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Ukrainian air-defense troops firing a Stinger man-portable missile shot down a Russian Su-25 attack jet over the battlefield near Popasna on Sunday, killing the pilot.
The shoot-down itself isn’t unusual. The low-flying, subsonic Su-25 attack jet is one of the busiest aircraft types on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine war—and one of the most vulnerable. In 90 days of fighting, Russia has lost at least eight of the twin-engine, single-seat jets that outside analysts can confirm. Ukraine has lost at least five.
What’s noteworthy is the dead pilot’s identity. The BBC confirmed the man who died behind the Su-25’s controls while supporting the Russian attack around Popasna was Kanamat Botashev.
The 63-year-old Botashev was retired. He left the Russian air force as a general back in 2012 after “borrowing” an Su-27 fighter—a type he was not qualified to fly—and crashing it after a brief, acrobatic joyride.
Following his retirement, Botashev reportedly signed on with the Wagner Group, a sort of private holding company for ex-servicemembers that appears to function as a de facto arm of the Russian military.
Wagner isn’t known to operate Su-25s, implying that the company is hiring out its pilots to fly government aircraft.
That should come as no surprise. As Russian casualties in Ukraine mount, mercenaries are becoming indispensable to the war effort. According to the U.K. Defense Ministry, around 15,000 Russians have died in three months of hard fighting. That’s more than a tenth of the invasion force.
Add in the wounded and captured and it’s apparent the Russian army has lost around a third of its combat strength in Ukraine. Trained manpower is becoming such a precious resource that, when the Kremlin concentrated its surviving forces for a fresh offensive across a small salient in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region starting last week, it had to hire Wagner mercenaries to reinforce some of its front-line battalions.
The BBC has confirmed the deaths of around 30 Russian pilots. The air force clearly is struggling to replace them with equally experienced fliers. Stealing an Su-27 no longer is disqualifying.
The mercenary reinforcements are helping, however. “Russia has … achieved some localized successes” in Donbas, the U.K. Defense Ministry reported. Army and Wagner troops attacking north from Popasna have advanced nearly 10 miles. If they can advance another 15 miles, they might cut off the city of Severodonetsk and its Ukrainian garrison, thousands strong.
It won’t be easy or bloodless for the Russians. “There has been strong Ukrainian resistance with forces occupying well dug-in defensive positions,” the U.K. Defense Ministry stated. Those forces include Stinger missile teams taking potshots at Russian attack jets. Possibly flown by mercenaries.
While Russia’s advances in Donbas pose a serious threat to Ukraine’s integrity, it’s worth asking what happens after the current offensive. If it’s taking the last of Russia’s trained manpower—that is, its mercenaries—to encircle one Ukrainian garrison out of dozens just a few miles from Russian-controlled territory, what are the prospects for a wider Russian offensive this summer?