By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Ukraine still has a “significant majority” of its military aircraft available nine days after Russian forces started their invasion of the country, a U.S. defense official said on Friday.
Vastly outmatched by Russia’s military, in terms of raw numbers and firepower, the fact that Ukraine’s own air force is still flying and its air defenses are still deemed to be viable has surprised military experts.
“The Ukrainians still have a significant majority of their air combat power available to them, both fixed-wing and rotary wing as well as unmanned systems and surface-to-air systems,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official added that Ukrainian aircraft had suffered some loses, including being destroyed by Russian forces, but did not give details.
After the opening salvos of the war on Feb. 24, analysts expected the Russian military to try to immediately destroy Ukraine’s air force and air defenses.
Russia has fired more than 500 missiles at Ukrainian targets since the start of the invasion, but is still flying through contested airspace.
Ukrainian troops with surface-to-air rockets are able to threaten Russian aircraft and create risk to Russian pilots trying to support ground forces.
Ukraine’s ability to keep flying air force jets is a visible demonstration of the country’s resilience in the face of attack and has been a morale booster, both to its own military and Ukraine’s people, experts say.
‘ANSWERED THE PHONE’
The Pentagon has established a new hotline with Russia’s ministry of defense to prevent “miscalculation, military incidents and escalation” in the region as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine advances.
The “deconfliction” hotline would be an open phone line based at the European Command’s headquarters and would fall under Air Force General Tod Wolters, who leads all U.S. forces on the continent.
“In our initial test of it, (the Russians) answered the phone,” the official said.
Russian troops were still about 25 km (16 miles) away from Kyiv’s city center, largely unchanged over the past few days.
The official compared an Odessa scenario to Russia’s assault around Mariupol, where they used an amphibious assault to the southwest using naval infantry and also came down from the north with land forces out of Donetsk.
“So one could see a scenario where that’s a similar play,” the official said.
The United States cannot refute reports that Russian forces are in control of the port city of Kherson, the official said, but added the United States could not confirm the takeover.
Tanks entered Kherson, a provincial capital of around 250,000 people, and Russian forces occupied the regional administration building, regional governor Hennadiy Laguta said in an online post on Thursday.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; editing by Jonathan Oatis)