1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

How Kyiv shooting down a Russian spy plane could impact war

Roman Goncharenko
January 17, 2024

Ukraine claims it shot down a Russian A-50 reconnaissance aircraft. Analysts tell DW the weapons it could have used and lay out potential military consequences for Kyiv and Moscow if the claim is accurate.

A Russian A-50 early warning plane flies over Red Square in Moscow
A Russian A-50 early warning plane flies over Red Square in MoscowImage: Evgeny Biyatov/Host Photo Agency/Getty Images

Russia's Defense Ministry has not reacted to the Ukrainian military's announcement that it shot down a Russian military  A-50 surveillance plane over the Sea of Azov on Sunday and damaged an Il-22M bomber.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said he had "no information" about the incident and directed questions to the Defense Ministry.

Ukraine's top general, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, and the head of the Ukrainian Air Force, Mykola Oleshchuk, have both claimed that the Russian aircraft were hit.

If other sources verify their claims, it will be the first time that the Ukrainian military has managed to shoot down an A-50 plane. The early warning and control aircraft were developed in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1970s on the basis of the Il-76 transport plane.

Sophisticated rotating radar systems

The planes are easy to recognize thanks to the rotating radar dome that it is equipped with. NATO describes its similar systems as Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems (AWACS).

Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Ukraine has managed to hit Il-76 aircraft, both airborne and on the ground, but not an A-50.

Usually, such aircraft operate up to several hundred kilometers away from conflict zones. Their main task is to conduct deep reconnaissance and provide support in targeting objectives, particularly in the air.

According to media reports, the Russian military has about a dozen such aircraft. The A-50U, a modernized version, has been in operation since 2011.

The latest variant was delivered to the Russian Aerospace Forces in September 2023. In February 2023, an A-50 plane parked on an airbase in Belarus was damaged by a drone. 

A few months later, in June, an Il-22M aircraft, which are used as airborne command centers, was shot down in the Russian region of Voronezh by the Wagner Group, a private Russian paramilitary organization, during its mutiny.

A NATO early warning AWACS aircraft
NATO calls its AWACS systems its 'eye in the sky' Image: Rostislav Kalousek/picture alliance/dpa/CTK

Possible involvement of Patriot air defense systems

The Ukrainian military has not said how the A-50 and Il-22 were attacked. But Valeriy Romanenko from the National Aviation University told DW that Patriot air defense systems might have been used. He said since the targets were reportedly hit over the Sea of Azov, off the coast of the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine, only Patriot missiles would have the operational range of 160 kilometers (99 miles) needed.

This would mean the Ukrainian military has moved expensive and powerful Patriot systems close to the front line. Ukraine has several such systems, including some from Germany. Until now, the systems were all thought to be in use protecting large cities from Russian attacks. According to Ukraine, they are currently being used to intercept modern Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missiles.

Kinzhals not 'true hypersonic missiles': Military analyst

"Bringing Patriot systems so close to the front is a more than risky operation," Oleg Katkov, editor-in-chief of Defense Express, told DW. He said that last May several Russian fighter jets and helicopters had been destroyed in the Bryansk region on the border with Ukraine.

Last month, Ukraine announced that it had shot down three Russian fighter-bombers on the southern front. What weapons the military used is unknown, but many observers assume it was the Patriot systems.

Austrian military historian Colonel Markus Reisner told DW that he suspected that the A-50 could have been hit not only by Patriots but also by another system from both the ground and the air. He said there was even a possibility that different systems had been used.

A man stands on a Patriot air defense system in a snowy landscape
Ukrainian soldiers received training to use Patriot air defense systems in GermanyImage: Sebastian Christoph Gollnow/dpa

'Impressive success' for Ukraine

Experts expect the Ukrainian attack over the Sea of Azov will have several consequences. Reisner said that Russia will not be able to act as if nothing happened until the situation has been clarified.

Romanenko, for his part, said he expects the Russian military to withdraw its reconnaissance aircraft to about 100 kilometers from the front. He added that such a step would give Kyiv "tactical advantages in certain areas," from which the Ukrainian military could conduct attacks on Crimea and targets located well within the other Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. 

He said this could also improve conditions for the deployment of Ukrainian fighter aircraft, both to support ground operations and to deploy Western cruise missiles such as the Storm Shadow.

Reisner said downing an A-50 would represent an "impressive success" for Ukraine on the battlefield and in the media. He compared the recent developments to the Ukrainian attack on a Russian submarine in  Crimea last September and explained that Ukraine had again demonstrated that it could use the "limited resources that it has at its disposal to incredible effect." He said that this was important with regard to continued support from the West.

This article was originally published in Russian.