Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has been asking Europeans for several weeks to supply Kiev with fighter planes. The question that many strategists are trying to answer is to what extent would control of the skies allow Ukraine to regain the areas of its territory lost to Russia?
(RFI) Franck Alexandre
While Volodymyr Zelensky insists on the need to strengthen the Ukrainian air force, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Army, associated with the Wagner paramilitary group, makes the most of artillery battles on the front, ahead of the arrival of more modern Western tanks.
Élie Tenenbaum, research director at the French Institute of International Relations, analyzed for RFI the implication of the fighters for Ukrainian strategy.
RFI – After the tanks, Volodymyr Zelensky asks the Europeans for planes. Is this a necessary component for Ukraine’s victory?
Élie Tenenbaum – It is an additional logical step after the progressive accumulation of more and more offensive equipment, and the desire of the Ukrainians to be able to fight in the depths of the enemy system. One way or another, this will lead to the issue of the third dimension and therefore fighter aircraft, particularly fighter-bombers, in order to be able to carry out an offensive on the entire occupied territory, either this spring [in the northern hemisphere] or in future stages.
RFI – French President Emmanuel Macron has said that he does not rule out delivering fighter jets to Ukraine, but that the priority right now is to help Kiev resist in the coming weeks. Is France in a position to supply planes to Kiev?
Élie Tenenbaum: It seems very complicated in the current system, that is, of a considerably limited air force, reduced in number. At the same time, if we look in detail, the French president has announced a transition stage for all Rafale models under the upcoming military programming law, and thus the inevitable scrapping or a second-hand market of some Mirage 2000 aircraft that could potentially match the Ukrainians’ needs. However, this is not the preferred option for the Elysée Palace at present, both from the standpoint of deterrent dialogue with Russia and the desire not to provoke Moscow’s wrath beyond what has happened with every arms delivery to Kiev.
The West has proceeded quite cautiously, increasing its aid to Ukraine gradually, in order to create a form of habit for Moscow without accentuating too radical a split. Perhaps the delivery of fighter aircraft today is not yet mature enough for Westerners, and certainly among Europeans. But I have no doubt that we will get there in the end. The Ukrainian air force is badly damaged, with Russian-made equipment that cannot be used in the long term. At some point this air force will have to be transformed with Western equipment.
RFI – For Paris, could the supply of aircraft be a symbolic gesture to pressure other allies to do the same? Something like the AMX 10 light tanks?
Élie Tenenbaum – For sure, it would be a very strong signal, in the perspective of the delivery of the American F-16s, which we know are really in Zelensky’s sights. But again, it didn’t seem to me, listening to Macron’s words, that Paris was currently counting on this scenario. Public opinion and the political class will no doubt have to get used to the idea that the next stage will consist of the delivery of combat aircraft. Now, on this point, the Elysée is not entirely wrong in saying that the battlefield today is characterized by a form of air interdiction. There are no Ukrainian fighters over the battlefield, but there are no Russian fighters in combat either.
It is as if ‘interdiction bubbles’ exist, with relatively effective air defense, and from this point of view, even if air superiority may represent a considerable advantage for the Ukrainians, it is far from a reality that they can implement, since Russian anti-air defense is present and it is also effective. Secondly, what the Ukrainians have demonstrated so far is that they can still gain ground without air dominance. Will they be able to do much more than that, i.e. small local counteroffensives? It’s not clear.
RFI – Just days before the war turns one year old, many fear a new offensive from Moscow. Do the Russians have a momentum, a window of opportunity to act first?
Élie Tenenbaum – It is very clear that the recent changes in the Russian General Staff demonstrate that the Kremlin wants to send the message of a return to the offensive spirit. The mobilization of conscripts has made it possible to re-establish a form of numerical parity on the battlefield, even a numerical superiority gradually achieved on the Russian side. In terms of materials, we know that Russian superiority has diminished, but it is still present. All of this was planned to relaunch an offensive.
We recently saw in Soledar an armored infantry that maneuvered very differently from what we had seen during the winter. The action of the paramilitaries of the Wagner group was more an attempt to conquer some territory than a real offensive. There are new developments, but the results are far from brilliant. Russian forces do not seem capable of making significant inroads, but it is clear that the Russian plan is to relaunch the offensive.
RFI – The bad news for the Ukrainians is a restriction on access to the Starlink satellite network.
Élie Tenenbaum – Yes, access to Starlink [a satellite system developed by Elon Musk] had played a key role in maintaining Ukrainian communications at the beginning of the conflict, especially after Russian attacks crippled local systems and antennas. Today, Ukrainian dependence on Starlink is less. They have had time to establish replacement systems.
This case raises the question of the sustainability of the Western support effort, even in the private sector. The momentum of the first few months is beginning to cool as the bills pile up, and obviously it also raises the question of Ukrainian dependence, not so much on Starlink as a system, but overall on the command and control system, and above all on the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system that is now largely provided by the Americans. This gives the Ukrainians an information advantage in terms of transparency on the battlefield. It allows Kiev to anticipate the movements of the opposing Army, which so far explains the good performance of the Ukrainian Army. If this source of information were to dry up, it would obviously be very bad news for the Ukrainians.
Currently, we have not yet reached that point. The ties and intelligence sharing coming from the United States, and not from the private sector, are of very good quality.
*** Translated by the DEFCONPress FYI Team ***