This article is not revealing any unexpected or surprising news. It doesn’t have to. It’s by now a known fact that Russia’s armed forces are fighting in Ukraine in their ten thousands, using their elite units (that conquered parts of Georgia in 2008) and latest military equipment. Thus by now it is only a question of piecing together a puzzle, proving that the Russian army’s invasion is further ongoing and in full-scale despite Russia’s and western media’s denial of the situation, both referring to the invading national army as “separatists” respectively “pro-Russian rebels”. Both terms are (intentionally) misleading and wrong and it is the work of fact-based journalism to again and again pointing out that hypocrisy. Therefore the confirmed existence of the latest Russian army air defense system – the Pantsir S-1 / SA-22 Greyhound – is just another piece in the puzzle that reveals the whole picture of the current situation in eastern Ukraine.
How can the existence of the SA-22 in central Donetsk region be proven?
Five days ago on January 24, the first picture emerged of the SA-22, claiming to show it in the eastern Donetsk town of Shakhtarsk. However due to the Russian army’s threat against Ukrainian civilians critical of the invasion and revealing their ongoing equipment transfer, the picture was apparently shot secretly, is blurry and impossible to geolocate / verify. Then on January 28, another picture turned up with more ambient details.
Thanks to the “swarm intelligence” of the Russian invasion critical – mostly Ukrainian – internet community, it only took a few hours until the necessary geolocation and identification was done. To independently verify this, I did it once again, coming to the same conclusion (see pictured process below).
As shown in the geolocation and mapping process above, the SA-22 can be clearly located in north eastern Makeevka city, just 20 km east of the current front between Russian and Ukrainian troops. There is no doubt about it as many other analysts came to the same conclusion.
Why does the Russian army have those AA systems in Makeevka and along the front?
The SA-22 is a short- to medium range air defense systems, combining anti-aircraft artillery as well as surface-to-air missiles. Its maximum operational range is 4 km for the cannon and 20 km for the SAM with a target flight altitude of up to 15 kilometers, enough for most commercial and military jets (apart from a few very modern ones). Its appearance in eastern Ukraine can be interpreted in two ways:
Firstly and obviously the Russian invasion army wants to safeguard its forces across the occupied areas against Ukrainian air force attacks. Beside having many other – less modern – air defense systems in the region, the SA-22 gives them even more certainty of absolute air superiority over the current battlefield of Donbas.
However, there is a second, more worrying possible reason for the deployment. The Ukrainian army did rarely use any jets or air strikes in the conflict during the last 5 months. Firstly because it agreed to not do so in accordance with the Minsk memorandum and secondly because it already knows of the (more or less) advanced Russian air defense systems in the longtime-taken areas. The Russian side knows this and therefore it is to some degree unlikely that they fear attacks right now. Instead it can be argued that this system was brought in to provide (anti-)air cover for further advanced deployments than the current front and fighting arena. In a time where Ukraine feels there is no more need to stick to the Minsk agreement as the situation deteriorated too much it might hope newly occupied areas (far west of the current front) are possibly less safeguarded by Russian air defense systems, the SA-22 shows the mobility and flexibility to move short behind the – then extended and possibly dynamic – front and foil possible Ukrainian (MiG-29 and SU-27) air force attempts to stop the Russian advance in that future march.
Thus this high tech Russian army system so close to the front indicates not only a current threat but also further escalation from the Russian side for the upcoming months.