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What happened when Russia’s air force attacked Wagner’s rebels? - The Economist - 27.06.23

The mercenaries’ downing of several aircraft is another embarrassment for Moscow.

WHEN WAGNER GROUP mercenaries, commanded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, advanced towards Moscow on June 24th, they met little resistance on the ground. But the rebels did come under attack from the Russian air force—and shot down a surprising number of their attackers. At least one plane and six helicopters were apparently downed. This was a costly event for Moscow, in losses of men and reputation as well as aircraft. What happened?

As with all assessments of military losses since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the only information available is shared or leaked on social media, and has to be treated with caution. Posters often try to pass off pictures from previous conflicts as new kills, and validation is difficult. However, some sources have proved reliable. Analysts at Oryx, a Dutch open-source intelligence research group, have as previously done great service in corralling the available information.

The air force’s most significant loss was a four-engined Il-22M “Coot” Airborne Command Post. This is a modified Ilyushin Il-18 airliner, packed with communications and computing equipment to relay data and to allow officers on board to oversee and control operations below. It has a crew of ten, all of whom were reportedly lost when the plane was brought down.

The helicopters lost included one Kamov Ka-52 “Hokum-B” attack helicopter and one Mil Mi-35 “Hind-E” assault helicopter, plus four Mil Mi-8 “Hip” transports. Three of the Mi-8s are said to be rare MTPR electronic-warfare variants, equipped to carry out jamming against radar and communications. “We regret that we were forced to strike at air assets, but these assets were dropping bombs and delivering missile strikes,” Mr Prigozhin said later.

There are no reports of Russian jets being shot down, though they apparently did bomb the Wagner forces, as dramatic dashcam footage showed. The attack helicopters are armed with rockets, guided anti-tank missiles and cannon. Although designated as transports, the Mi-8s are equipped with rocket pods and have often carried out attacks in Ukraine.

Wagner columns driving along main roads should have presented easy targets for air strikes—like the more than 1,000 retreating Iraqi vehicles destroyed by American forces on the notorious ‘Highway of Death’ between Kuwait and Iraq in 1991. This smaller encounter also seems to have been one-sided, but in favour of those on the ground.

How come? America’s Department of Defence notes that Wagner operates a wide range of Russian military equipment, including Sa-22 Pantsir mobile surface-to-air systems. The Pantsir is mounted on a truck and has a radar linked to twin 30mm automatic cannon, plus up to 12 surface-to-air missiles.

Wagner also has portable, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft guided missiles. But no information is available yet on how the aircraft were shot down, or why an airborne command-and-control post was dangerously close to a combat zone. Friendly-fire incidents are not uncommon with Russian air defence.

Russian helicopters have taken significant losses in Ukraine and now tend to stay low to avoid surface-to-air missiles. The failure of Russian helicopters to stop, or even apparently to slow, the rapid Wagner advance, may be another sign that their effectiveness against modern anti-aircraft defences is limited.

According to Mr Prigozhin, Wagner’s only casualties from the air attacks were two dead and “several” injured—although images show several destroyed vehicles. Janes, a group of military analysts, estimates that 29 personnel from Russian aerospace forces were killed in the aircraft that were brought down. These deaths may be more politically important than the losses of expensive equipment.

Nobody mourns an aircraft, but a dead pilot is another matter. Mr Prigozhin’s brief mutiny was not bloodless, and Russians may be unhappy to see more servicemen die with no attempt to bring their killers to justice. ■

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