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If War Breaks Out, Here's How Russia and Ukraine's Air Forces Will Face Off

Plus, what would happen if NATO decided to intervene.



  • According to the U.S. government, Russia may invade Ukraine as early as this week.
  • If it does, Russia will quickly gain air superiority over Ukraine, allowing its air force to turn its attention to supporting troops on the ground.
  • Ukraine's only hope would be an intervention of NATO air power, but that is unlikely.

If a war breaks out in Ukraine, its small air force likely wouldn't last long, and might resort to hit-and-run raids against Russian forces. Meanwhile, Russia's overwhelming advantage in fighters, attack aircraft, and land-based missiles would pummel the Ukrainian Air Force from the outset, leaving few, if any, places where defending air power could hide.

Russia needs to achieve air superiority at the outset of a conflict to hasten an end to war—and that's entirely possible against Ukraine, alone—but an intervention of NATO air power would upend Moscow's chessboard. Here's what you need to know about the air forces of Russia, Ukraine, and NATO if war does break out.

Part I: The Ukrainian Air Force


The Ukrainian Air Force has just 69 fighter jets in operation according to Flight Global's Air Forces 2022 almanac. That includes 43 Mikoyan-Guerevich MiG-29 "Fulcrum" multi-role fighter-bombers and 26 Sukhoi Su-27 "Flanker" air superiority fighters (pictured at the top of this story). All of the fighters were built during the Cold War, based in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic; Kyiv inherited the fighters when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

In other words, all of Ukraine's fighters are at least 31 years old and the modern state has never bought a new fighter jet. The age problem is exacerbated by Ukraine's inability to access new upgrades, weapons, and spare parts for both types of plane, which arch-enemy Russia produces. It's unclear how many of Ukraine's fighters are actually in flyable condition.

Kyiv has upgraded some MiGs and Sukhois with electronics upgrades (including a new radar and navigation system for the MiGs), navigation systems, helmet-mounted targeting systems, automatic flare dispensers, and a new aircraft computer for the Sukhois. However, the number of upgraded aircraft is apparently low and bordering on insignificant. In 2020, Ukraine launched a new air force spending plan, Vision 2035, which anticipates buying $12 billion in new aircraft, including fighter jets likely bought from NATO countries.


Ukraine also has a small fleet of attack-and-strike aircraft. That includes 12 Su-24 "Fencer" aircraft, originally meant to conduct low-level strikes on NATO targets during the Cold War, plus another 17 Su-25 "Frogfoot" close air support planes, similar in purpose to the American A-10 Warthog. The Army also operates 34 Mi-24 "Hind" attack helicopters. Again, all of these aircraft predate the fall of the Soviet Union and are very old. Not only does this make them more difficult to operate and vulnerable to Russian fighters, it also makes them very vulnerable to Russian air defenses, including Tor low-level air defense systems, Buk medium-range systems, and the S-400 "Triumpf" long-range systems.

Part II: The Russian Air Force


Russia, on the other hand, has a much, much larger aerial armada at its disposal. According to Flight Global's 2022 Air Forces almanac, Russia has more than 1,000 fighters, fighter-bombers, and attack aircraft. Though many are old, Moscow has updated a significant number of those aircraft with more modern technology and weapons. For example, Russia has 350 Su-27-type aircraft alone, including newer Su-27SMs and the latest version, the Su-35 "Flanker-E." Russia's Su-27-types, unlike Ukraine's, have newer, more powerful air-to-air radars, the latest avionics, and fully modernized air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.

While Russia's air fleet is scattered across the country, it can be quickly concentrated in any one particular theater with relative ease. Russian air bases opposite Ukraine also have seen an uptick in activity as military aircraft from across the country are filtering in, possibly to participate in an air war.


Air power is not strictly limited to fighter jets, though. Russia has deployed S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems near the Russia-Ukraine border and Belarus. The S-400—roughly equivalent to the American Patriot missile system—is formidable, capable of engaging aircraft, drones, cruise missiles, and even ballistic missiles. The S-400's maximum range of 248 miles would allow it to engage Ukrainian aircraft while remaining in Russia, adding to Ukrainian pilot woes. Russian attack-and-assault transport helicopters have also been massing in the region and would allow Russia's air assault forces (VDV) to seize and hold key objectives far behind Ukrainian lines.

Finally, Russian tactical ballistic missiles, particularly the Iskander-M short-range missile, would target Ukrainian command and control centers, supply depots, marshaling points, and most importantly, air bases. According to the Wall Street Journal, Russian Iskander brigades, stationed in Russia, Belarus, and occupied Crimea, could launch as many as 448 of the missiles within an hour, and are in position to target 95 percent of Ukrainian territory. Iskander-M has a range of 310 miles, is equipped with a 1,543-pound conventional high-explosive or nuclear warhead, and is accurate to within 15 feet.

In the event of hostilities, the prognosis for the Ukrainian Air Force is grim. Russia would target Ukrainian air bases with air strikes, Iskander-M strikes, and artillery. And air bases are relatively easy to shut down—even small amounts of debris can prove dangerous to high-performance jet engines, which can suck them in and wreck fast-rotating fan blades. Any Ukrainian aircraft that makes it into the air will encounter numerically superior Russian aircraft, and the closer to the border they fly, the more at risk they will be to Russian air defenses. Advancing Russian ground forces could even capture Ukrainian air bases, with those between the Dnieper River and the Russian border particularly vulnerable.

Part III: NATO Air Forces


Ukraine is likely to lose air superiority within the first 24 hours of a potential war. The only possible way the balance of air power could shift is if NATO intervenes. For now, NATO air forces (read: mostly the U.S. Air Force) are concentrating on protecting the airspace of member nations adjacent to Ukraine, particularly Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. If NATO did join the conflict, a flood of warplanes would enter the skies over Ukraine—including fifth-generation fighter jets like the F-22 and F-35— and bombers would fly in from faraway bases in the continental United States. In that case, Russia could quickly lose air superiority in the Ukraine theater, then watch its ground forces get pounded relentlessly from above.

If war starts, Russia will quickly seize control of Ukrainian airspace, and short of World War III, there is not much anyone can do about it. Still, Ukraine has emerged as a bulwark to Russian expansionism, and NATO is beginning to fathom the importance of the country in keeping Moscow in check. The only consolation for today's Ukrainian Air Force is that if the country survives this crisis as an independent state, outside help will ensure Ukraine will likely have a much more modern—and lethal—air force in the future. If it survives.


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If only Russia could take out the liberal politicians here

Oh, and George Soros too


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war has started.

from the chat:

The InternetKing
so russia went in with their weapons already ? v the war started i mean?

Dan Rapp
@The InternetKing yes but right now it is a soft invasion small groups moving


James Flowers
sounds like a sneaky invasion. so called blaming the separatists for the attacks but do you think in ww2 there was a similar playback attack? that putin is using?

I think the scale of this war once it begins is going to be a big shock to non watchers

James Flowers



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Russia Won't Start a War With Ukraine Out of the Blue. Look For These 8 Warning Signs.

If Putin's tanks roll west, there will be hints of war days (and even weeks) beforehand.



  • U.S. and European governments increasingly believe some form of Russian attack on Ukraine is very likely.
  • The demands of modern warfare mean that a sudden "bolt-from-the-blue" attack is impossible.
  • If Putin decides on war, preparations—and attacks on Ukrainian assets—will begin weeks ahead of time.

Russia's military buildup in Eastern Europe has led many governments, including the U.S., to believe that some form of attack against Ukraine is imminent. A major war—which experts warn could be the largest conflict in Europe in nearly 80 years—would not likely start at a moment's notice. Instead, the Kremlin would complete preparations from behind a shield of cyber warfare and electronic jamming, while deploying drones and "little green men" events that would provide some warning signals to the world.

So far, Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops in Russia, Belarus, and Russian-occupied Ukraine, with more troops streaming in by the day. The Russian Army Ground Forces have deployed elements of ten armies and army corps in the vicinity of Ukraine, amounting to several thousand tanks and infantry fighting vehicles and hundreds of artillery pieces, helicopters, and air defense systems. Moscow has deployed forces from as far away as Vladivostok (4,000 miles away) and invested so much effort in the operation that it seems unlikely this force has been amassed for a simple show of force.

No one but Russian President Vladimir Putin knows what he intends for Ukraine, but things aren't looking good for Kyiv. If war does come, there will be signs in the weeks and days beforehand that hint not only at its approach, but the size and nature of the conflict. Here are some signs to keep an eye out for, starting two weeks before the onset of war.



Fuel and Ammunition Stockpiles

The Russian Army's massive deployment on the Ukrainian border has mostly consisted of military hardware, with videos of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and even long-range surface-to-air missile systems showing up on social media. But in order to actually wage war, Russia will need to stockpile vast amounts of diesel and aviation fuel, as well as ammunition; these war stocks have yet to be pre-positioned near the Ukrainian border. Additionally, Russia has not yet established field hospitals in-theater. If the videos shift from main battle tanks to fuel storage trucks and rows of rubber fuel bladders sitting in fields, it will mean Putin is not just showing off his Army—he intends to use it.

Cyber Warfare

Modern warfare includes not only traditional kinetic means, but also cyber warfare. Russian military hackers can be expected to fully target Ukraine's computer networks, particularly those owned by the national government, utilities, financial institutions, and emergency services. Ukrainians could find themselves locked out of their bank accounts, the power might fail in the middle of the freezing winter, and government computer systems could be crippled. The objective of such hacking would be to demoralize the Ukrainian people and cause them to lose confidence in their government.

GPS Jamming, Spoofing

Another avenue of attack is to interfere with Ukraine's access to the Global Positioning System, or GPS. Russia has the ability to jam or spoof GPS. The former prevents users from receiving GPS data, while the latter causes users to receive false or misleading GPS data. This could make coordination between Ukrainian military units more difficult and further demoralize the population. Russia uses its own positioning, navigation, and timing satellites (known as GLONASS), so the Russian people would be unaffected by meddling with the competing system.


Attack Submarine Sorties

Direct U.S. and NATO intervention on the side of Ukraine is unlikely, but within the realm of possibility (Ukraine is not a member of NATO). One precautionary measure Russia might take would be to sortie as many attack submarines into the North Atlantic as possible in the days before a conflict begins. Submarines such as the Russian Navy's new Yasen cruise missile submarines could launch a swarm of attack cruise missiles, the low-flying missiles taking shorter and less predictable routes to targets in the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Western Europe.

In the event that the U.S. begins shipping equipment from North America to Ukraine by sea, those same submarines could attack slow-moving convoys laden with military vehicles and supplies, just as the German Navy did during World War I and World War II.

Electronic Warfare

Russia's electronic warfare troops will also bring their formidable systems to bear days before an actual attack, with a dual aim of gathering intel and complicating Ukraine's defensive preparations. Russia's Ilyushin Il-20 radar reconnaissance and electronic intelligence aircraft will fly along the border, peering deep into Ukraine to detect ground forces and monitoring government and military communications traffic. Beriev A-50 airborne early warning aircraft will monitor Ukrainian and NATO aircraft. Jammers such as the Tiranda and Krashuka systems will interfere with Ukrainian and NATO radar and communications—and even orbiting radar reconnaissance satellites.

Social Media Blackout

Yet another action to expect the week before an attack is a shutdown of Russian social media. Russia's social networks are a rich vein of useful information inadvertently shared with the rest of the world; some examples might include the girlfriends of Russian sailors complaining about their boyfriends' last-minute orders, or Russian tankers from the Far East grousing about being shipped thousands of miles across the country. This information is useful for tracking Russian military movements, and Moscow won't want to give anything away. Moscow will also want to clamp down on social media to control the narrative about friendly casualties.

D-24 Hours


"Little Green Men" Events

At the outset of the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian War, mysterious armed men wearing balaclava masks fanned out across targets in the Crimean region of Ukraine. The "little green men," named after the color of their Russian Ground Forces uniforms, sowed confusion as they quickly seized key objectives. The gunmen were actually Russian commandos.

While Ukraine and NATO countries are now wise to the ruse, it's distinctly possible there could be new "little green men" sightings in the hours before a Russian attack. Russia's border with Ukraine is long and special forces could again slip over the border and seize key objectives. Having said that, the Ukrainians won't be caught off guard this time; deploying stateless, armed gunmen won't have the same effect it had eight years ago.


Drone Reconnaissance

Finally, Russian military short-range drones will carry out last-minute reconnaissance of Ukrainian positions, gathering as much information on troop strengths and defenses. The drones would pay little attention to the border between the two countries—from the Russian perspective, there soon wouldn't be a Ukrainian government left to lodge a complaint. Russia would lose some drones to defensive fire, but that would be a small price to pay in exchange for fresh intelligence. The information gathered would then go on to provide targets to Russian fighters and attack jets, cruise missiles, tactical ballistic missiles, artillery, and armed drones.

A Russian attack on Ukraine won't come out of the blue, nor would Putin likely want it to. The more pre-war pressure Russia can put on Ukraine, the more likely the government could crack or offer major concessions, sparing Putin the effort of a war and blistering sanctions.


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Heard wrong.

here quote from article


Sporadic shelling across the line dividing Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has intensified since Thursday. Sounds of fighting continued into Monday, when a blast was heard in the centre of the separatist-held city of Donetsk. The cause was not known.

The rebels said on Monday that two civilians were killed in shelling by Kyiv government forces, Russia's RIA news agency reported.

Kyiv has accused pro-Russian forces of shelling their own compatriots in the breakaway region to blame the attacks on Ukrainian government forces.

Western countries are preparing sanctions they say would be wide-reaching against Russian companies and individuals in case of an invasion. read more

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the BBC such measures could include restrictions on Russian businesses' access to the dollar and the pound.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told German broadcaster ARD that Russia "would in principle be cut off from the international financial markets" and be cut off from major European exports. read more

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said it was time for the West to implement at least part of the sanctions it has prepared.

The Biden administration has refused to do so, saying their deterrent effect would be lost if they were used too soon. read more


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