Ukraine Goes to War Against Russian Air-Defense

The craters are increasingly visible

Shankar Narayan
7 min readJun 11, 2024

The last few days have been maddening for the Russian armed forces and their masters in the Kremlin. Their hold on the northeast appears increasingly shaky, forcing them to scramble units from other parts of the frontline. A landing ship or a patrol boat was hit in Crimea, and a Ukrainian jet dropped a bomb inside Russian territory.

Some news channels reported that this was the first time Ukraine used its air force to hit beyond the border. That is not true. Ukraine has done this a few times in 2022. One incident that comes to mind is when Ukrainian helicopters flew into Russia to take out a fuel depot. There were a few such incidents, all in 2022.

Screenshot from ITV. April 2022

This is the first time the Ukrainian air force has targeted a Russian military asset inside Russian territory since 2022. Ukraine has decided to keep silent about the attack, likely to avoid provoking Western leaders who are sensitive about crossing certain lines.

Ukrainian jets were regularly dropping glide bombs on the Russian frontline in the northeast. However, they had not sent their missiles beyond the border, and there was an S300 battery in Belgorod Oblast tasked with controlling the sky over the area, which also doubled as a surface-to-surface missile launcher, terrorizing civilians in Kharkiv city.

Screenshot from Deepstatemap. Text added by me.

The Russian air-defense launcher in Belogorod Oblast was taken out a week ago. Ukraine may have still taken the risk to attack inside Russia using its fighter jet even if there was an S300 launcher in their territory. But I firmly believe that the destruction of the S300 in Belgorod played a role in Ukraine ordering its fighter pilots to hit a target inside Russia.

If you were a pilot, which would you prefer: flying into a territory with a SAM system or one without it?

Russia's capacity to protect its airspace is steadily diminishing.

How It All Started:

In the last week of August 2023, Ukraine destroyed Russia’s S400 battery in Crimea in a combination attack. A group of Ukrainian commandos jumped on speed boats, crossed the Black Sea, and attacked Russian positions in Crimea.

Screenshot from DeepstateMAP

“Special units on watercraft landed on the shore in the area of Olenivka and Mayak settlements,” Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence service said. During their mission, Ukrainian soldiers “engaged in combat” and killed several Russian troops, while also destroying some of their equipment, the GUR added.

Around the same time, the GUR released a video of a Russian S400 Triumf system going up in smoke. A few days later, Ukraine confirmed the attack on the S400 battery was carried out by Ukraine’s Neptune cruise missile.

This was the first hit. The commandos landed in Crimea and took out air-surveillance systems, opening up the path for the Neptune missile to safely hit its target.

From that day, Ukraine has been slowly taking out Russian surveillance units stationed in Crimea, an operation that continues to expand in its reach and strength. What we are witnessing today is Ukraine taking the fight to the Russian air-defense.

Where We Are Now

The supply of ATACMS missiles has strengthened Ukraine’s ability to destroy Russian air-defense units. The ATACMS, “packed with M74 submunitions, is especially well-suited for targeting air defense systems, as well as aircraft in the open, vehicle pools, ammunition dumps, and more.”

On April 17th this year, multiple S-400 and S-300 systems stationed at the Russian airbase in Dzhankoi, Crimea, were taken out using ATACMS missiles. The attack probably cost the Russians more than a billion dollars. Almost a month later, on May 15th, a 92N6 ‘Grave Stone’ radar was taken out along with a bunch of S400/S300 systems stationed at Belbek Airbase, Crimea.

One week later, on May 24th, ATACMS destroyed an S400 system that was moved closer to the frontline in Donetsk Oblast. The system was less than 70 km from the frontline at the time of the attack. This month, Ukraine took out the S300 system that was stationed in Belgorod Oblast for a very long time. This system was regularly used by the Russians to attack Kharkiv city.

Russians have repurposed the S400/S300 air-defense systems to hit land-based targets. Russian air-defense units are not only a threat to the Ukrainian air force; when they are positioned closer to the frontline, they become a huge threat to Ukrainian population centers and infrastructure just behind the frontline. Ukrainian armed forces continue to prioritize neutralizing and eliminating these surface-to-air systems.

Yesterday night, Ukraine destroyed multiple S400 and S300 batteries in Crimea. Ukraine’s defense ministry released the following statement:

Overnight, Ukrainian defense forces carried out a successful missile strike against russian air defense systems in temporarily occupied Crimea

One S-400 division in the Dzhankoi area and two S-300 divisions near Chornomorske and Yevpatoria were struck. After the strikes, the immediate shutdown of the S-400/S-300 complex’s radars was recorded. In addition, further detonation of ammunition was observed in all three areas.

It was a simultaneous attack on multiple locations. Details are still trickling in, but I have never seen the Ukrainian General Staff use the word “division” before. They probably took out the launchers, associated radar systems, and possibly a few other assets as well.

Previously, Ukraine did not have the kind of weapons needed to take out the Russian air-defense units. Neptune missiles were their only option, but they are not as effective as ATACMS with hundreds of submunitions. When you fire an ATACMS against a Russian air-defense battery, the odds of success are very close to 100%. The same cannot be said for Neptune missiles.

It has been two months since Ukraine first took out an S400/S300 battery using ATACMS missiles. The Russians have not enacted any countermeasures. They keep claiming the attacks were repelled, but video evidence proves their statements are not true.

Russian air-defense systems do not have the ability to stop the ATACMS missiles. The S400s were built to take down aircraft, and it appears they do not have the ability to intercept ballistic or even cruise missiles.

ATACMS missiles can reach up to 300 kilometers, giving Ukraine a vast range across the occupied territory. Since the Russian armed forces cannot protect their air-defense units once the ATACMS are launched, the only way they can protect them is by moving these units beyond the reach of ATACMS.

The one question I often get from people I talk to, both online and offline, is how many S400 and S300 systems the Russians have. No one really knows. I don’t think it matters anymore. What matters is whether or not Ukraine has the ability to take out Russian air-defense units. The number of ATACMS missiles Ukraine has is more important than the number of S400 launchers and other systems in Russian possession.

Should Ukraine Destroy All Long-Range Russian Air-Defense Systems?

No, that will not be necessary. You don’t say you have won a battle after destroying every single enemy asset. You call it a win when your enemy loses the ability to continue the fight. That is the point you want to reach, where you can impose your terms on your enemy on the battlefield.

Take Ukraine, for example. They survived the Russian missile attacks and denied entry to the Russian air force into the mainland using just four Patriot units and one SAMP/T system. That is all they have now.

That was enough to limit the operational space for the Russian air force. But the lack of enough long range air-defense systems in Ukraine’s possession allows the Russian air force to drop glide bombs at the frontline. If Ukraine had ten or twenty long-range systems, they would be able to take full control of the sky and force the Russian air force to operate deeper in the occupied territory.

Now flip the whole thing. By depleting Russia’s long-range air-defense systems, Ukraine will be able to expand the operational space for its own air force. When Russia launched its northeast offensive, Ukraine introduced its fighter jets and started hitting Russia’s frontline positions. Last week, they took out an S300 unit in Belgorod Oblast, the Russian territory that lies behind their frontline in the northeast. Now, Ukrainian jets are attacking targets inside Belgorod Oblast.

What is happening in Belgorod Oblast will slowly expand to cover the entire occupied territory. Little by little, Ukraine seeks to push the Russian air force back and allow their air force to take control.

As long as the United States keeps supplying Ukraine with ATACMS missiles, there is not much the Russians can do to stop this from happening.

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Thanks for reading. Making critical information on Ukraine accessible is one way to fight misinformation. That’s why I’ve made 177 stories free to the public in 2024, while 20 stories are behind the paywall.

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Shankar Narayan

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