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A big mystery of the war in Ukraine is Russia's failure to gain control of the sky


We're almost three months into the war in Ukraine, and Russia's giant air force has done no better than its giant army. In fact, the failure in the skies has added to Russian failure on the ground. Russia does not control the skies, which is one reason it's still possible for Ukrainian forces to keep fighting. NPR's Brian Mann has been hearing from some of those Ukrainian fighter pilots and air defense crews.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I've been talking to Ukrainian fighter pilots, including a guy who goes by the call sign Juice (ph). For security reasons, we can't use his real name. And he told me they expected Russia's bombers and jets to hit really hard and fast.

JUICE: We were waiting for much more effective threat from the Russian air force side.

MANN: And it's easy to see why. An industry trade journal called "FlightGlobal" estimates the Russian air force has roughly 1,500 military aircraft. The Ukrainians, by contrast, have around a hundred. Russian planes are also far more modern and lethal than the antique MiG-29 jets that Juice flies.

JUICE: It's great problem to fight with their fighters for us because they have an advantage in this technology. Unfortunately, our jets are not capable to be effective against them.

MANN: I also spoke with Mark Cancian with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and he says most military experts expected the start of this war to look something like the opening of the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003.

MARK CANCIAN: Hammer them for 48 hours until their air defenses and their air forces were defeated, and then get air superiority, if not actually air monopoly.

MANN: But, Steve, Russia didn't do that. Its air campaign has essentially been a bust.

INSKEEP: Well, you've just listed the reasons they should have done that, or so it seemed. Why did it go wrong for Russia?

MANN: Some experts think Russia's big fleet of aircraft just hasn't been well maintained. And they also don't appear to have the logistical support, the fuel and the spare parts to keep their jets flying. But another factor is the Ukrainians. In the years after Russia first annexed Crimea and invaded Donbas in 2014, Ukraine developed a pretty sophisticated air defense system using that fleet of fighter planes working in tandem with surface-to-air missile systems. The Ukrainians I spoke to believe Russian pilots just don't have the training and experience to deal with that kind of threat. Here's a Ukrainian MiG pilot who goes by the call sign MoonFish (ph).

MOONFISH: Sometimes we are able to hear their communications. When you hear those, they actually are really scared. And if anything goes wrong, they just turn away.

MANN: A senior U.S. defense official also told NPR the Ukrainian air force is being helped by real-time intelligence from the U.S. And experts think the Ukrainians are going to get better and better at defending their airspace, in part because of better weapons that are coming in from the U.S. and Germany.

INSKEEP: OK. But with all that said, the Russians still have this enormous weight of numbers. Are they enjoying any success?

MANN: They are. Russian long-range bombers are launching cruise missiles, hitting civilian and military targets. It's not a game-changer, experts say, but that is a factor. Ukrainian officials also acknowledged the Russians have established air dominance over parts of the Donbas region in the east, where some of the heaviest fighting is underway. But again, Steve, that's a tiny fraction of the country. Much of Ukraine remains effectively a no-fly zone for Russian planes and pilots.

INSKEEP: Can you just describe why that matters so much to the war on the ground?

MANN: Yeah, everyone I talked to says this is huge. You know, Ukraine is a vast country. And because the danger of Russian air attack is so limited, Ukrainians can operate their trains. Their roads are busy with supply trucks. That means the military can bring supplies, ammunition and weapons all the way to the front lines. Supplies are also flowing to critical cities like Kyiv and Odesa. Experts say if Russian aircraft were patrolling overhead, able to drop bombs at will, the way they were able to do over Syria, this war would look entirely different.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann is just out of Ukraine. He's today in Zurich, Switzerland. Brian, safe travels.

MANN: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.