Four Russian Aircraft Shot Down Within Their Own Borders
Multiple possibilities exist as to what brought these aircraft down, but most would mark a major change in Ukraine’s counter-air abilities.
The Russian Air Force appears to have had one of its worst days of the war in more than a year on Saturday. While details remain limited and are likely to change, it appears Russia lost two Mi-8 Hip helicopters, a Su-34 Fullback strike fighter, and a Su-35 Flanker-E, with no survivors. What makes all this especially troubling for the Russian Air Force, is that all these losses happened in its own country, in areas not too far from the border with Ukraine.
All four aircraft came down in Bryansk Oblast, well within Russian territory opposite northeast Ukraine’s Chernihiv Oblast. Video shows one of the Mi-8s breaking up after what looks as if a missile hits it near the town of Klintsy, about 50 kilometers north of the Ukrainian border.
The Su-34 reportedly came down near the village of Istrovka, less than 30 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. A video below purportedly shows the jet flying very slowly before cutting to the burning wreckage.
Russia later confirmed that another Mi-8 and a Su-35 were shot down in the area as well, with all nine aboard the four downed aircraft killed.
Moreover, some have claimed at least one and possibly both Mi-8s shot down were extremely rare electronic warfare variants, the Mi-8MTPR-1. Derived from the Mi-8MTV-5-1 late-model series produced at Russia’s Kazan Helicopters plant, each carries a Rychag electronic warfare system designed to suppress enemy air defenses.
With 20 or fewer airframes in service, the Russians could well have lost a tenth of their helicopter EW fleet in a single day. You can read more about the fleet’s operations during the war in Ukraine in our detailed article from October, here.
Russian Telegram channel Fighterbomber (@fighter_bomber) claims Saturday’s losses are the most significant for the Russian Air Force since March 2022. This claim may be true when it comes to aerial kills, but Russia has lost more aircraft on the ground in a single instance in other attacks.
It’s not clear what shot down these aircraft at this time. Initial claims suggested friendly fire downed the aircraft in yet another case of fratricide by Russian air defenses that are on a hair trigger in that region specifically. But Russian authorities have since begun hunts for “saboteurs” involved in the shootdowns, potentially partisans or Ukrainian special forces armed with man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). The war has increasingly come to Bryansk Oblast, be that the bizarre cross-border raid in March or a huge increase in Ukrainian drone attacks.
It’s possible that Ukrainian special forces and/or Russian partisans managed to ambush these aircraft with MANPADS. The helicopters, particularly if EW variants as alleged, would make lucrative and vulnerable targets during their jamming support flight patterns near the border. The fast jets, too, could be well within commandos’ reach if flying low en route to or returning from their targets. Russian aircraft often fire their weapons while still in Russian airspace these days due to fear of being hit by Ukrainian air defenses. These profiles would have been tracked over time and broadly known, making taking down these aircraft easier.
If not fratricide or MANPADS, Ukraine could have moved longer-ranged SAM systems much closer to the Russian border. Ukrainian air defenses are exceedingly valuable and stretched across the country to counter Russian cruise missile and drone strikes. Moving one or several systems for such a localized operation seems high-risk, but also high reward.
Ukraine has received newer systems from the West, including Patriot, IRIS-T SLM, Aspide, and more, while their stocks of Soviet-era missiles are thought to be rapidly dwindling. Still, using these systems against Russian aircraft in Russian airspace could jeopardize the relationship with the countries that donated them and their ongoing operations in Ukraine. Using a Soviet-era battery very near the border and using intelligence to rapidly 'detect-shoot-scoot' is still a clear possibility.
There's also the more limited, but plausible chance that Ukrainian Air Force fighters jumped the Russian aircraft in an ambush. Russian newspaper Kommersant reported both the Su-34 and Su-35 were preparing to fire missiles at targets near Chernihiv when both the jets and the helicopters took hits from Ukrainian "air-to-air missiles."
Still, such an operation would likely put their planes within the Russian air defense envelope. This is something the Ukrainian Air Force has avoided since the air defense situation stabilized, with both sides' anti-air umbrellas reaching well into the territory each control. Even a low-level operation would have its risks near the border and would drastically reduce the reach of the fighter's air-to-air missiles.
There is the possibility that yet another new weapon has arrived in the hands of Ukraine's armed forces. A western beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile is a top ask of Ukraine's fighter pilots, one with an active radar seeker capable of long-range 'fire and forget' engagements without putting fighters at great risk. There has been talk of potential work to integrate such a weapon onto Ukrainian fighter aircraft. It would be a complex process, but there are potential workarounds, especially with the help of external surveillance assets. You can read more about this here.
Once again, there is no proof that this is indeed the case at this time, but we now live in a reality in which Ukraine's Soviet-era tactical aircraft are employing AGM-88 HARMs, JDAM-ERs, and now, it appears Miniature Air Launched Decoys. With no country yet willing to give Ukraine fourth-generation fighters, significantly upgrading the fighters they have, possibly with Western sensors, remains a possibility. It would be unlikely these weapons would be used against aircraft in Russian territory though for reasons already discussed.
Finally, there is the possibility of using the AGM-88 HARM to home in on the emissions of certain aerial assets. This would be an 'off-label' use of the weapon, but not an unprecedented one. If these were ECM variants of the Mi-8, this could even be a more plausible tactic.
Saturday’s losses could seriously affect Russian Air Force operations against Ukraine. Airspace previously thought relatively safe appears to be anything but. What was something of a refuge — pairing distance from known threats with low-altitude flight profiles — could now be well within the threat envelope. Russian pilots may find that they must now account not only for the threat over territory in Ukraine they don't control and much of what they do, but also for the now very real prospect of being shot down over Russia proper.
We will update this story with more information as it comes available.
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