More and more Russian mercenary air force jets are losing in the Ukraine-Russia war. 

On Dec. 2, a Ukrainian military position close to Bakhmut was struck by a Sukhoi Su-24M supersonic bomber after it was shot down. The airplane was flown by a pair of mercenary aviators working for the mysterious Russian firm The Wagner Group.

Since Russia widened its war on Ukraine starting in February, the Ukrainians have shot down at least three Su-24 warplanes flown by Wagner. In addition, a pair of Sukhoi Su-25 attack jets operated by Wagner has also been shot down.

Will the capture of Bakhmut (or its failure to be captured) shed some light on Wagner’s business model for aerial warfare? Once Wagner has captured Bakhmut or given up on the idea, will its pilots be added to Russia’s more significant air effort? Or will Wagner pilots, flying in government aircraft, continue to assist Wagner ground forces only?

The losses highlight the enduring threat Ukrainian air defenses pose to Russian planes, as well as Wagner’s significant—and perhaps growing—role in the Russian air campaign in Ukraine.

When Wagner commits significant ground forces, it also puts its own pilots in the cockpits of older Russian warplanes—and flies those planes in direct support of its fighters on the ground.

Although the precise legal, logistical, and command structure behind Wagner’s air assaults remains unclear, one thing is sure: Kremlin’s role in the organization is as murky. Is the Kremlin renting or buying Russian planes, or is it lending them? Does the Kremlin control Wagner’s pilots directly, or does it choose all its targets and sorties? Is the growing number of Wagner pilots who have died in combat compensated by their families, or do they choose their own targets and plan their own sorties?

Sukhoi Su-25
Sukhoi Su-25 (Source: Alex Beltyukov – RuSpotters Team/Wikimedia)

No later than late May, Wagner’s participation in the Ukraine air war became evident when Ukrainian troops using a Stinger shoulder-fired, infrared-guided missile eliminated an Su-25 over Popasna, 20 miles east of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

A BBC report confirmed that Kanamat Botashev died while flying an Su-25 over Popasna, where Russian forces were active.

In 2012, a year after retiring from the Russian air force, Botashev allegedly stole a Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jet and crashed it after a brief, acrobatic joyride. According to reports, he then signed with Wagner.

Andrey Fedorchukov, the Su-25 pilot’s capture occurred in April after a Ukrainian 72nd Mechanised Brigade trooper shot down a jetpacking Igla shoulder-fired missile. He told his interrogators that he was paid $3,200 a month by Wagner.

In December, a Ukrainian missile shot down a Russian Su-24 over Bakhmut, killing the pilot and co-pilot both. Russian forces retrieved the bodies. Russian media named the aviators Alexander Antonov and Vladimir Nikishin. In addition, a late-middle-aged aviator was photographed standing next to a helicopter. It is safe to assume that he had retired from military service before joining Wagner.

The mercenary company Wagner might be operating dozens of jets if it has lost three aircraft, as opposed to the Russian military’s loss of around 20 jets in and around Ukraine since February.

The Su-24 that crashed in Bakhmut at the time of its destruction still wore air force markings and its government serial number, RF-93798, to indicate that the airframes are, or until recently were, part of the Russian air force’s active inventory.

Sukhoi Su-27
Sukhoi Su-27 (Source: Alex Beltyukov – RuSpotters Team/Wikimedia)

The Su-24 and Su-25 are among the older aircraft still in use with the Russian air force, while the Sukhoi Su-27 is being gradually supplanted by newer models of the same aircraft and Kremlin has permitted Wagner to use its pilots in retired Sukhoi Su-27s in certain instances.

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It needs to be clarified precisely how Wagner ensures aircraft receive fuel, weapons, and components or exactly how it sets up sorties. It is, however, apparent that Wagner carries out air assaults in the same areas where its army battalions operate on the ground. For months, Wagner has focused on capturing Bakhmut, a city of little strategic importance. Most of the firm’s air raids are concentrated on eliminating Ukrainian troops in the same region.

According to Columbia University political scientist Kimberly Marten, there are reports that Wagner air corps members have flown Russian air force fixed-wing aircraft in Libya and Ukraine and that Ukrainian pilots have included retired Russian air force officers. However, she noted no reports of an air force connection before 2020.

Whenever Wagner captures Bakhmut or abandons the effort, some light might be shed on his aerial warfare business model. Will Russian air forces subsequently be comprised of Wagner pilots flying government jets, or will Wagner ground forces continue to be supported exclusively by Wagner pilots?