Ukraine has accused Russia of turning to balloon power to support its invasion of the country, although with markedly different aims from China’s intelligence gathering operations.
Moscow has allegedly begun launching aerial objects with the intention of tricking Ukraine’s air defences into firing surface-to-air missiles and exhausting valuable supplies, according to Kyiv. On Tuesday, suspected balloons that flew over Ukraine were detected in Romanian and Moldovan airspace, prompting Bucharest to scramble jets.
Such flying objects carrying radar reflectors have been spotted over Ukraine’s skies twice since the US shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon earlier this month. These “fake targets” were launched by Russia, said Colonel Yuriy Ignat, spokesman for Ukraine’s air force command.
Kyiv suspects that the balloons are the latest tactic being deployed by Russia in a missile and kamikaze drone strike campaign that has intensified in recent weeks. “They will exploit this when the weather is in their favour. The weather was blowing our way today,” Ignat said.
Ukraine’s arsenal of Soviet air defence systems has so far prevented Moscow’s fleet of fighter and bomber jets from establishing air superiority since Russia’s president Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion last year.
But its supplies of air defence missiles have been depleted, according to western officials. While US and European allies have started sending Nato-standard surface-to-air missile systems, more are needed in the coming months.
Ukraine has not disclosed whether it fired air defence missiles at the balloons on Tuesday. Russia has not acknowledged launching the objects.
A second Ukrainian official said they believed that the balloons that drifted into the airspace of neighbouring Moldova and Romania were Russian, although neither country has publicly speculated on their origin.
Moldova’s civil aviation authority said it had shut down its airspace for more than an hour on Tuesday afternoon after it “received information that an unidentified small object similar to a weather balloon was detected”.
Romania’s defence ministry said it scrambled two fighter jets after its ground radars tracked an unidentified object with the characteristics of a weather balloon. But the pilots were unable to find the balloon in the skies or detect it on their onboard radars. The jets returned to base after half an hour, the ministry said.
Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary-general, this week warned that both China and Russia were increasing their intelligence and surveillance activities, including through balloons.
“That highlights the importance of our vigilance, our increased presence, and also that we see the stepping up of how we share intelligence and how we monitor and protect our airspace,” he said.