A 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 for a train and figured he wouldn’t have long to wait. But the flatcars, packed with military equipment, 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 sleeping town in eastern Slovakia that, over the last month, has become a key artery channeling arms and ammunition to Ukraine by rail. from West.

The train that delayed Csomo’s return home was not only unusually long, but also marked a unique escalation in Western efforts to help Ukraine defend itself. It carried an air defense system made up 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 President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia vows to fight the war to “complete completion” and his forces regroup for an expected advance into eastern Ukraine, NATO countries, including the United States, are scrambling to keep the flow of weapons and strengthen the country’s defenses.

Strengthening Ukraine’s long-range air defense capabilities is seen as especially critical. Ukraine already had its own S-300 and other air defense systems, but some of them have been destroyed, leaving Russia with a high degree of freedom to attack Ukrainian targets from the air with fighter jets and cruise missiles.

Increasingly desperate to reverse this imbalance, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has repeatedly pleaded with NATO to “close the sky over Ukraine” by imposing a no-fly zone. But NATO has been unwilling to send its own fighter jets to Ukraine.

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

Jaroslav Nad, Slovakia’s defense minister and an enthusiastic supporter of Ukraine, said that before Russia’s invasion it would have been unthinkable for his country to ship large quantities of even basic weapons across its eastern border for free, not to mention of 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 come to our country. The paradigm is completely different now.”

Putin, he said, “is equal to Hitler” and must be stopped in the Ukraine before he can advance west. “Ukraine is literally fighting for our future,” he said.

Like Slovakia, other countries are also steadily expanding the scope of their military aid. The Pentagon’s No. 2 official met in Washington on Wednesday with America’s largest military contractors to discuss how ready they are to replenish supplies and what new capabilities to send to Ukraine.

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

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

Slovakia’s S-300 system is the largest item ever shipped by a NATO country. It was previously deployed to 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 operate trains to and from Ukraine, which also has tracks. soviet

Other important items now being discussed for transportation to Ukraine via Slovakia include old MIG-29 fighter jets and sophisticated self-propelled howitzers called the Zuzana 2. A plan for Ukraine to send hundreds of damaged tanks, some of them captured from Russia. forces, across the border for repair in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, all of whom have experience repairing Soviet-made equipment.

Slovakia “is not going to send tanks because we don’t have spare tanks,” Nad said, underlining a problem facing even Ukraine’s most enthusiastic supporters. “We have to maintain enough 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 Nad described as “countries that claim they are not sending military material to Ukraine.”

Hungary, Slovakia’s southern neighbor, for example, has declared itself neutral in the conflict and banned arms passage through its own territory into Ukraine, largely to avoid disrupting deliveries of cheap Russian gas, but it is believed that has quietly provided weapons through other countries. .

When asked about this, a Hungarian government spokesman in Budapest refused to confirm or deny that his country is providing military hardware, saying only that “Hungary’s point of view is well known and has not changed.”

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

It’s 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 Slovakian missile system when sea-launched cruise missiles hit a hangar near the Dnipro city in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Nad, the Slovak defense minister, dismissed this as “fake news”, apparently meant to save face for Russia and calm the nerves of Russian pilots sent on missions to bomb Ukraine. Mr. Nad said that he had spoken with Ukraine’s defense minister on Monday and was assured that “this system works and works well” and that he was not in Dnipro.

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

A separate weapons pipeline through Poland, the main route for US weapons, has involved weapons such as Javelin, NLAW and Stinger missiles, which are lightweight, portable, high-tech and relatively easy to hide in trucks passing through the crossings. Polish border crossings to the west of Ukraine.

However, an air defense battery is too big to hide, especially when traveling on trains with more than 120 cars in full view of the conductors blocked by their passage. The cargo was so bulky that it took two days to deliver it a few miles from Dobra to Ukraine on two separate trains.

“Everybody knows what’s going on,” said Jakub Zolt, a steel mill maintenance worker who lives across the street from the rail yard. He said his grandchildren were scared by all the commotion, but added that he himself had grown used to the rattle of military helicopters and the rumble of trucks transporting weapons to the loading yard.

Still, he said, he worries that Slovakia, a tiny country of just 5.4 million people, is now getting too involved in Ukraine’s war with Russia.

“The Russians could attack us,” he said, adding that he did not understand why the Ukrainians needed so much help when “they come here driving much better cars, Porsches and Mercedes, than the ones we drive in Slovakia.”

Most of the refugees fleeing the war, almost all of them women and children, do not drive at all, but cross on foot carrying only a change of clothes.

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 need to help Ukraine in every possible way to win this war.” His enemies, playing on a substantial segment of the population traditionally favorable to Moscow, have tried to turn public opinion against support for Ukraine and have seized on the war as a political opportunity.

Robert Fico, a scandal-stricken former Slovakian prime minister, upended government efforts to keep the delivery of the S-300 battery a secret until it arrived safely in Ukraine when he posted a video on his Facebook page on Thursday. past showing a train carrying the disassembled air defense system on its way to Ukraine.

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

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

“Russia is killing thousands of people in Ukraine and I am not going to count the votes it would lose, or gain, based on government decisions to help. The only thing I am counting is the lives we can save in Ukraine,” she said.

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

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

Dobra Mayor Mr. Csoma said he supported helping Ukraine but did not commit when asked about the wisdom of sending in a powerful weapons system like the S-300.

Annoyed at not having been informed in advance about the traffic disruption caused by the S-300 trains, he said: “They don’t tell me anything. They should at least inform me about this kind of thing.”

No one really cared much about the war spilling over into Slovakia, he said, but authorities have nonetheless dusted off old civil defense plans, and police have made an inventory of possible bomb shelters. In the event of a conflict, the mayor said, he had been assured that district authorities would send buses to evacuate all 520 people from his village.

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

The information was contributed by Julian Barnes in Washington and Benjamin Novak in Budapest.

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