Russia’s Air Defense Problem

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Deep into the third year of all-out war, Ukraine’s strained air defenses have been under the microscope—But while Russia bombards Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, Moscow has vulnerabilities of its own.

Russia’s air-defense network has been challenged by the fight against Ukraine, and it has been unable to adequately adapt to the threat posed by long-range drones and small aircraft, experts say. It has layers of air defenses, spanning ground-based systems, fighter jets and radars, plus electronic warfare equipment. Moscow is also home to one of very few permanent, fixed anti-ballistic missile systems, the A-135.

Russia’s systems have different ranges, both for distance and altitude, Marina Miron, a postdoctoral researcher with the War Studies Department at King’s College London, told Newsweek.

Yet Ukraine has consistently targeted territory deep inside Russia with airborne drones, sparking panic and explosions in Moscow, reaching Russian oil refineries and targeting strategic bases such as the Kremlin’s Engels long-range aviation hub in Russia’s Saratov region.

Russia's Air Defense Problem
Russia’s air-defense network has been challenged by the fight against Ukraine.

Photo-illustration by Newsweek/Getty, SHONE/Gamma-Rapho, NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP

Russia’s current air defense strategy, in place up until 2030, doesn’t address this type of technology, despite long having the threat of uncrewed vehicles on its radar, said Mattias Eken, a defense and security analyst with the European branch of the RAND think tank.

“The Kremlin appears to have been caught off guard by the susceptibility of its territory to drone strikes originating from Ukraine, including attacks on air bases like Engels,” he told Newsweek. “Rather than formulating a cohesive strategy, Russian authorities have predominantly resorted to ad hoc measures following attacks on their territory. Russia’s challenge does not stem from a lack of equipment, but rather from a historical focus on a different type of threat.”

Newsweek reached out to the Russian defense ministry for comment via email.

The war in Ukraine has prompted Russia to move a number of its air defense systems closer to the Ukrainian border, Eken added. Russia’s Pantsir-S1 is among the systems moved to plug the gaps and sit on top of government buildings, but “the effectiveness of these systems remains uncertain,” Eken said.

“There is some evidence suggesting that current short-range air defense systems, especially the Pantsir, struggle to effectively counter small lightweight drones,” he argued. Footage of relatively cheap drones striking the Pantsir across several conflicts indicates the problems are technological, as well as rooted in how Russia deploys them, Eken said.

Moving air defense systems from their original locations “jeopardized their effectiveness” in defending cities like the capital from air threats like cruise and ballistic missiles, analyst Maxim Starchak wrote for defense think tank The Jamestown Foundation in February 2023.

Moscow has also pulled air defenses from its western outpost at Kaliningrad — surrounded by several NATO nations around the Baltic Sea — to backfill supplies of systems destroyed or damaged in Ukraine, the British government said in November. Ukraine had recently taken out a slew of Russia’s advanced ground-based S-400 systems, and relocating air defenses showed the “overstretch” Moscow was feeling, London said at the time.