Russia’s cruise missile attack on the Yavoriv military training facility near the Polish border in western Ukraine on March 13 highlights Ukraine’s need for more air defenses, and the United States and the West can do more to help Ukraine, a Ukrainian defense official told Air Force Magazine.
A day before Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III was to fly to Europe for a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels and a visit to NATO eastern flank allies Slovakia and Bulgaria, the battle for air superiority remains critical to the defense of Ukraine.
“First of all, introduce some more deadly sanctions for Russia,” the Ukrainian defense official told Air Force Magazine on the condition of anonymity. “Point Number Two, close the sky. But at least close the sky over the nuclear facilities.”
Russian forces took the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the opening days of the Feb. 24 invasion and captured the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant shortly after, raising the risk of a terrorist attack or a nuclear disaster.
“No one controls what is going on,” the official said. “So, air defense is crucial.”
A U.S. senior defense official said March 14 that Russian long-range missiles were used in the assault of western Ukraine, including more than two dozen cruise missiles that damaged seven structures at the Yavoriv military training facility. The official said the base was not a transit point for Western defense assistance.
The Ukrainian official said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s newly formed International Legion of volunteer fighters were not training at the facility, where dining, medical, and housing facilities were damaged. The official could not confirm whether Ukrainian jets were damaged in the round of strikes in the west that began March 11.
The Pentagon underscored that the long-range attacks by Russia highlight that even if the United States or NATO were to establish a no-fly zone, it would not have prevented the weekend strike. In order to avoid direct confrontation with Russia, the U.S. has rejected calls to establish a no-fly zone.
“These air-launch cruise missiles were launched from long-range bombers,” the Pentagon official said—“Russian long-range bombers from Russian airspace, not from inside Ukrainian airspace.”
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said March 14 that U.S. statements such as ruling out a no-fly zone or the transfer of Polish MiGs do not give Putin carte blanche.
“Let’s talk about what actually is happening,” Kirby said in response to a question from Air Force Magazine. Kirby highlighted how the U.S. is talking to Ukraine about its needs and quickly delivering defense assistance.
“I doubt Putin would, after making as little progress as he has made in this unprovoked war of his, would be hard pressed to say that somehow he is being aided by statements that we are making about what we will or what we won’t do.”
New Defense Assistance
DOD said it is working with partners and allies in the region and beyond to coordinate the assistance Ukraine needs. Before DOD could even close out a $300 million drawdown package of assistance to Ukraine, President Joe Biden authorized another $200 million in assistance March 12.
The senior defense official told Air Force Magazine that DOD is trying to “get them the systems that they’re good at using,” including Turkish drones, surface-to-air missile systems, man-portable air-defense systems, and Javelin anti-tank missiles.
The Ukrainian official said the type of assistance flowing from the United States, including ammunition, Javelins, and stingers, have been “crucial” but that Ukraine needs aircraft and ground air defense.
On March 8, DOD flatly rejected a Polish proposal to transfer 24 MiG fighters to the United States for onward transfer to Ukraine. The Pentagon called the proposal not “tenable” for its potential to provoke Russia. NATO Supreme Allied Commander and U.S. European Command chief Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters said combat jets would be of little use to Ukraine.
Russia is believed to fly some 200 sorties per day while Ukraine flies 5 to 10 sorties in skies covered completely by Russian surface-to-air offensive missiles capabilities.
The Ukrainian official said some Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries possess the Soviet-era systems, including S-300 and Buk medium-range missile defense systems, capable of shooting down cruise missiles.
“We asked [for] some systems, which, first of all, we know how to how to handle,” the official said. “We are ready also to go to send our specialists to learn something on other equipment which we do not have now.”
The American senior defense official told Air Force Magazine that training Ukrainians on an unfamiliar system was not yet under consideration.
Austin is expected to discuss with Slovakia how it can provide additional support to Ukraine. Slovakia possesses S-300 missile defense systems and, along with Hungary, is thought to provide possible alternative overland supply routes. Poland has handled the majority of defense resupplies from the 14 nations supporting Ukraine.
Another defense official told Air Force Magazine that the U.S. military is beginning to worry that Russia may start to strike supply routes.
“My big concern is at what point do the Russians decide that they have to cut off the … ground line of communication?” the official said. “The supply lines from Poland into Ukraine or from anywhere into Ukraine. When does Russia feel like, you know, between the sanctions and the military support to the Ukrainians, when do they feel like that’s provocative enough to strike back?”
The March 13 missile strikes and the March 11 strikes against air bases in Lutsk, near the Polish border, and Ivano-Frankivsk, near the Ukrainian border with Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, did not target supply routes.
“We have a different network of supply routes,” the Ukrainian official said. “At this moment, I don’t have information that they managed to hit something with foreign aid.”
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian official said trucks continue to deliver goods from Germany across the Polish border and into Belarus, indicating continued trade with Russia.
“There are still many companies who are working in Russia. There are still some banks who are working in Russia,” the official added. “They should be cut off from all the civilized world. They have to feel it. Everyone in Russia has to feel these sanctions.”