Russian Militia in Ukraine Says It’s Building an Air Force: Is that Quixotic or Dangerous?

The Kremlin-loyalist Russian TV station LifeNews told the story January 17 that the Lugansk People’s Republic, the mini-state propped up by Russia in Ukraine’s Lugansk province, is establishing an air force. The station played just a minute of video showing men in winter military uniforms rolling a 1960s-era two-seat jet trainer—marked with the red star of the Soviet air force—out of an aviation museum in Lugansk.

While the men showed the delight that any garage-dwelling weekend mechanic might take at the prospect of reviving the relic, it’s not clear that they stand a very good chance. The small, Czech-built L-29 “Dolphin” served as the main training aircraft for Warsaw Pact air forces during the early decades of the Cold War. According to a British enthusiast and photographer of historic aircraft, Craig Moore, as few as fifty of the planes, out of thousands constructed, are still in operation anywhere in the world.

But Ukrainian news media and websites were immediately un-amused. A standing cover story for Russian-backed forces in Ukraine is that their weaponry—from rifles to tanks to cannons—is not supplied from Russia, but rather has been captured from Ukraine’s army or refurbished from museums. (Ukraine, NATO, the US military, Western journalists, and the Moscow office of the international Red Cross, among others, have independently reported Russia’s supply of weapons to its proxy militias in Ukraine’s Lugansk and Donetsk provinces.)

A declaration that the Lugansk or Donetsk “people’s republics” has established an air force, however non-credible to other audiences, may be used as a cover for Russian air strikes as a new tactic in the escalated fighting between the Ukrainian and Russian forces, noted articles in the Kyiv Post and the nationalist website Inforesist.

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Image: An image from Russia's Kremlin-loyalist LIfeNews television shows men of the Russian-backed Lugansk republic preparing to two a museum-piece jet for the air force they propose to build. (LifeNews video screenshot)