MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said recently that Ukraine's military had just shot down its 200th Russian aircraft. Now, we can't independently verify that number, but it does point to one of the more surprising facets of this war - instead of dominating the skies as expected, Russian pilots are so vulnerable, they are reluctant to enter Ukraine's airspace.
For more, we're joined by NPR's Greg Myre, who is in Ukraine's airspace, or at least beneath it. He's in the capital, Kyiv. Hey, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So this was very much the expectation going into the war - that Russia was going to rule the skies and deliver a potential knockout blow to Ukraine. What happened?
MYRE: Well, to answer that, we took a short drive just outside of Kyiv today to recall those first days of the war. Russia was so confident in its air power that on Day 1, it sent helicopters loaded with paratroopers to the Hostomel Airport. It's a military and cargo airport less than 10 miles northwest of the city. Russia planned to secure the base, have many more troops land there, and then Russia would seize Kyiv within days.
But the Russians were beaten back in heavy fighting, and the airport is still a graveyard of burned-out buildings and vehicles stacked on top of each other. Ukrainian troops are at the base in full control. Civilians are coming back to the area. And this set the tone for Russia's air operations so far.
KELLY: But I suppose my question is why? Because you're describing - it was one battle. It was very early on in the war. To this day, Russia has way more planes, way more modern warplanes than Ukraine. Why, over time, is that not proving to be a huge advantage for Russia?
MYRE: Yeah. It's a mystery. The Russians are believed to have at least 15 military aircraft for every one that Ukraine has. And yet from the start, Russian planes and helicopters have been getting shot out of the sky. So to protect their planes and pilots, the Russians tend to fly into Ukraine airspace very briefly and sometimes not at all.
I spoke with Phillips Payson O'Brien, a military expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, about the Russian pilots.
PHILLIPS PAYSON O'BRIEN: They're staying over the Black Sea or they're staying in Russia and firing guided missiles. So they simply are not comfortable flying in Ukraine for any extended period of time. And that means they can drop bombs or they can launch missiles, but they can't control the airspace over a battle.
KELLY: It sounds like - to the point you just made, Greg, about Russian planes and helicopters getting shot out of the sky, how much of this has to do with Ukraine's air defense systems and the damage they have been able to do?
MYRE: Perhaps Ukraine's most underappreciated weapon in this war is the S-300. It's an old, hulking Soviet-era air defense system that fires missiles that can take down jet fighters. Ukraine has a relatively small number. It's not saying how many. And the Russians desperately want to take them out. They've taken out a few, but not all of them.
KELLY: How is all this playing out now, Greg, on what is the main battleground now - eastern Ukraine?
MYRE: Well, if the Russian planes controlled the skies, they could hang out, loiter over the battlefield and target Ukrainian troops, and that would make it much harder on the Ukrainian ground forces. But we're just seeing these Russian planes bombing from a distance. It's very destructive, but not as effective or accurate. And that's in the east.
Here in Kyiv, life appears normal in many ways - people are on the streets. You find traffic jams. Residents, of course, are closely following the war, but the fear of a Russian attack, while it hasn't gone away, is greatly diminished.
KELLY: NPR's Greg Myre who is there in Kyiv, Ukraine. Thank you, Greg.
MYRE: My pleasure.
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