US: Ukraine has ‘significant majority’ of its military aircraft

NATO rules out ‘no-fly’ zone as Russian forces threaten Kyiv and Odesa, bombard cities of Mariupol and Kherson.

Ukraine still has a “significant majority” of its military aircraft available nine days after Russian forces started their invasion of the country, a United States defence official told the Reuters news service on Friday.

Vastly outmatched by Russia’s military in terms of numbers and firepower, the fact that Ukraine’s own air force is still flying and its air defenses are still deemed to be viable has surprised military experts.

“The Ukrainians still have a significant majority of their air combat power available to them, both fixed-wing and rotary wing as well as unmanned systems and surface-to-air systems,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official added that Ukrainian aircraft had suffered some losses, including being destroyed by Russian forces, but did not give details. After the opening salvos of the war on February 24, analysts expected the Russian military to try to immediately destroy Ukraine’s air force and air defenses.

Russia has fired more than 500 missiles at Ukrainian targets since the start of the invasion, but is still flying through contested airspace.

Ukrainian troops with surface-to-air rockets are able to threaten Russian aircraft and create risk to Russian pilots trying to support ground forces. Ukraine’s ability to keep flying air force jets is a visible demonstration of the country’s resilience in the face of attack and has been a morale booster, both to its own military and Ukraine’s people, experts say.

Two Tu-22M3 bombers escorted by Su-35 fighters of the Russian air force fly during military drills in Belarus leading up to the attack on Ukraine from the north [File: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/AP Photo]

No ‘no-fly’ zone

The Pentagon has established a new hotline with Russia’s ministry of defence to prevent “miscalculation, military incidents and escalation” in the region as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine advances.

The “deconfliction” hotline would be an open phone line based at the US European Command’s headquarters and would fall under Air Force General Tod Wolters, who leads all US forces on the continent.

“In our initial test of it, (the Russians) answered the phone,” the official said.

NATO is refusing to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The leaders of the 30-nation military organization believe that such a move could provoke widespread war in Europe with nuclear power Russia.

“We understand the desperation, but we also believe that if we did that, we end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe involving many more countries and causing much more human suffering,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday.

People fleeing Russia's invasion of Ukraine crowd on a platform to board a train as they leave the city of Odesa.
People fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine crowd on a platform to board a train as they leave the city of Odesa on March 4, 2022 [Igor Tkachenko/Reuters]

The United States on Friday defended NATO’s decision echoing its position that such a measure could cause the conflict to spread to more countries.

“We have a responsibility to ensure the war does not spill over beyond Ukraine … A no-fly zone could lead to a full-fledged war in Europe,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Brussels.

In a video address earlier this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had urged Western nations to consider such a measure to stop any further bombardment by Russia.

Russian advances

Russian troops on Friday were still about 25km (16 miles) from the centre of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, a distance largely unchanged over the past few days. Frequent shelling could be heard from the center of the city as battles involving air attacks and artillery raged northwest of Kyiv.

Heavy fighting continued on the outskirts of the strategic port of Mariupol, knocking out the city’s electricity, heat and water systems, and most phone service. Food deliveries were also cut, according to the Associated Press.

Ukrainians were fleeing the port city of Odesa as Ukrainian officials warned Russia was preparing to conduct an amphibious assault like the one around Mariupol, involving naval infantry and ground forces attacking from the north out of Donetsk.

“So one could see a scenario where that’s a similar play,” the US official told Reuters.

After heavy shelling, Russian forces have captured the southern city of Kherson, a vital Black Sea port of 280,000 — the first major city to fall.

Tanks entered Kherson, a provincial capital, and Russian forces occupied the regional administration building, regional governor Hennadiy Laguta said in an online post on Thursday. Russian armored vehicles were seen in the otherwise empty streets of Kherson, in videos shared with the AP by a resident.

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