U.S. Intelligence Perplexed as Russia Refuses to Hit Hard with Air Force in Ukraine - Reports

U.S. intelligence officials and defence experts have increasingly struggled to offer explanations for the Russian Air Force’s very limited participation in the country’s military campaign in Ukraine, as the war effort enters its seventh day. It was previously expected that Russian air units would play a leading role in suppressing Ukrainian defences. 

That would have been "the logical and widely anticipated next step, as seen in almost every military conflict since 1938," wrote the RUSI think-tank in London, in an article titled The Mysterious Case of the Missing Russian Air Force. "There's a lot of stuff they're doing that's perplexing," Russian military specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute Rob Lee remarked. “Every day it goes on there's a cost and the risk goes up. And they're not doing that and it just is really hard to explain for any realistic reason." Retired U.S. Air Force general David Deptula similarly expressed surprise that Russia didn't work to establish air dominance. 

There are a number of possible explanations for the Russian Air Force’s lack of contribution to the campaign in Ukraine, albeit ones all based on speculation. One is that Moscow may be trying to support its official statements that it is not invading, but only launching a limited operation, on the territory of its neighbour. 

Another is to convey preceding negotiations that the Russian Military has only made a very small commitment to the front and can escalate very sharply should its terms not be met. Conveying that the Army can mount ground operations successfully without air support if needed could also send a strong signal to neighbouring NATO member states.

 Refraining from deploying air assets comes as the military has also held back many of its most capable ground assets such as T-80U and T-90M tanks, with the only weapons systems committed to the front considered high end being Iskander ballistic missiles which have been fielded for close to 20 years and are very widely used, and Kalibr cruise missiles. 

One explanation could be that higher end ground units, and the Air Force more generally, are being held back in case of a larger confrontation with NATO forces or with Ukrainian assets near the country’s NATO borders where opposition is expected to be considerably stronger. Compared to its war effort in Syria, where it intervened to support government counterinsurgency efforts from 2015, Russian forces deployed to Ukraine have been far from elite and have had far less air support. It remains uncertain whether or when this may change, with much depending on both the state of negotiations and the situation on the battlefield. 

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