Ukrainian Veteran Air Commander Killed in Su-27 Fighter Shootdown: Depleted Air Defences Increase Dangers to Aviation Units

Ukrainian authorities have confirmed the death of two fighter pilots in recent hostilities, including one of its most experienced airmen the deputy commander of the 39th Tactical Aviation Brigade Major Stanislav Romanenko. The brigade operates Ukraine’s most capable class of fighter the Su-27 Flankers, which when they were inherited from the Soviet Union in 1991 were considered by far the most capable fighters in Europe. Conflicting reports indicate that either three or two of Ukraine’s scarce remaining Su-27s were shot down in the final week of December. Unlike the country’s lighter MiG-29s, which have seen dozens of new airframes delivered from across Eastern Europe, the Su-27 is not deployed by any other Western-aligned states which has made losses impossible to replenish. The deputy commander was awarded twice before in 2022, one order and one medal, and was buried in Zhytomyr on December 8. Zhytomyr was notably the site of one of the largest air battles of the war, which saw four Su-27s shot down in March 2022 by Russian fighters for no losses. Russian Su-35 air superiority fighters, an enhanced derivative of the Su-27 design with avionics, weaponry and airframe materials technologically around 25 years ahead, are thought to have been responsible for the victory. The technological disadvantages Ukrainian fighters have faced has been overwhelming since the war’s outbreak as a result of its lack of post-Soviet fighter classes, which is not expected to change as the country’s Western security partners have only offered to supply similarly obsolete variants of the F-16 which are considered much less capable than the Su-27.

Alongside deputy commander Romanenko, the second pilot confirmed killed was the 23-year-old Vladislav Zalistovsky, a MiG-29 pilot from the 114th Tactical Aviation Brigade, who is thought to have been piloting either the MiG-29 shot down at the end of December or another MiG-29 shot down in the first week of January. Following deliveries of further MiG-29s to Ukraine, reports indicated the fleet suffered serious losses in October – with ten days of intensive air engagements from October 13-23 seeing Russian forces shoot down 17 of the aircraft. Amid increasingly serious warnings from both local and Western sources regarding extreme shortages in Ukraine’s surface to air missile arsenal, Ukrainian fighter units are reported to have been deployed on riskier missions to counter Russian drone strikes in order to reduce the burden on ground based air defences. This has been widely credited by analysts with causing the increase in losses the fleet has suffered in recent months. Ukrainian aviation’s reduced ability to rely on ground based air defences has also reportedly allowed Russian fighter units to take greater risks both when engaging ground targets and when moving in against Ukraine’s remaining fighter units.