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Donated MiG jets will not give Ukraine air superiority against Russia, experts say

Two MiG-29 fighter jets take part in a NATO exercise near an air base in Lask, Poland, in October. Poland recently announced plans to send MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. (Radoslaw Jozwiak/AFP/Getty Images)
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KYIV, Ukraine — When Poland and Slovakia announced their plans to donate up to 30 MiG fighter jets to Ukraine, it was hailed as a breakthrough in getting Kyiv ever more sophisticated weaponry and as a sign that Eastern European nations were prepared to be bolder than the United States or NATO allies in Western Europe.

For the Ukrainian pilots who fly it, the Soviet-designed MiG-29 is an “old friend” — a fighter that lacks the flash and capabilities of newer jets but nonetheless has played a critical role. “It’s ridiculously fast,” said Moonfish, a Ukrainian pilot who has flown close to 60 sorties, all in the MiG-29, and spoke on the condition that only his call sign be used for security reasons. One time, Moonfish said, he needed to “escape from Russian missiles.” “The MiG,” he said, “carried my a-- out of danger.”

But as Ukrainian forces prepare to launch a new offensive to oust Russian forces from occupied territory in the east and south, the old friend may not be enough.

Ukrainian soldiers and military experts say the donated planes will not be a game changer. The MiG-29 — first put into use in the early 1980s and later upgraded to contemporary battlefield requirements — is outmatched by Russia’s aircraft, which are equipped with newer radar and missile systems, Ukrainian officials and experts say.

These shortcomings point to overall limitations in Kyiv’s battle plans and complicate its ability to mount its long-awaited offensive, which Ukrainian officials hope will turn the tide in the conflict.

Since the start of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Ukrainian pilots and antiaircraft forces have waged a David-and-Goliath battle against Russia’s larger and more advanced air assault, resulting in a deadlock in the Ukrainian airspace. That deadlock seems likely to continue, even as more MiGs arrive in Ukraine.

Earlier this month, Germany gave Poland permission to send to Ukraine five MiG-29s, which had been part of the air force of East Germany during the Cold War. German law requires that Berlin approve any re-export of weapons that it once owned.

“The Ukrainians have already shown in Kharkiv and Kherson, and previously the battle of Kyiv, you can win battles and indeed wars without air superiority,” said Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow and military aviation expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

For Ukrainian forces to prevail, Bronk said they need to maintain this standoff. “Russia has a lot of firepower that it could employ from the air, if it is essentially given the window to do so,” he said.

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Leaked U.S. intelligence documents indicate that maintaining the standoff will not be easy for Ukraine. According to the intelligence, part of a trove of classified information leaked on the Discord social platform, ammunition supplies for Ukraine’s main air defense systems are running alarmingly low.

A barrage of Russian missiles on Friday, which killed at least 22 people, demonstrated the critical need for air defenses.

One missile struck an apartment building in the central city of Uman, where at least 20 people died, Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry said. And in the city of Dnipro, a young woman and a child were killed, the regional governor said. Ukraine’s armed forces said they thwarted 21 Russian cruise missiles.

“The key thing will continue to be whether Ukraine can deny Russia air superiority over the battlefield or not,” Bronk said. “If it can’t, things are likely to get very, very difficult for Ukraine.”

In that context, more MiGs are not the solution to Ukraine’s front-line problems, Ukrainian officials say.

“The MiG radar doesn’t work far; their missiles don’t fire far,” said Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian air force. “We need new, modern generations of aircraft.”

Ukrainian officials have pinned their hopes on Western officials’ relenting and agreeing to provide the country with U.S.-built F-16s. But that still seems to be a long shot.

In an interview with ABC News at the end of February, President Biden said that Ukraine “doesn’t need F-16s now.”

Ukrainian officials disagree. The F-16s are needed as soon as possible, they said.

“F-16s are the most universal platform, and they can carry kind of a full spectrum of weapons which are required to have, if not have superiority in the air, at least to even it out with the Russians,” said Yuriy Sak, an adviser to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.

Nevertheless, the donated MiGs are appreciated, Ukrainian officials said. Ukraine’s air force has lost at least 17 MiG-29s since the beginning of the war, according to the Oryx Blog, a military analysis site.

“In a conventional war, more is more,” said Michael Kofman, a military analyst at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. “Wars often come down to attrition, so one of your persistent challenges is replacement of materiel.”

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And although the new MiGs will not be “used in a capacity that will make a significant difference in the offensive,” Kofman said, they will continue to carry out the useful functions they have provided throughout the war, or be broken down for spare parts.

The MiGs have been outfitted with Western anti-radar missiles — High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles, or HARMS — with which they target Russian air defense systems.

Ihnat said the HARMS “distract” Russian air defenses, allowing Ukrainian bombers and attack aircraft to operate “more or less calmly” and to target Russian positions and logistics centers that are farther behind front lines.

Last fall, as Russia launched its campaign to destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure and energy grid, the MiGs switched to shooting down cruise missiles and self-destructing drones, although their effectiveness in that mission was “low,” Ihnat said.

In the war’s first days, more than a year ago, Ukrainian pilots also used a combination of pluck and craftiness to avoid Russia’s more advanced fighters and keep the Ukrainian airspace contested.

Sometimes outnumbered five or more to one, Ukrainian pilots would maneuver to draw Russian planes into the sights of their air defense systems, which would finish off the Russian aircraft.

The Oryx Blog estimates that some 79 Russian jets have been damaged or destroyed since the start of the war, but the figure could be higher, the site says.

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Despite its limitations, Ukrainian pilots say they enjoy flying the MiG-29. “How this jet performs, how it does little maneuvers, especially with the low altitudes — it’s an amazing jet to fly,” Moonfish said. Even so, the MiG-29 is no match for Russian jets in a dogfight. “We’re easy prey” and the missions are “extremely dangerous,” he said.

“I would say that none of the Western pilots or Western commanders would ever consider the sort of missions as we fly now,” Moonfish said.

Ihnat said the MiGs will not venture too close to the front, where Russian antiaircraft defenses are so “heavily saturated” that “a fly couldn’t get through there.”

“Ukrainians have been talking constantly about whether this will help the counteroffensive. They say, ‘Well, now the guys can get into the MiGs and fly,’” Ihnat said. “And I say, as black humor, ‘[Yes,] fly to their death.’”

Ukrainian officials hope that the donations of MiGs will help their Western partners to surmount the psychological barrier of providing Kyiv more advanced aircraft — just as a decision to provide older tanks paved the way for supplies of newer German-made Leopard tanks.

Poland and Slovakia originally intended to send MiGs to Kyiv early in the war but had to drop their plans. Then, last month, the countries said they were moving ahead. Slovak jets have been flown into Ukraine, and the Polish planes are being dismantled and sent overland, according to a Ukrainian official speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.