90 Percent of Ukraine’s Military Airports Destroyed: Can It Go On Fighting Without Them?

In the afternoon of March 9 the Russian Defence Ministry announced that 90 percent of Ukraine’s military airports, which housed the majority of its air force, had been neutralised two weeks in to a Russian military intervention in the country. 

This came after it was announced just hours into the campaign that Ukraine’s air defences had been neutralised, and ten days after the first footage emerged showing a Russian cruise missile strike had destroyed an airfield and multiple Ukrainian MiG-29 fighters. While Russian ground forces have established a strong presence in Ukraine’s eastern regions, which are largely populated by ethnic Russians many of whom have actively supported Russian forces, the country has also projected its air power into Ukraine's western regions where pro-Western sentiments are more widespread. 

This was perhaps best demonstrated by the shooting down of a Ukrainian Air Force Su-27 fighter over Kiev by a Russian S-400 air defence system based in Belarus on February 25, and the outcome of an air battle over the city of Zhytomir on March 5 which saw four Su-27s shot down -  likely by Russian Su-35 fighters although the assets used were not confirmed.

The destruction of Ukrainian airfields comes as the United States and Poland in particular have sought to supply the country with former Polish Air Force MiG-29 fighters to replace its losses. The lack of airfields, however, will likely impede such efforts, although the MiG-29 alongside the American F-35B is one of the best suited fighters in the world to operating from short makeshift runways. 

The 1980s jet’s obsolete weapons and avionics, however, as well as the lack of training for Ukrainian pilots, means that whether these can be deployed or not is highly unlikely to be a factor in deciding the outcome of the conflict. With Russian fighters and air defences already controlling the skies, destroying airfields may well prevent Ukraine from launching low cost asymmetric Turkish drones for air strikes, which are seen to be worth risking against Russian air superiority, but is otherwise unlikely to turn the tide of the war. 

Although stopping Ukrainian assets from flying is a major benefit, particularly impeding logistics, Russian aircraft will still face threats from handheld surface to air missiles deployed by Ukrainian infantry such as the  Soviet 9K38 Igla and American Stinger, which have brought down at least two Russian attack helicopters and one strike fighter. 

These asymmetric assets pose much greater threat to Russian forces than the Ukrainian Air Force itself ever could. 

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