Six questions answered about the Russian invasion army’s new “air force”

Reports of the establishment of  a Russian invasion army’s air force being the making are circulating since several weeks now, but today (January 18, 2015) Russian news channel “Russia-24” posted first footage of what is described as the “air force of the People’s Republic of Luhansk”. This article answers the main questions about that new air force and assesses its threat to Ukrainian towns and military infrastructure now and in the future.

1. Where is the air force’s base located?

Footage can be traced back the the former training airfield of the Voroshilovgrad Air Navigators Academy, part of the 17th air army of the Soviet Union. The base is located just south east of Luhansk city, some 12 km north of Luhansk’s “new” airport which was entirely destroyed during the Russian invasion in late August and early September.

base location

Base location

The airfield was established in the 1940s and used to train pilots on L-29 until 1967. After that it was used as an air academy, teaching “the art of flying” on the ground. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the academy was operated further by Ukraine until 1997 when it was closed. Since then, the “Luhansk Aerodrome” serves as a military aircraft museum and is officially listed on travel guides into the region. It contains more than 50 planes and helicopters, including small fighter jets up to large Il-76 freighter aircraft. Until recently, details on the museum were available via the official homepage http://avia-museum.lg.ua/ but it is out of order since several months. Now we know why.

museum

Avia museum

2. What airplanes does the air force consist of?

According to Russia-24, the air force consists of “several L-29 trainer aircraft, several Su-25 as well as helicopters of various modifications”. However, footage only shows one seemingly operational L-29 Delfín (NATO reporting name “Maya”), maneuvering on the airfield. It is not seen in the air in the available footage. However, it can be assumed that it is fully operational, seeing its instruments remastered and the entire aircraft in a good shape. At the same time this jet was build between 1961 and 1967 and used until ’67 for training missions at the “Air Navigators Academy”.

Unbenannt

L-29 Delfín

No other planes “in active service” are shown while one interesting report some days before the official publication of the article and footage said one more Su-25 is currently remastered in a hangar of the air field. Furthermore, footage shows the operational L-29 being driven into one of the hangars to save it from the weather (and possibly feared Ukrainian strikes?!).

hangar

No operational helicopters nor attempts to revive them are portrayed in the Russian media footage. So in conclusion it is fair to assume that there is currently only one active aircraft in the air force of the “People’s Republic of Luhansk” with one more being remastered at the moments and possibly ready to fly soon.

3. Has Russia its hands in it?

Of course. Several aspects serve as strong indication for that.

First, the news report claims that there is sufficient “fuel delivered to the airfield” and there is only one source of the needed fuel as neither the “LC” nor the “DNR” has aircraft fuel at its disposal. All possible reserves of it have been used by the Ukrainian air force or destroyed around Donetsk and Luhansk airports in recent fighting.

fuel

Russian fuel, arriving in Luhansk

Second, it is natural that to fly airplanes, you need pilots. The article refers to them as “volunteers who received flight training in the Soviet time”. This clarification is interesting as it raises the question why these pilots have not been active during the last 25 years and what they have done since then. Also the – possibly desired – narrative of “former Ukrainian pilots” or “Ukrainian volunteers” is not used, but the only reference is given to the CCCP. One of the pilots is named as  Aram Avakian, however his origin remains unknown so far.

pilot

pilots

4. Are there any other working air bases in Russian-occupied Donbas?

Yes. On October 8, news appeared that the small Tarasivka air field had been revived by Russian invasion forces. One of the two Yak-52 there-stationed could be seen flying over the field with the first ever message of being “Nororossiya’s new air force”.

yak-52

In occupied Luhansk region, no other smaller air fields are know. A big question mark remains over the official airport of Luhansk, some 20 km south of the city. While latest available satellite pictures show the airport widely destroyed and its runway blocked on August 31, it – if repaired – would be the first choice for Russian reinforcements landing and possible fighter jets departing. However the question of eventual Russian efforts in this regard can not be answered before either new satellite pictures or footage from the area comes up.  At the same time, there are no known airfields operational or aircraft flying over the territory of the Donetsk region, despite the existence of some smaller strips. Donetsk airport remains in the focus of fighting and the runway seems to be badly damaged, making air traffic impossible – even in the case of a real ceasefire – for months, no matter who controls it.

5 How big is the current(!) threat of the Russian invasion army’s air force

Right now, the threat is not that big. If the conclusions from the latest footage are correct, there is curently one Yak-52 and one L-29 operational in the “LC’s” air force, which is not very concerning from a military point of view. Both aircraft are unarmed, so even if Russia would deliver arms to upgrade them, it would need some more work to refurbish them in a way that would make them able to use these weapon systems. Hence, the Russian report’s claim that the currently established “LC” “Air support [is] a very important thing.” can be regarded as an empty phrase.

6. How is the prospect?

However this “low risk assessment” for the very current situation can change within hours or days and the foundation of a dangerous – fit for fatal action – air force was already or is being established at the very moment. Russian invaders’ would not publish news of such crucial development if they didn’t know how to use and exploit them.

At the one hand, the Russian army was – with very few exceptions – not willing to deploy its own air force inside Ukraine or supply “rebels” (its invasion forces) with used fighter jets or helicopters like the Mil Mi-24 which would make a big advantage for them in the battle for Donbas.

At the other hand, the current report opens all doors for such support in the future. The Russia-24 article mentions at very first “The [50+ year old] runway is cleared”, being available for landings and take offs from now on. This is a sign for possible outside help, being expected at any point in the future. Moreover, the article – and the “militants” at the base – claim that “several” Su-25 are made over right now. True or not, this claim lays the foundation of Su-25 indeed popping up at the now active air base at some point, either really refurbished or driven in by trucks from Russia in parts and being fully assembled at the base. Under this pretext another possibility is that Russian air force aircraft will simply invade from Russian bases, now that th “LC” has an air force, and attack Ukrainian targets, disguised as the “LC air force”. These Sukhoi ground attack fighter jets – if present at the base as already announced today – would be a real challenge and a possible game changer in the war for Donbas. Therefore today’s announcement of the “establishment of the Luhansk People’s Republic air force” should be taken as seriously as possible and military consequences for such appearance in the near future should be drawn already today.

The Russian invasion continues – latest military developments in Ukraine

Today on the 4th of January 2015, we are 27 days into the Ukrainian government’s latest initiative of the “silent mode” – the latest additional appeasement measure after the “Minsk agreement” from September last year. Still, there is no visible let up in Russian attacks on the front line all across occupied Donbas, reaching from southern Mariupol until Stanitsia Luhanska on the north eastern end of the new de facto border between Russia and Ukraine. The number of daily Russian attacks on Ukrainian held towns and military positions slightly decreased from approximately 40-50 a day to now 20-30, however this is rather due to the fact that Russian forces now decide when and where to hit, being able to concentrate their forces on the target areas, not being afraid anymore of Ukrainian counterattacks or even return fire after their assaults. Just during the first 4 days of 2015, Ukraine saw 2 civilians and 1 soldier killed in fighting, while at least 7 civilians and 12 more Ukrainian troops were injured. Hot spots of the fighting remain the same as before December 9, meaning the Bakhmutka highway in northern Luhansk province with its Ukrainian strongholds Krymske, Zolote and Hirske being targeted daily, the town of Stanitsia Luhanska on the (old) Ukrainian-Russian border and Popasna, opposite Pervomaisk. Yes, the number of Grad missile attacks decreased, but more direct artillery, mortar and small arms encounters remain a daily appearance with civilians as well as Ukrainian armed forces casualties. In Donetsk region, the airport of Donetsk city as well as its bridgeheads in Pisky, Opytne and partly Avdeevka are subject to daily shelling and fire attacks, while it remains unclear, if Terminal 1 of Donetsk airport is still accessible via Ukrainian.held territory or the two allowed resupply routes via Russian-held territory signal an even worse situation. It is chilling that Ukrainian troops at the airport – the so called “Cyborgs” – claim, they were not rotated and resupplied with arms and ammunition since more than 8 weeks.

Rus flags

Picture shows flags of “Novorossiya” on top of Terminal 2, only meters away from Terminal 1, held by the Ukrainian army

A rather new development in terms of Russian attack focus areas stretches along the Kalmius river, north of Mariupol. This river is the official demarcation line, agreed on by all parties in the Minsk memorandum. However, as we know Russian forces and their local proxies do not accept their own signatures under the paper, it is not astonishing they are willing to extend their area of control beyond that natural border. Thus, attacks started on January 1st with all sorts of weapons, even face to face encounters, trying to push back Ukrainian forces – mainly from the Regiment Azov national guard – and build bridgeheads on the left side of the river. Between January 2 and 4, Orlivske, Hnutove and Hranitne came under attack from Russian forces.

Kalmius

Map shows locations and used weapons, acc. to the Ukrainian defenders

Beyond concrete attacks on the Ukrainian line of defense, multiple other worrying developments were recorded, mainly a – partly violent – replacement of Russian “volunteer” (former army) mercenaries with more Moscow-loyal forces, accepting the high command from the Kremlin and behaving less “wild” on Ukrainian ground. Despite only little facts available, it seems those Russian invaders, trying to build a “New Russia” – “Novorossiya” – are fought and replaced by the more “legitimate” pro-Moscow regimes, namely the “People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk”. While one Russian ringleader, called “Batman”, was killed by LC regime forces, others of his group swore to fight both, the local regimes as well as the Ukrainian army from now on. Ukrainian reports say up to 23 militants from both sides were killed in recent infighting, seemingly supported by aftermath pictures.

batman

Aftermath of LC-Novorossiya infighting in Luhansk region

While those, not behaving like Moscow wants it, are sent back to Russia or – if not willing to – obliterated without mercy, those, who obey to the Kremlin leaders’ will are rewarded with the latest Russian army military hardware, namely the BPM-97 “Vystrel”. Those apc, only produced in Russia and only used by Russian border troops, are the latest hint that the very leadership of the Russian Federation has nothing in mind that could equal any kind of retraction from its offensive position in Ukraine.

BPM-97

The BPM-97 in “war games” in Luhansk province

At the same time, it becomes once more explicit that Russia – just like with its T-72B1 or T-72B3 – would never give its latest armored personal carriers to any “rebel” faction in some renegade region abroad, but would only allow a free “export” of its 2000s hardware with qualified and loyal – Russian Army – personal. That this personal is active as never before in Ukraine can on the one hand be recognized by multiple reports:  Even the Ukrainian NSDC, which has a long history of downplaying Russian involvement in the conflict, fearing a cut off from international funds, said on January 3 that hundreds of Russian Federation troops entered Ukraine lately. Other reports from local witnesses and media reported for instance that 300 Russian soldiers had taken over Horlivka at the frontline with Ukraine, sending “DNR” forces to the hinterland. On the other hand, more and more evidence turns up that Russian soldiers from the Far East, seen approaching from Ulan Ude and elsewhere in November, are now fighting in Donbas, like in Horlivka as mentioned above.

horlivka

Far East Russian soldier in Horlivka on January 1

Last but not least, the Russian army (ab)used the Ukrainian “silence mode” to build up a working military logistic and infrastructure network in Donbas, now being able to (at least for a while) repulse any kind of military attack from the Ukrainian mainland. Part of this network are air defense systems and backup bases in Donbas hinterland (10km or more from the front line), like this base with dozens of BMP-1 in a former public transport depot, recently recovered and geolocated by me in Krasnyi-Luch.

krasnyi-luch

Russian base in Krasnyi Luch

In conclusion, there is no indication at all of Russia or its two local puppet regimes, having any intention to stick to the signed Minsk agreement. Hence, there is no sign on the horizon that the Ukrainian president’s peace plan, ceasefire or “silent mode” were anything close to be working in Ukraine’s favor. Therefor it is up to the Ukrainian government to chose if it wants to further stand idle and watch how a powerful Russian invasion force is taking shape on Ukrainian soil, able to hit hard when it where it chooses — OR if it wants to regain the initiative in the conflict by not allowing militants to strike at will and unpunished, killing Ukrainian citizens and soldiers and – slowly but steadily – expanding their controlled territory inside Ukraine and further shrinking a young, but proud and – if willing – also punchy European nation. Did you have a good read?! Please support my work with 1$ per month or more!

“The Boy who cried wolf” – my interview with the BBC at the turning point in Ukraine

At the 21st of August 2014, I was contacted by Vivienne Nunis from the BBC World Service, asking for an interview on the current situation in eastern Ukraine.

Although, the battle for Donbas was raging on for almost 4 months at this point, the general expectation was that the Ukrainian army was advancing and – after the recaptures of towns like Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Lisiciansk – was close to retaking Luhansk and Donetsk city, which would have brought the majority of the population of Donbas back under Ukrainian government control.

Instead, it had decided to bypass these metropoles and instead try to recapture the entire borderline between Ukraine and Russia, seemingly still thinking, there was an influx in fighters and equipment ongoing, but no direct involvement of the Russia Federation’s armed forces was looming on the horizon. As most of us know today – it was dead wrong.

Already two weeks before this date, the first T-72B1 (video-evidently) turned up inside Ukraine, tanks that – different from the until then supplied old sotcks T-64 – were still in active service by the Russian Federation’s army and which the country would never have “presented” to “rebels” abroad, not being sure that the operators of those modern battle tanks were trained enough to properly use them on the battlefield.

However at this point, several days before the end of August, most of the relevant actors, including the EU and the Ukrainian government as well as wide parts of the public, did not believe or at least did not communicate, that Russia had already gone far beyond logistical support of – few and weak – local insurgent forces as well as “volunteers”, being drafted and deployed to eastern Ukraine from Russian regions like the Caucasus or the wider Don region with its “Cossack” minority community.

At the same time, I was covering the conflict as detailed and beyond mainstream sources as possible, analyzing and geolocating people’s footage, showing large columns of – manned – Russian weapon systems streaming into cities like Krasnodon and Thorez, both, near to the Russian border and strategically located near Luhansk, resp. Donetsk city.

I pointed out that the observed T-72, BTR-80A as well as BMP, MT-LB and a wide range of artillery pieces were only the forerunners of things that would follow shortly. For this pessimistic – and widely contrary to the Ukrainian army-published constant success messages, I was almost daily called the proverbial “boy who cried wolf”, who overdid military developments on the ground and was – if at all – crying “Russian invasion!” far too early.

However, some attentive people – like Vivienne and her bosses at the BBC – had the presentiment that most of the public had a wrong impression of what was really going on in the eastern Ukrainian border areas or at least thought it would be wise give a voise to those, opposing the general public opinion. – So I gave the interview at the 23rd of August, clarifying that already at this point, some 100 Russian T-64 main battle tank had entered Ukraine and more modern equipment was entering at this very moment. I also felt the obligation to say, that because of this, it was misleading and simply wrong to speak of “separatists”, but the only possible accurate wording was to call those forces “invaders”.

Although the short interview didn’t allow me to further go into detail, I think I made it clear, that we are not dealing with a local insurgency, but a foreign-led invasion, happening in eastern Ukraine at this time and gaining strength by the day.

Within the next 7 days, it turned out, I was WAY OFF from “crying wolf” and Ukraine and the free world paid a heavy price for not listening to a small group of people, being aware of the real sitaution on the ground …

A massive Russian army invasion started from exactly these areas, we predicted them to come from. The Ukrainian army strongholds of Savur Mohyla, Ilovaisk and Luhansk airport fell and with them some 1000 Ukrainian soldiers, a number, Europe has not seen in such a short period of time since World War II.

The below maps shows the (official Ukrainian army-reported) strategic situation, at the day of my interview with the BBC and today.

21.8.201415.12.2014

As you can see, “crying wolf” where there were tens of thousands of wolves, invading the Donbas region, didn’t help as there was either no political will to treat the situation as what it was (and still is!) or political incompetence, leading to the most crushing defeat of a European army in the 21st century.

Four months on, we are in another “ceasefire” that cost far more than 1000 people their lives, have a de facto pro-Russian regime in eastern Ukraine and still no political will to regain the lost land or – at least finally call a spade a spade.

What does this tell us for the future?

1st: LISTEN to people, opposing the common opinion in security-related issues, especially when they have inside information, mainstream media and seemingly even government intelligence do not have or is not willing to use.

2nd: Do not repeat mistakes, you have made once. Until the very day, Russia is claiming, it is not involved in the Ukrainian conflict and not responsible for the death of 1500-2000 Ukrainian soldiers, national guard troops and border patrol forces as well as thousands of civilians. They lied then and they lie today, which is such as evidently that even former close allies – like several European governments – are not willing to buy those lies anymore and put a range of sanctions on Russia, punishing its “meddling” in Ukraine.

3rd: Follow the example BBC and other established mainstream media companies, letting citizens and especially citizen journalists have their say, although it might contradict what most people think is “real”. Sometimes only a few boys (and girls) see the wolf coming.

AUDIO FILE: My interview with the BBC on August 21