Why is Russia launching military balloons over Ukraine?

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Trace of a missile near Kiev
NOS News
  • Robert Chesal

    foreign editor

In addition to the missiles and drones that Russia has been shooting into Ukrainian airspace for months, the Russians are also deploying military balloons. Yesterday about six of them were visible above the capital Kiev. There is much speculation about their origin and purpose, also in view of the various balloon incidents in US airspace in recent weeks.

Most of the balloons over Kiev have been shot down and the remains will be examined, authorities said. Yet the Ukrainian air force already thinks it knows what’s behind it: it suspects that the balloons were launched by Russia to provoke air defense actions. For example, Ukraine would be tempted to waste scarce precision missiles.

“A plausible explanation,” says security expert Danny Pronk of So Secure, a commercial think tank that also provides advice to the Dutch government. “These balloons are probably intended to excite air defenses with all kinds of targets that can actually do no harm. It looks like a diversion.”

The operation of such a distraction balloon is childishly simple, according to experts. Balloons are fitted with special mirrors, so-called corner reflectors, which look like much larger objects to air defense radar. “The radar responds to that and then the object is attacked,” says Pronk. “Because he thinks he’s got an important target.” Russia is also said to have used such reflectors in a failed attempt to protect the crucial and nearly 20 kilometers long Crimean Bridge.

A ‘corner reflector’, used to deceive air defense radar

It is common ground that Russia produces and uses balloons for military purposes. Experts have previously reported that they were used by drones prior to airstrikes to confuse Ukraine’s air defenses. But NATO chief Stoltenberg suggested this week that Russia, like China, also wants to use such balloons for espionage purposes.

“That seems unlikely to me,” says expert Pronk about the balloons that Kiev recently shot down. “Russia has much more effective means of intelligence at its disposal. They have spy planes, satellites and other modern techniques. Why should they use balloons for this? In addition, it is a big plus for the Russians if they can tempt Ukraine to use expensive precision missiles. Then they cannot be used against dangerous drones.”

Important information

Still, the balloons could be used not only as a distraction, but also for espionage, says Patrick Bolder, defense expert at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies and retired lieutenant colonel in the air force.

“If such a balloon triggers the air defenses, the Russians can immediately listen to the radio communications that are taking place,” he says. “And then they can find out important information about the enemy’s chain of command. In addition, they discover how ready the Ukrainian air defenses are. In that sense, it looks like a copy of that Chinese balloon that is also collecting various forms of electronic intelligence over the United States. used to be.”

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  • Abroad

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