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Shortage Of Fighter Pilots Crippling Ukraine Even As Zelenskyy Pleads For Western Jets: Russia’s PMC Wagner

With Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy intensifying the plea for a western fighter jet, Russia’s infamous mercenary group Wagner has alleged that a shortage of fighter pilots has crippled the Ukrainian Air Force.

The Commander of the Wagner air group, who goes by the call sign ‘Highlander,’ said on February 17 that the Ukrainian aviation units had lost almost all experienced pilots. He claimed the only thing left is the youth, who cannot fight effectively.

Highlander told the news outlet, “The enemy had heavy losses in aviation. If we have experienced people, they have only young people left. In aviation, you need experience to work properly. Just pulling the handle of the steering wheel will not work.”

The Commander further emphasized that experience can only be gained by participating in combat.

However, US defense chief Lloyd Austin has made similar claims about the Russian side, saying that the country is introducing newer troops to the frontlines, but they are untrained and ill-equipped to participate in combat.

Ukrainian fighter pilot ‘Juice’ inside the MiG-29, raising three fingers to represent the trident, the national symbol of Ukraine. (Juice/Ukrainian Air Force)

The claims made by the air unit Commander come days after reports indicated that Russia was amassing its fighter jets and helicopters near Ukraine’s border, triggering fears of an imminent aerial raid. It is speculated that Russia could turn to heavy air power to break a battlefield stalemate.

With the war soon to enter its second year with hostilities not seeing any slowdown, Ukraine has been pushing for more lethal military aid, especially fighter jets, that could turn the tide in its favor. However, if Highlander’s “claims” are anything to go by, it may not have pilots to fly these jets.

Ukraine has intensified its appeals for western-made fighter jets this year, with the President making tours to the United States and, more recently, to the United Kingdom and the European Union. Even though a decision has not been taken on the issue, some reports indicate that positive momentum is building in the alliance.

Ukraine Is Still Pleading For Fighter Jets

Ukraine has reiterated its call for fighter jets to break the combat deadlock, while defense officials in NATO have unanimously asserted that the conflict is now entering a crucial stage.

Earlier this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lobbied hard for combat jets while visiting London, Paris, and Brussels on his second overseas tour since Russia invaded his country. His appeal came weeks after securing the promise from NATO allies for the much sought-after battle tanks.

The entire top brass of the Ukrainian administration has thrown its weight behind the plea for fighter jets as western leaders remain reticent. When asked what kind of military assistance his country is looking for, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov showed reporters a picture of a fighter plane.

Britain has said it is assessing the possibility of making such a delivery. In addition, the Defense Minister of the Netherlands said that the provision of fighter jets needs to be a part of the consideration. Kyiv has been lobbying for the Dutch F-16 fighter jets, and the UK had earlier announced that it would train Ukrainian pilots.

Dutch F-16 pilots- File Image

On its part, another benign European ally, Slovakia, said it was willing to discuss sending Soviet MiG-29 planes to Ukraine.

Even though Ukraine’s biggest military supplier, the United States, has remained non-committal on the issue, a bipartisan coalition of legislators is requesting directly from President Joe Biden that F-16 warplanes be sent to Ukraine, Politico reported.

In a letter accessed by Politico that was written to Biden on February 16, five House members said that modern jets, which Kyiv has requested but the administration has not yet approved, “could prove decisive for control of Ukrainian airspace this year.”

The lawmakers have emphasized that fighters, such as the F-16 produced by Lockheed Martin or a comparable aircraft, would give Ukrainian forces more capabilities than ground-based weaponry supplied by the US and other countries.

“F-16s or similar fourth-generation fighter aircraft would provide Ukraine with a highly mobile platform to engage Russian troops, as well as to engage Russian fighters for contested air superiority,” they argued.

It is also worth underlining here that several NATO fighters have been part of speculations regarding their supposed delivery to Kyiv. Some of these are the F-16s which Ukraine has been insisting on for a long time, Tornados, Eurofighter Typhoons tranche 1, and Saab Gripens, to name a few.

Several EU leaders have already emphasized that a warplane decision would be made collectively. Some leaders are anxious to keep the discussion out of the public eye, while others worry about an escalation and feeding Russian narratives. However, momentum is building in support of the long-drawn Ukrainian demand.

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