Russian Jets Are Avoiding Ukraine Airspace to Avoid Being Shot Down

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  • The Pentagon believes Russia is flying about 200 sorties every day, although many never enter Ukrainian air space.
  • The Russians can fire cruise missles from planes on the Russia side of the border without risking a strike by Ukraine’s air defenses. 
  • Ukraine still has about 56 operational jets flying five to 10 hours every day, according senior US defense official.

The Pentagon says some Russian jets are avoiding Ukrainian airspace, apparently to avoid being shot done by Ukraine’s air defense systems. 

During a background briefing with reporters, a senior US defense official said the Pentagon assesses that Russia is flying about 200 sorties every day but some never enter Ukraine’s air space. Instead, the Russians are able to fire aerial-mounted cruise missiles at Ukraine from planes on the Russian side of the border. 

It was widely assumed by defense analysts that Russia would quickly gain air superiority during its invasion of Ukraine, but Russia’s Aerospace Forces have had played little role as the ground forces have struggled to take major cities in the face of stalwart Ukraine fighters.

Many observers were expecting Russian bombers to knock out Ukraine’s radar installations and surface-to-air missile batteries, leaving air superiority fighters like the Su-35 to attack Ukraine’s aircraft as it moved its own SAM systems into Ukraine. But Russia failed to do so and Ukraine’s smaller air force and its missiles have downed Russian planes.

Similarly, Russia’s fleet of combat helicopters has largely gone unusued, another signal that Russian commanders are aware of the risks posed by air defenses and increasingly shoulder-fired missiles like the Stingers the US is sending. 

In the first days of the war in Ukraine, researchers at Oryx — a blog that tracks military equipment losses through open-source data — found that Russia lost a number of combat jets to  Ukraine’s defense systems. 


The skirting of Ukrainian air space suggests Russia warplanes are aware of these still considerable dangers.

In an interview on Wednesday, an expert on the Russian military said he’s seeing signs that its air force is “risk averse” and said there’s still debate as to why.

“Maybe they’re saving their aircraft in case this conflict goes wider,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, an expert on the Russian military with the Arlington, Va.-based research organization CNA.

Sam Fellman contributed to this report.

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