On August 29, 2022, Russian state news agency TASS published an article claiming that the Ukrainian Air Force was all but destroyed. 

"The entire qualified operating personnel of Ukraine’s former air force - of Mig-29, Su-27 and Su-25 aircraft - have been practically eliminated by the effective actions of the Russian Aerospace Forces and the air defense systems," an unnamed source within the military said, according to TASS. 

This is not the first time a claim like this has been made. Since the start of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia has continued to repeat the claim that Ukrainian air assets had been almost entirely destroyed. 

In fact, on the very first day of the invasion, TASS published a statement issued by the Russian Defense Ministry, which said that Ukraine’s air defense facilities, military airfields and aviation had been destroyed with high-precision weapons. 

In March 2022 the ministry said once again that the “Ukrainian Air Force practically ceased to exist” and, later the same month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu repeated the claim once more.  

Shoigu reiterated the claim again in June after the ministry said that it had destroyed an entire Ukrainian air base full of aircraft and personnel. 

Discrepancies 

However, the figures presented in these claims also tended to shift.  

According to Flight Global’s World Air Forces directory, at the end of 2021, the Ukrainian military (the Air Force, the Army and the Navy) had 196 active airplanes and 122 helicopters. 

The original February 24 announcement made by the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that Ukraine had 152 airplanes and 149 helicopters, which might have not included the ones used for training. By March it was announced that from this figure, 123 airplanes and 77 helicopters were destroyed. An announcement made in May stated that 180 aircraft and 127 helicopters had been destroyed. 

Later announcements did not refer to the number of destroyed aircraft, likely because the figure would greatly surpass the number of aircraft owned by Ukrainians in the first place. However, separate claims about Russian forces destroying Ukrainian aircraft continued to appear almost every day. 

Russia’s attempts to claim that it had destroyed more aircraft than had ever been owned and operated by Ukraine did not go unnoticed by the Russian public, and numerous attempts to explain this problem were published by the country’s media. Some experts claimed that the initial assessment was wrong and that the Ukrainian Air Force, in fact, had more than 600 active combat aircraft. Others alleged that the West is secretly providing Ukraine with large numbers of aircraft. Another explanation suggested that Ukraine had hastily reactivated large stocks of inactive ex-Soviet airframes in its numerous aircraft factories. 

But none of these claims aligned with official information. Russia did not correct its initial claim that Ukraine had 152 airplanes and 149 helicopters, continuing to repeat these figures in later statements. The country also made multiple claims that it had incapacitated all Ukrainian airbases and military factories several times over. 

Additionally, Russian leaders continued to threaten to further escalate the war if Western powers were to supply combat aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force. At the time, Western countries were openly hesitant to provide new aircraft to Ukraine. Ukraine was only supplied with transport and attack helicopters, and in rather low numbers. The country was also supplied with aircraft parts that may have helped it to reactivate some old or damaged jets.  

Evidence 

Oryx blog, which documents visually confirmed loss of equipment in the Russian-Ukrainian war, lists 41 Ukrainian airplanes and 13 helicopters as confirmed losses as of late August 2022. The list is by no means complete, as visual confirmation is difficult to obtain in a war zone. However, this assessment is the only hard data we have regarding the Ukrainian losses, with Russian reports lacking any kind of visual confirmation. 

Photographic and video evidence of Ukrainian military aircraft and helicopters continuing to operate and conduct combat sorties has been plentiful throughout the entire conflict. Sukhoi Su-27s were filmed bombing Snake Island in May, and as late as mid-August the type has been spotted over Donbas. 

August also saw widespread use of AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles against Russian anti-aircraft installations. Photos showing parts and fragments of these missiles were published on Russian social media channels and, while initial speculations suggested Ukraine might have adapted them to be fired from ground-based vehicles, the claim that the missiles are being fired by Ukrainian aircraft seem far more realistic. 

On August 30, the Ukrainian Air Force published a video showing MiG-29 fighter jets firing HARMs, confirming that not only is the type still active, but it has been adapted to perform an unusual role. A number of other videos depicting MiG-29s operating and launching missiles were also published during the summer of 2022. 

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There have also been numerous allegations that aircraft supported Ukraine’s initial push around Kherson on August 29. Several unconfirmed videos of Su-25 ground attack aircraft have been posted on social media, although the time and location they show cannot be assessed. Meanwhile, Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed that its forces shot down two Su-25s over Zaporizhzhia, east of Kherson, on that day.  

Finally, in a video, which originated on Russian Telegram channels and was widely circulated following the attack, a Russian soldier can be heard stating that their positions were attacked by Ukrainian “tanks, aviation, artillery”. The footage can be said to provide at least some circumstantial evidence that Ukrainian aircraft have been involved in fighting during recent days – despite Russia’s insistence that Ukrainian aircraft have been completely destroyed.