Russia’s continuing threats to invade Ukraine, or otherwise traumatize it by military force, are predicated on Russia maintaining its asymmetric edge over Ukraine in several key areas of non-nuclear military capability. Russia’s Soviet-derived military thinking emphasizes moving only when the “(Correlation of Forces) offers enough of an advantage that a decisive outcome is produced.
While many Western observers see the invasion of 2014 to have been an outstanding success for Russia and defeat for Ukraine, against Russia’s sought objectives in the Novorossiya campaign, this is not really the case. The hastily reconstituted Ukrainian forces and militias drove Russia’s irregular forces out of two-thirds of initially held Donbas territory, and deep raids by Ukrainian paratroopers catastrophically disrupted Russia’s attempt to regain momentum. Russia was able to hold what it has now by virtue of numbers and by inserting large numbers of its regular forces alone.
Therefore Moscow’s toxic reaction to the meeting between Zelensky and Erdogan in Istanbul did not come as a surprise. Turkey and Ukraine have developed close defense industry ties since 2014 with multiple joint projects, in which both nations provide complementary military technologies to gain mutual benefit. Cooperation in the development of drones is an example where the Turks intend to use Ukrainian-made engines. Turkey has supplied a wide range of equipment to Ukraine, but Russia has been especially irked by the supply of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones that distinguished themselves in Syria, Libya and especially Nagorno-Karabakh. Constructed from composite materials and smaller than U.S. Predator drones, the TB2 is often undetectable by the radar systems on Soviet and Russian short-range air defense systems and can attack using up to four Turkish developed MAM-L/C miniature laser-guided bombs.
The Turkish air force defeated Russia’s much vaunted 96K6 Pantsyr S1/S2 or SA-22 system in Syria and Libya using the TB2 and performed even better in the Caucasus, where Turkish supplied TB2s were credited with destroying 47 items of Russian supplied air defense equipment, including two of the latest short-range Tor MK2M or SA-15 systems. The TB2s provided targeting for attacks using Israeli supplied LORA standoff missiles, used to destroy a long-range S-300PS or SA-10B SAM battery. Azeri TB2 drones were also used to target Turkish license-built Texas Instruments GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs dropped by Azeri flown Soviet era Su-25 FROGFOOT attack aircraft – Aselsan developed an adaptor to mate the GBU-12 kit of Desert Storm fame to a Soviet OFAB-250 dumb bomb. Critically, the TB2s killed 138 tanks, 167 artillery pieces, 90 MLRS systems, 49 armored vehicles, 386 soft-skinned vehicles, and 10 electronic jamming systems.
Russia’s reaction and the subsequent suspension of tourist flights to Turkey reflect genuine unease in Russia, as Turkish supplied military equipment erodes Russia’s asymmetric advantage in short-range battlefield air defenses, critical to defending invading Russian ground forces against the very competent and aggressive Ukrainian Air Force. That reaction may also be a sign of Moscow’s belated recognition that it had overreached against Ukraine and an attempt to vent its spleen at Ankara for frustrating its designs on Ukraine.
Russia’s asymmetric advantages against Ukraine are marginal in many areas, contrary to the beliefs widely held by Western media, which would be greatly negated by Turkish drones and allied assistance to Ukraine in any future war. No less importantly, Russia’s warstocks of smart munitions do not compare in numbers or technology to Western air forces, and mostly are Cold War designs identical to those used by Ukraine. In fact, many of Russia’s smart munitions are equipped with Ukrainian-developed guidance systems. Russia’s embargo of Ukraine after the Orange Revolution severely disrupted its supply of new air-air missiles, as Ukraine manufactured under contract most of the guidance systems and often complete missiles. Stills and footage from Syria and elsewhere show Russian jets mostly armed with these legacy weapons.
Russia has very few modern targeting pods and reconnaissance systems compared to Western air forces.
Russia has one brigade of airborne early warning aircraft and around twenty aerial refueling tankers. A similar situation is seen with Surface to Air Missiles. Russia operates mostly much newer variants of the very same weapons the Ukrainians operate. Most recently delivered Russian S-400 or SA-21 systems are rebuilt Soviet era S-300PM or SA-20 systems. All of the very lethal S-300V4 or SA-23 systems are rebuilt Cold War S-300V systems. Ukraine’s most potent SAMs are much earlier variants of the same weapons, but fewer in numbers and plagued by the same shortage of spare parts as the Soviet era fighter fleet.
Nevertheless, Russia has the sheer numbers to grind down Ukraine’s air defenses in a standup fight by virtue of this advantage alone. As the Putin regime repeatedly demonstrated in the Donbas war, losses were deemed irrelevant unless they became public knowledge. Russia has other asymmetric advantages they would play against Ukraine in a major fight. One is the Iskander TBM that has 500 km range and is highly accurate. The other is a respectable warstock of cruise missiles launched by bombers, ships and Iskander M ground vehicles. These weapons could be used to pre-emptively cripple Ukraine’s airfields, SAM batteries, ammunition storage depots, and command and control systems.
Ukraine’s Soviet era S-300P and S-300V1 SAMs predate the inclusion of anti-ballistic missile capabilities incorporated in Russia’s newer variants. So, Russia’s campaign to intimidate the West, especially Europe and Turkey, to deny Ukraine military aid reflects a genuine fear of Ukraine receiving capabilities that would offset Russia’s asymmetric advantages in numbers and many key capabilities. Judicious choices in military aid or Lend Lease supply of capabilities could catastrophically disrupt Russia’s currently favorable correlation of forces and put the rapid and conclusive success of any invasion campaign in serious doubt.
For instance, supply of F-15 fighters, modern smart weapons, E-2C airborne early warning systems, and KC-135R aerial tankers offsets Russia’s asymmetric advantage in tactical airpower. Supply or short-term deployment of U.S. Army anti-ballistic missile systems would deny the advantage produced by the Iskander TBM and degrade the asymmetric advantage in cruise missiles. Recent comments by Ukraine’s former Ambassador Valery Chaly and presidential aide Andriy Yermak reflect this reality. The Biden Administration could make any Russian invasion of Ukraine a permanently non-viable proposition, and the dynamic of peace negotiation very different, by promptly providing Ukraine with the right military capabilities.
Stephen J. Blank, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow at FPRI’s Eurasia Program. He has published over 1500 articles and monographs on Soviet/Russian, U.S., Asian, and European military and foreign policies, testified frequently before Congress on Russia, China, and Central Asia, consulted for the Central Intelligence Agency, major think tanks and foundations, chaired major international conferences in the U.S. and in Florence; Prague; and London, and has been a commentator on foreign affairs in the media in the U.S. and abroad. He has also advised major corporations on investing in Russia and is a consultant for the Gerson Lehrmann Group. He has published or edited 15 books, most recently Russo-Chinese Energy Relations: Politics in Command (London: Global Markets Briefing, 2006). He has also published Natural Allies? Regional Security in Asia and Prospects for Indo-American Strategic Cooperation (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2005). He is currently completing a book entitled Light From the East: Russia’s Quest for Great Power Status in Asia to be published in 2014 by Ashgate. Dr. Blank is also the author of The Sorcerer as Apprentice: Stalin’s Commissariat of Nationalities (Greenwood, 1994); and the co-editor of The Soviet Military and the Future (Greenwood, 1992).