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.