Russia’s aerospace forces have taken over command of the country’s air defense in a reshuffle that follows reports that saboteurs attacked an aircraft key to Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine.
The Belarusian opposition has touted a drone attack on a Beriev A-50U surveillance plane at an airfield near Minsk. They say it was carried out by partisans from the group BYPOL, who are opposed to the rule of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Neither Moscow nor Minsk have commented on the reported strike on the plane, which was said to be worth $330 million and had made 12 flights since it arrived in Belarus on January 3.
But on Tuesday Russian state news agency Tass reported that Russia’s military air defense had been withdrawn from the control of Russian ground forces and reassigned to the command of aerospace forces (VKS). A military source told the agency the move was a “fait accompli.
Tass reported air defense formations and units had previously been part of the ground forces whose equipment accompanied and covered troops in combat zones.
General Sergey Surovikin has overseen the VKS since November 2017. In reporting the reshuffle, Ukrainian media noted that before he was dismissed as commander of the invasion of Ukraine in January by Vladimir Putin, Surovikin was “famous for surrendering Kherson to Ukrainian troops.”
“Additionally, with his appointment, Russia began to launch massive missile strikes on the energy infrastructure of Ukraine,” reported Ukrainskaya Pravda.
Putin appointed Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Federation Valery Gerasimov to oversee the Russian campaign in Ukraine, while Surovikin became his deputy.
Former British army intelligence officer Philip Ingram told Newsweek that the subordination of army air defense units under a single air defense command, including army and air force assets, “suggests a need for greater control in a recognized air picture.”
He said this “probably results from too many incidents where ground-based air defense has shot down air force assets from its own side.”
“This is likely the latest move in Gerasimov’s reconfiguration of the Russian forces, aiming to make them more efficient and capable,” he added.
The latest development comes amid questions about Russia’s air capabilities. The Belarusian opposition tells the Daily Beast that the sabotage of the A-50 might force Moscow and Minsk to question whether it is worth using Belarus as a staging ground for operations in Ukraine. The opposition also warned that there could be similar attacks in future.
The Institute for the Study of War said Lukashenko will cede his country’s defense industrial base to support sanctions evasion by the Russian defense industry “in exchange for not committing the Belarusian military to join” the invasion of Ukraine.
On Tuesday, British defense officials said that while the attribution and damage to the A-50U surveillance plane has not been officially corroborated, the loss of such an aircraft, which has the NATO reporting name Mainstay, “would be significant as it is critical to Russian air operations for providing an air battlespace picture.”
“This will likely leave six operational A-50s in service, further constraining Russian air operations,” the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in its daily update.
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