A Russian Beriev A-50 aircraft, in Moscow, in May 2019. ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO / AP
The VKS had not suffered such a loss since the beginning of the war, which began almost two years ago. On Monday, January 15, the Ukrainian General Staff announced that it had shot down two of the most valuable aircraft belonging to the Voenno Kosmicheskie Sily, the Russian Aerospace Forces: a Beriev A-50 radar detection and an Ilyushin Il-22 Command.
“Thank you to the Air Force for the perfectly planned and executed operation in the Azov region! “, congratulated the Commander-in-Chief of the Kiev Armed Forces, General Valery Zaluzhny, in a message published on the Telegram network.
According to the Ukrainian General Staff, the two aircraft were operating on Sunday north of the Sea of Azov, now fully under Russian control, and were monitoring enemy airspace from there. They may have been attacked by one or more Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems, probably Western-supplied Patriot PAC-2, whose missile range is 160 kilometers. General Zalouzhny accompanied his message with a video showing radar plots evolving and disappearing over the Sea of Azov, which separates the Crimean peninsula from mainland Russia.
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The hypothesis of a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile still raises eyebrows among analysts, who do not rule out the scenario of a Russian brother-fire, as has happened several times since the beginning of the conflict. “To reach the Sea of Azov, the Ukrainians would have had to position a Patriot battery near the front line, which is very risky and implausible given the importance of these systems to them,” believes Jean-Christophe Noël, associate researcher at the Center for Security Studies of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) and editor-in-chief of Vortex magazine.
If this loss were to be confirmed – Moscow is rejecting this for the time being – it would definitely be a serious blow to the Russian Air Force. Similar to the Westerners' Boeing E-3 Awacs, the Beriev A-50s are used by the VKS to detect enemy aircraft, helicopters, missiles or drones at a distance of up to 600 kilometers. “It is a kind of large sensor that maps the tactical situation in detail. An essential role in the safe development of aircraft,” explains Jean-Christophe Noël.
A strong symbolic meaning for Ukraine
However, the Russian army has very few of these devices. According to figures from Military Balance, an annual report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Moscow has only ten A-50s in its arsenal. And yet not all of them would be operational. Russia constantly mobilizes two in Ukraine, over the Sea of Azov and Belarus, meaning there are at least twice as many to ensure a continuous air presence. Only one is missing and a whole portion of the Russian planes could be blinded. Westerners themselves regularly fly their Awacs to Ukraine's borders to provide Kiev with information.
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