Putin plots ‘dangerous escalation’ as West warned of tactical failures

Ukraine: Zelenskyy’s request for F-16 jets discussed by expert

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Russia “will be much more effective in the air” in time for their “big spring offensive”, a prominent British military analyst has warned, and if the West fails to provide F-16 fighter jets, Ukraine risks losing the advantage on the frontline. Professor Michael Clarke, a military analyst and defence expert, told Express.co.uk that fighting between Russian forces and the defending nation is set to become “more fierce and more dangerous” in 2023, with a major offensive expected in the upcoming few months. He suggested that, as air defence missile supplies dwindle, with the West to some extent lacking in their ability to replenish the largely Soviet stocks used by Ukrianians, the battle for “air superiority” will become key to the direction of the war.

The tactic of air denial has proven invaluable for Ukraine during these first 11 months of war, with the local forces using its S-3000 and Buk surface-to-air systems, bolstered by Western supplies of air defence missiles, to strike Russia down aerial threats and make difficult Putin’s use of fighter jets.

According to Ukrainian officials, they have also been using mobile units in jeeps to chase down drones and cruise missiles with shoulder-launched Stinger missiles and UK-provided Starstreaks.

But the relentless Russian aerial onslaught, using Iranian-made Shahead-136 suicide drones to ensure unabated attacks, has left Ukrainian supplies for ground-based systems dwindling.

Colonel Yuriy Ignat, the Ukrainian air force’s chief spokesperson, said towards the end of last year: “If hundreds of rockets are fired at us, we knock down 70 to 80 percent. Do they run out or not? Of course [they do].”

While the US, Germany and the Netherlands have pledged to send four state-of-the-art Patriot air defence missile systems to Ukraine to fix this issue, a decades-long trend of Western focus on air superiority, which involves the use of fighter jets as opposed to ground-based defence systems, has left their own supplies of defensive systems wanting with regard to Kyiv’s needs.

And Russian forces are aware of this. They have been firing X-55 nuclear missiles — with the nuclear warhead replaced by an inert one — simply to exhaust Ukrainian air defences, according to claims by the British military intelligence, which were subsequently confirmed by Ukrainian officials.

Effective air denial has kept Russian fighter jets, for the most part, out of Ukrainian air space, but Britain’s Royal United Services Institute warned in a November report that if their surface-to-air systems ran out of ammunition, it could “open the skies to Russian heavy bombers operating at medium and high altitudes with devastating consequences”.

US Air Force Col. Maximilian Bremer, in a comment piece for Defence News, wrote that this new aerial assault would “bolster Russian chances [of victory] ahead of a potential spring offensive”.

This concern is what is fuelling Ukraine’s recent calls for US-made F-16 fighter jets, with some pleas made just hours after the US and Germany pledged, after months of hesitancy, to send dozens of their main battle tanks. Such announcements constituted the overcoming of a major hurdle for Ukraine, but the pressing need to stop Russia gaining air superiority precluded celebration.

Yuriy Sak, an adviser to the Ukrainian defence minister, said this week: “We will get F-16s. I don’t see a reason, or any rational explanation, why Ukraine shouldn’t be getting F-16s or other fourth-generation jet fighters.”

Professor Michael Clarke explained, in light of the dwindling air defence system supplies that ensure Ukraine can successfully carry out air denial, and the well-researched projection of an incoming major Russian offensive, “air superiority will be key”.

He said: “The idea is that, for the next round of fighting, which will be much more fierce, I think, with a new level of military capability on both sides, air superiority will be key.

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“The reason why the situation on the ground is how it is currently is because the Russians have not established air superiority. If they had, the Ukrainians would be having a really tough time. The fact that it is so well-balanced on the ground now, with Ukraine having the advantage, is because the Russians do not dominate the air space.

“The view is that when Russia comes back for their big spring offensive, however, they will be much more effective in the air. The Ukrainians cannot just rely on ground-based defences or dogfights with their [Soviet-designed] Mig-29s because they will start to lose them, however skillful their pilots may be, so they will need the F-16s.”

He added: “Escalation is built into this war and it is dangerous. This coming year, 2023, will be a lot more dangerous than 2022 was. It is going to get worse, it is going to get more fierce and more dangerous, and we will keep crossing thresholds, as will the Russians. That is what the F-16 decision looks like. It is another threshold that must be crossed.”

The most recent reports, however, from German publication Tagesspiegel on Saturday, suggest that Germany will not transfer modern fighters so as not to “raise the stakes”. In addition, the publication reported, Berlin wants to avoid a possible escalation between NATO and the Russian Federation.

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