Soviet-era air defense system arrives in Ukraine from Slovakia

DOBRA, Slovakia — On his way back to his village near the Ukrainian border last Thursday, the mayor had to stop to let a train pass and assumed he wouldn’t have to wait long. But the flatbed cars, stacked with military hardware, kept coming. He waited for almost half an hour.

“It was a very long train, much longer than usual,” recalled Mikolas Csoma, the mayor of Dobra, a previously sleepy village in eastern Slovakia that over the past month has become a key artery for transporting weapons and ammunition to Ukraine by rail. from West.

The train that delayed Mr Csomo’s return home was not only unusually long, but also signaled a singular escalation in Western efforts to help Ukraine defend itself. It carried an air defense system consisting of 48 surface-to-air missiles, four launchers and radars to guide the rockets to their targets, which in Ukraine means Russian fighter jets and missiles.

As Russian President Vladimir V. Putin pledges to fight the war to its “complete completion” and his forces regroup for an expected push into eastern Ukraine, NATO nations, including the United States, are scrambling to maintain the flow of weapons and bolster the country’s defenses.

Strengthening Ukraine’s long-range air defense capabilities is seen as particularly critical. Ukraine already had its own S-300 and other air defense systems, but some of them were destroyed, giving Russia great freedom to strike Ukrainian targets from the air with combat aircraft and cruise missiles.

Increasingly desperate to reverse this imbalance, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly pleaded with NATO to “close the skies over Ukraine” by imposing a no-fly zone. But NATO did not want to send its own warplanes to Ukraine.

Instead, the United States offered Slovakia, another NATO member, a replacement battery of American-made Patriot missiles if it “donated” its aging S-300 system to Ukraine.

Jaroslav Nad, Slovak Defense Minister and staunch supporter of Ukraine, said it would have been unthinkable before the Russian invasion for his country to send large quantities of even basic weapons across its eastern border for free. , not to mention an old but still powerful Soviet-made anti-aircraft system.

“But this is the new reality of the world,” he said in an interview in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. “We are a frontline state. We have war on our border and more than 330,000 Ukrainians are coming to our country. The paradigm is completely different now.

Mr Putin, he said, “is Hitler’s equal” and must be stopped in Ukraine before he can move further west. “Ukraine is literally fighting for our future,” he said.

Like Slovakia, other countries are steadily expanding the scope of their military aid. The Pentagon’s No. 2 official met with top US military contractors in Washington on Wednesday to discuss their readiness to replenish inventory and new capabilities to be sent to Ukraine.

The meeting and a new weapons package, including artillery and ammunition, are aimed in part by the Biden administration to blunt criticism that it is not doing enough for Ukraine and too reluctant to send long-range weapon systems.

Other NATO members are already sending Ukraine bigger and better weapons than before, including T-72 tanks and short-range air defense systems from the Czech Republic.

Slovakia’s S-300 system is the biggest item a NATO country has sent so far. He was previously deployed in Nitra, a city east of Bratislava on the other side of the country.

From there it was transported by truck and train to Dobra, where the state-controlled rail yard has Soviet gauge tracks, wider than the standard in Europe, meaning it can run trains to and from Ukraine, which also has Soviet tracks.

Other large items currently being discussed for transport to Ukraine via Slovakia include aging MIG-29 warplanes and sophisticated self-propelled howitzers called Zuzana 2. forces, across the border for repair in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, all of which have experience in repairing Soviet-made equipment.

Slovakia “won’t send tanks because we don’t have spare tanks,” Nad said, pointing to a problem facing even Ukraine’s most enthusiastic supporters. “We must retain sufficient capabilities for our own armed forces.”

But Slovakia not only transports weapons from its own stocks to Ukraine. It is also sending military aid from many other countries, including the Czech Republic, Australia and what Mr Nad described as “countries that claim they are not sending military equipment to Ukraine”.

Hungary, Slovakia’s southern neighbour, for example, declared itself neutral in the conflict and banned weapons from crossing its own territory into Ukraine – largely to avoid disrupting cheap Russian gas supplies. – but it is believed to have quietly supplied weapons via other countries. .

Asked about it, a Hungarian government spokesman in Budapest refused to confirm or deny that his country was supplying military equipment, saying only that “Hungary’s position is well known and has remained unchanged”. .

Alarmed by the flow of arms crossing the borders of Slovakia, Poland and Romania, Russia has sought to stop it or at least slow it down by declaring that all foreign arms destined for Ukraine are a “legitimate target”. Russia’s foreign minister promised last month that Moscow “will not allow” the transfer of the S-300 air defense system from Slovakia.

It is too late for that now, and after failing to thwart the delivery, the Defense Ministry in Moscow claimed on Sunday that Russia had already destroyed the Slovak missile system when sea-launched cruise missiles hit a shed near the city of Dnipro in eastern Ukraine.

Mr Nad, the Slovak defense minister, dismissed it as “fake news”, apparently aimed at saving face for Russia and calming the nerves of Russian pilots sent on missions to bomb Ukraine. Mr Nad said he spoke to Ukraine’s defense minister on Monday and was assured that “this system is working and working well” and that he was not in Dnipro.

Previous military shipments sent to Ukraine by rail via Dobra and the nearby town of Cierna nad Tisou mainly contained ammunition and basic military equipment.

A separate weapons conduit through Poland, the main route for US weapons, has involved weapons like the Javelin, NLAW and Stinger missiles, which are light, portable, high-tech and relatively easy to conceal in trucks passing through Polish border crossings to western Ukraine.

An air defense battery, however, is too large to hide, especially when traveling in trains of over 120 cars in full view of conductors blocked by their passage. The cargo was so large that it took two days to deliver it a few kilometers from Dobra in Ukraine in two separate trains.

“Everyone knows what’s going on,” said Jakub Zolt, a steelworks maintenance worker who lives across from the rail yard. He said his grandchildren were frightened by all the commotion, but added that he himself had become accustomed to the crash of military helicopters and the rumble of trucks ferrying weapons to the loading area.

Still, he said, he worries that Slovakia, a small country of just 5.4 million people, is now sinking too far into Ukraine’s war with Russia.

“The Russians might attack us,” he said, adding that he did not understand why the Ukrainians needed so much help when “they come here driving much nicer cars – Porsches and Mercedes – that we don’t drive in Slovakia”.

Most of the refugees fleeing the war, almost all of them women and children, do not drive anything, but walk across with just a change of clothes.

Mr. Zolt’s jaundiced view of Ukraine highlights the success of opponents of pro-Western Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger, who in an interview last week said: “We must help Ukraine in every way possible ways to win this war. His enemies, playing in front of a large part of the population traditionally sympathetic to Moscow, sought to turn public opinion against support for Ukraine and seized the war as a political opportunity.

Robert Fico, a scandal-ridden former Slovak prime minister, reversed government efforts to keep the delivery of the S-300 battery secret until it arrived safely in Ukraine when he posted a video on its Facebook page last Thursday which showed a train carrying the disassembled air defense system en route to Ukraine.

He denounced Mr. Heger as “a monster in American hands who will do anything the Americans tell him to do” and demanded that the public be immediately informed of the destination of the S-300 system.

Mr. Nad, the defense minister, said the delivery had been kept secret for security reasons. The opposition, he added, is playing “political games” against the interests of its own country and also of Ukraine.

“Russia is killing thousands of people in Ukraine and I’m not going to count the votes I would lose – or win – based on government aid decisions. The only thing I count are the lives we can save in Ukraine,” he said.

Pavel Macko, a retired Slovak general who served with NATO in Afghanistan and Germany, said the S-300 system delivered to Ukraine dated from the 1980s, when Slovakia was a member of the Warsaw Pact in part of Czechoslovakia, and was inferior to the American-made Patriot missiles. But, he added, the Ukrainians know how to use it and will be able to reduce Russian mastery of the sky.

“It’s not just symbolic, but an important addition that could help Russia change its plans,” he said.

Dobra Mayor Mr Csoma said he was in favor of helping Ukraine but was evasive when asked if it was wise to send a weapon system powerful like the S-300.

Annoyed at not being informed in advance of the traffic disruption caused by the S-300 trains, he declared: “They don’t tell me anything. They should at least let me know about this stuff.

Nobody really worried about the spread of war in Slovakia, he said, but authorities nonetheless dusted off old civil defense plans, with police taking inventory of potential bomb shelters. In the event of a dispute, the mayor said, he had been assured that district authorities would send buses to evacuate the 520 residents of his village.

“If something bad happens, we will all leave,” he said. “So there is no panic yet.”

Reporting was provided by Julian Barnes in Washington and Benjamin Novak in Budapest.

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