Russia had eight A-50 Aircrafts. Ukraine destroyed two.

Impact: Russian airforce grounded on February 24th

Shankar Narayan
6 min readFeb 25, 2024

Perhaps I did, or perhaps I did not. I am not sure whether I have recently written about the Russian air force’s record-breaking losses continuing. Every month since December has seen an improvement over the worst day in history for the Russian air force.

Can we say “worse gets improved”? I believe I just did.

It is happening, and it will continue to happen. Russia will keep experiencing its worst days for aviation repeatedly. Ukraine has identified a weakness, or rather, created one, and they have resolved to apply maximum pressure on that vulnerable point.

Ukraine does have a problem of its own: they are rationing air defense missiles between the frontline and their urban centers out of necessity. They simply don’t have enough air-defense missiles. It’s uncertain when the American administration will find a solution to replenish their diminishing stockpile of missiles.

But Ukraine is also very smartly leveraging the combined power of the many different systems in their possession. Since mastering the art of knocking down high-value Russian jets on May 12th, 2023, using Patriot air-defense systems, they have gradually incorporated S-200 air-defense systems to bring down Russian aircraft.

Airfields in Crimea and occupied territory are being targeted by Ukrainian bombers loaded with Storm Shadow and SCALP missiles. Russian aircraft in the sky are brought down by Patriot and S-200 air-defense systems.

Russians were left shell-shocked after the first A50 was hit over the Sea of Azov in mid-January. The spot where it went down was more than 100 miles away from the frontline. There is very little chance that the aircraft blew apart into pieces at the point of impact. It may have traveled a decent distance before sinking. But still, to evade the Russian-occupied territory, even if it’s just for 50 miles, and then bring down an aircraft whose primary objective is to keep an eye on the air and track down enemy missiles, is significant.

The Russians responded by updating the travel route of the A50. Let’s examine this back-and-forth between the Ukrainian and Russian forces through British assessments.

On November 17th, the UK Ministry of Defense reported that Russia had begun using the A50 to “identify targets over Ukraine for its SA-21 long-range ground-based air-defense missile system.” The long-running Ukrainian campaign to weaken the Russian air-defense umbrella in Crimea by targeting S400 air-defense systems, radar, and communication posts had left the Russians somewhat vulnerable in the air. In response, they deployed the A-50s to compensate. This occurred in mid-November.

Under these conditions, Ukraine took the risk of deploying a mobile Patriot air-defense system in Southern Ukraine. At some point, they also incorporated the S200 into the mix. They began knocking down Russian fighter jets with increased ferocity, downing eight jets in December. Experts started hinting at the presence of F16s.

But clearly, that wasn’t the case. Ukraine continued to target the Russian jets. The Russians likely extended the flight paths of the A50s and instructed them to remain airborne for longer durations. In mid-January, Ukraine successfully brought down an A-50. In response, the Russians updated the A-50’s travel route further east. On January 19th, the UK Ministry of Defense stated:

The Russian airforce appears to have begun operating another A-50 MAINSTAY, but this time over land within Russian territory near the Krasnodar region, farther eastwards from Ukraine. This activity is highly likely indicative of a reduced risk appetite for the airframes and an attempt to preserve remaining A-50 MAINSTAY at a loss to its overall effectiveness over Ukraine.

Ukraine responded to Russia’s reduced risk appetite by extending its reach all the way to Krasnodar Krai. On Friday, Ukraine destroyed the second A-50 early warning aircraft this year over Krasnodar Krai.

Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported minutes after the attack that “an unidentified aircraft crashed in the Kanevskoy District in Krasnodar Krai.”


It was February 23.

Ukraine brought down the most prized aircraft in Russia’s possession one day before the second anniversary of Putin’s war, a day the Russian President desperately wants to exploit for his propaganda. The knockout blow had a chilling effect on the Russian air force. Without the A-50, the Russians are blind — absolutely blind.

On February 24th, the Russians grounded their fighter jets.

“An additional sign of the success of the joint operation of the GUR of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine and the Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine is the order to stop the missions for two Su-35 aircraft, as well as three Su-34 planes of the Russian Federation, which were performing tasks near the N.P. Millerovo — some of them planned to carry out airstrikes near Avdiivka,” the Directorate of Ukrainian Intelligence wrote on a Facebook post.

Russia is now left with six A-50 early warning aircraft. The fact that they chose to call off bombing missions by their fighter jets within hours after the second A-50 went down shows how dependent they have become on this aircraft to conduct their bombing missions. The worst part for the Russian air force is that the Patriot (air-defense system) algorithm is now fully aware of how to hit this type of aircraft. If there were any failures, it would have learned from them as well. Ukraine’s air-defense network holds the key to intercepting A-50 early warning aircraft flying over Russian and Russian occupied territory.

Russia has no choice but to reformulate its strategy. It must either pull back its air force, get its A-50s back in action with an updated route, or, most probably, test the waters by reducing the pace of its attacks.

Losing this aircraft is only one part of the sad Russian story. The other, and more crucial, aspect to note is the loss of the crew. There is very little chance that the massive crew operating the aircraft had a chance to survive, given the sheer altitude at which it flies and the impact. The crew will likely be lost; they are irreplaceable. The loss of the crew is significant to acknowledge. The expertise needed to operate this mobile command post is declining. With each hit, bringing down the next A-50 becomes even easier.

On one hand, the Ukrainian air-defense network is gaining expertise, while the Russian A-50 crew is losing expertise.

The mismatch will show its effect.

Expect the next A-50 to go down very soon.

Also, expect Ukraine to start responding to Russian fighter jets. As soon as they try to fire their long-range missiles, if their signal is close enough, Ukraine will fire from one of its mobile air-defense units. The A-50 is already under containment. If the Russian fighter jet pilots take the risk to venture a bit deeper, they will be hit.

The extraordinary streak Ukraine recorded this month, knocking down eight fighter jets, one A-50 aircraft, and one transport aircraft was not an accident. It is a combination of multiple factors. Ukraine did take the risk and learned how to hit Russian aircrafts. Under normal conditions, Russia would have immediately pulled back its air force and allowed its infantry to fight and die. But unfortunately, that normal response did not occur because Russia is heading into Presidential elections.

As a propaganda state, they need to show that they are on the charge. They did so by refusing to pull back the air force. Ukraine used that opportunity to strike a devastating blow on the Russian air force.

Now the entire air fleet is in trouble.



Shankar Narayan

He didn't care what he had or what he had left, he cared only about what he must do.