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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ukraine says it downed 5 Russian planes, as Moscow claims it seized a town

A crater left by a Russian missile strike in Kherson, Ukraine, Dec. 5, 2023. Ukraine’s success in downing Russian planes over the weekend, possibly owed to Western-supplied Patriot missiles, was offset by Russia’s statement that is now controlled Marinka. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times)

By Constant Meheut

The Ukrainian military said earlier this week that it had shot down five Russian fighter jets in three days, one of the biggest weekly losses for the Russian air force since the war began and a rare bright spot for Ukraine, whose forces have faced setbacks since its failed monthslong counteroffensive this year.

But the news could be offset if Russia’s claim that it had seized full control of the eastern town of Marinka is true. Russian forces have gradually advanced over months of battle against Ukrainian troops there, but Ukraine denied that the town was entirely under Russian control.

Just days after claiming to have downed three Su-34 fighter-bombers Friday, the Ukrainian military said it had destroyed two more jets Sunday. The claims could not be independently verified.

Early Tuesday morning, Ukraine’s air force claimed another victory, saying it had destroyed a Russian ship, the Novocherkassk. The account could not be independently verified. Sergei Aksyonov, the Russia-installed head of Crimea, said that Ukrainian forces had attacked the Crimean Black Sea town of Feodosia, starting a fire in its port.

Military analysts, as well as several Ukrainian officials, have suggested that Western-supplied Patriot missile systems may have been used in attacks on the Russian planes — an unusual instance of the air defense systems, which have mostly been deployed to shoot down incoming missiles, being used against aircraft.

Celebrating the Monday announcement, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said, “This Christmas sets the right mood for the whole next year.”

The same day, Russia said it had taken the few blocks in Marinka that remained under Ukrainian control. Despite being largely reduced to rubble after months of shelling, Marinka holds some strategic value because it’s a key Ukrainian fortification on the eastern front.

Still, Ukraine has had time to build fallback positions in case the town falls and has vowed to thwart Russia’s efforts to advance to the borders of the Donetsk region, which it claimed to have annexed last year.

The assault on Marinka was part of an offensive push that Moscow has launched in recent months all along the eastern front, and its capture could deal a blow to Ukrainian morale.

“Our troops have the opportunity to establish a wider operational area,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a video of a conversation between him and Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu, during which Shoigu told Putin that Marinka had been captured.

But Oleksandr Shtupun, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian military, denied Russia’s claim to now have full control of Marinka, saying on national television that Ukrainian forces “are within the city.”

Russia has seized the initiative on much of the battlefield, and delays in the delivery of much-needed military aid caused by political wrangling in Washington have reportedly forced some Ukrainian units to scale back operations.

Although Russia has not been able to achieve air supremacy throughout Ukraine, the size of its air fleet dwarfs that of Ukraine’s and has been a driving force behind Moscow’s regular bombing of Ukrainian army positions, alongside attacks from Black Sea warships and field artillery. The downing of the jets could ease the pressure on Ukrainian troops operating in the hot spots of the fighting, analysts said, such as near the southern city of Kherson.

On Monday, Yurii Ihnat, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s air force, said on national television that Russia “was no longer actively fighting in the Kherson region, realizing that there could be a trap for them” and had instead launched a dozen drones in the area to try to identify the system that shot down the planes.

The Su-34 jets are Russia’s modern fighter bombers, with the ability to hit distant targets while carrying several tons of bombs and missiles. They have been repeatedly used to strike Ukrainian forces with powerful glide bombs, which are guided airdropped munitions capable of flying long distances.

Ukrainian officials said that an Su-34 destroyed Sunday was operating near the southern Russian-occupied city of Mariupol, while the location of another Su-30 jet that was downed is unknown.

The three warplanes downed Friday were operating near the southern city of Kherson, authorities said, from which Ukraine has launched daring but deadly operations to secure a bridgehead on the Russian-controlled eastern bank of the Dnieper River.

In response, Russian forces bombarded the area, including Kherson, which is on the opposite bank and in Ukrainian hands. Local authorities said that three civilians were killed in the shelling of residential buildings Sunday.

Ihnat told Ukrainian television that the Russian jets had been flying close to Ukrainian defense positions, trying to hit them with guided bombs, when they were shot down.

“They took a risk,” Ihnat said, “without success.”

Although Ukraine has not officially confirmed how the five warplanes were downed, Mykola Bielieskov, a military analyst at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a Ukrainian government research group, said that U.S.-designed Patriot systems — America’s most advanced ground-based air-defense system — may have been involved in the operation.

Ukrainian army officials also hinted at the use of Patriot systems in destroying the jets.

Russian authorities made no mention of the incidents, although they said Sunday that their military had shot down four Ukrainian jets, a claim that could not be independently verified.

But the Fighterbomber Telegram channel, believed to be run by Capt. Ilya Tumanov of the Russian army, reported Friday the loss of an unspecified number of Russian warplanes, saying they had been downed by Patriot missiles.

Ukraine has been highly secretive about the use of Western air defenses out of concern that the Russian army would target them.

Zelenskyy said during a news conference last week that Ukraine would receive several additional Patriot systems this winter, without specifying a number. “We are getting stronger, more powerful,” he said.

Valeriy Romanenko, a Ukrainian aviation expert, told Ukrainian radio on Saturday that the presence of Patriot systems on the southern front would make the situation safer for Ukrainian troops.

“Now this number of raids with KABs will decrease,” Romanenko said, using the name for the guided bombs fired by Russian jets. The Russians would have to “carefully prepare each operation, check whether there is a Patriot nearby,” he added.

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