scandinavian country becoming part of the alliance, but its Foreign Affairs Committee approved the Swedish bid today. Turkey has been seeking various concessions in exchange for its support, including the U.S. government’s approval of a sale of new F-16 Viper fighters for the Turkish Air Force.

Lastly, though the majority of Ukrainians are Eastern Orthodox Christians, who traditionally celebrate Christmas in January, members of the country’s armed forces clearly sought to bring some of the cheer of the holidays to the front lines over the weekend.

Contact the author: