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Why Poland raises jets during RF attacks on Ukraine, but doesn't activate air defense system

Why Poland raises jets during RF attacks on Ukraine, but doesn't activate air defense system Photo: F-16 fighter of the Polish Air Force (

During Russian missile attacks on Ukraine over Poland, Polish F-16 fighter jets regularly take to the skies, and the air defense system is put on combat readiness. However, missiles violating its airspace have never been shot down.

For why Poland sends up fighter jets, why it doesn't shoot down missiles, and whether it can realistically provide even partial coverage for western regions, read the material by RBC-Ukraine.

The material was prepared using reports from the Operational Command of the Polish Armed Forces, statements from President Andrzej Duda and other Polish officials, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, and the spokesperson of the Air Force, Illia Yevlash, as well as materials from Rzeczpospolita and Defense Express. Expert commentary from Kostyantyn Kryvolap and Valerii Romanenko was also included.


'Smell of War'. Why fighter jets are raised over Poland

Combat aircraft over Poland have been deployed at least five times in just the past month during Russian missile strikes on Ukraine. For instance, on April 6th, when drones and missiles targeted regions including Odesa, Poltava, Cherkasy, Kyiv, Khmelnytskyi, and several others. Or on April 19th, when Russia launched missiles, including the Kh-101/Kh-555 and Kh-22, from strategic aircraft from the Ryazan region, as well as from the waters of the Black and Azov Seas.

During the Russian attack on the night of April 27th, Poland raised fighter jets twice. On that occasion, cruise missiles and Kinzhals flew over the center of Ukraine and turned in a western direction. There were reports of explosions in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, as well as possible strikes in the Zhytomyr, Khmelnytskyi, and Ternopil regions. In the morning, explosions were heard in Lviv, according to local authorities, and missiles of various types struck Stryi (Lviv region). As Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk stated, one of them fell just 15 km from the Polish border.

Each time, the Operational Command of the Polish Armed Forces published a standard explanation on microblog X. Specifically, it stated that fighter jets were deployed into the air due to "intensive activity of Russian long-range aviation associated with missile strikes on the territory of Ukraine." Residents were warned that the operation of Polish and allied aircraft "may lead to increased noise levels, especially in the southeastern part of the country."

It is noteworthy that in earlier announcements, there was mention of the take-offs of two pairs of Polish and American F-16s from air bases in Krzesiny and Lask (Lodz Voivodeship). However, such data was absent in the latest announcements from the Operational Command.

Чому Польща піднімає винищувачі під час атак РФ по Україні, але не "включає" ППО

Photo: Poland deploys F-16s during Russian strikes on Ukraine to better track missiles (

Defense Minister Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz spoke about a separate algorithm in the event of mass Russian strikes on Ukraine. Within its framework, Polish and allied F-16s are selected, and all missile defense systems are activated.

"There is a whole algorithm of actions described for such a situation... We have established a communication system... we always inform the public about these actions, and the Operational Command is responsible for this information," he explained in a February interview with Radio Zet.

Previously, the situation with fighter jet sorties in Poland was also commented on by the Ukrainian Air Force. The former spokesperson, Yurii Ihnat, noted that neighboring countries likely sense "the smell of war" and understand that the threat exists and needs to be responded to accordingly.

Fighter jets are primarily deployed into the sky to closely track low-altitude missile flights, explains aviation expert Valerii Romanenko.

"Ground radars can see them in some places, but not in others. Over Poland, they have airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft that constantly track missiles. However, if a missile turns towards a Polish city, AWACS, in simple terms, can only warn, 'take cover because it's coming.' But a fighter jet can destroy it," he explained.

It's worth noting that in response to the mass strikes on our country, aviation was also deployed not only in Poland. For example, on February 10th, during the Shahed attacks on the Odesa region, alerts were issued in the bordering Romanian counties of Tulcea and Galati, and F-16 fighter jets from the Fetesti airbase took off for reconnaissance missions in the national airspace of Turkiye.

At least three incidents. Why Poland isn't shooting down missiles in its sky

Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war, missiles have breached Polish airspace several times. According to President Andrzej Duda, this is a provocative show of force from Moscow, risking to escalate into a wider conflict.

"We have no doubt whatsoever that these are Russian provocations, and we have no doubts that it is a Russian provocation when there is a missile entering our airspace, then it turns around and it goes into Ukraine," he recently stated in an interview with The New York Times.

So far, NATO forces haven't attempted to intercept Russian missiles, and Duda is concerned that such actions could result in strikes on Polish territory, destruction, and loss of lives. As of today, at least three instances are known when missiles violated Polish airspace.

Чому Польща піднімає винищувачі під час атак РФ по Україні, але не "включає" ППО

Photo: President of Poland Andrzej Duda calls incidents with Russian missiles Moscow's provocation (Getty Images)

In mid-December 2022, a Kh-55 cruise missile fell near the city of Bydgoszcz, 450 km from the border with Ukraine. It was spotted 60 km away from the city of Chełm, prompting air defense systems to be put on heightened alert, fighter jets to be raised, but the missile wasn't shot down. Fragments were discovered in a forest by local residents, yet Warsaw officially did not acknowledge for two weeks that it was a Russian missile.

In December 2023, another missile breached Polish airspace. For some time, it was tracked by air defense systems, then disappeared from radars. According to the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, debris was searched for the southeast of the city of Zamość - between it and the Ukrainian border. Later, the military stated that it could have been a Kh-22 or Kh-101 cruise missile, which returned to Ukrainian territory.

This incident is much more intriguing than a mere show of force, wrote the Ukrainian specialized portal Defense Express. Since it involved the flight of the missile in the vicinity of military bases used by the armed forces of the United States and Germany. The point is that debris was searched for near the settlements of Komarow and Wolka-Lubunska in the Zamość area, where a German Patriot air defense system had been deployed from the beginning of 2023 until November. It turns out that the Russian missile flew through that area a month after the Patriot had completed its deployment.

Such actions by Russia could have been not just a mistake but a deliberate attempt to escalate tensions or practically assess the capabilities of NATO's air defense, analysts noted.

In the morning of March 24, 2024, during another wave of massed attacks, one of the Russian cruise missiles again entered Polish airspace, stayed there for 39 seconds, and turned back towards Lviv. As Defense Minister Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz stated, the missile wasn't shot down because "it was not heading towards any critical objects within the country." Destroying the missile could have been "risky for the local population," explained Operational Command spokesperson Jacek Górszewski.

"The decision was based on information from our radar systems. The assessment of the missile's trajectory, speed, and altitude indicated that it would leave our airspace," he emphasized, adding that if the missile had flown deeper into Poland, it could have been intercepted by additional pairs of F-16s.

After the incident, discussions resumed in Polish government circles, the expert community, and society about why the cruise missiles were not shot down. Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, Wiesław Kukuła, stated that the military acted appropriately in this situation. NATO allies evaluated these actions as correct.

Чому Польща піднімає винищувачі під час атак РФ по Україні, але не "включає" ППО

Photo: Minister of Defense of Poland, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, says that Russian missiles are not shot down because they do not threaten Polish targets (GettyImages)

According to expert Valerii Romanenko, the Polish side had all the capabilities to shoot down Russian missiles. The problem lies in one thing - a lack of political will.

"It was their choice; they decided that defending their borders is not as important as following NATO's directives. If they change their position, then they will start shooting them down. If they continue to pray for a hypothetical Scholz (the German chancellor avoids any escalation with Russia), missiles will fly to Warsaw, other cities, and maybe something will eventually explode," he added.

There is an opinion that Russia deliberately maneuvers the missiles in such a way that they fly into Poland, turn around, and hit targets in Ukraine. This is because our air defense expects the least attack from the western direction.

Ukrainian air defense tracks missiles as soon as they are launched by strategic bombers like the Tu-95, etc., explains expert Kostyantyn Kryvolap. However, the air defense systems are tuned to a specific segment. In systems like the Patriot, it is more limited, while in others, it is less so.

"But still, it's not 360 degrees, as provided by only operational-tactical complexes operating at short distances, with radars rotating around their axis. The larger the radar and the farther it can see, the more stationary it is. And if something flies in from the west, it needs to be deployed, which is a whole task. When missiles also come from the direction of Poland, it adds extra strain to our air defense," he explained.

Can Poland cover the western regions of Ukraine

In February, Rzeczpospolita published the results of a survey on whether Warsaw should start negotiations with Kyiv and NATO regarding the destruction of missiles flying towards Poland in border regions of Ukraine. Over a third - 37.6% of respondents - answered "definitely yes," another 31.7% - "rather yes," while only 17.6% were against.

The Ukrainian side is obviously interested in having Polish anti-missile defense at least partially cover the western regions. In an April interview with TSN. Week, Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba was asked if a scenario involving the deployment of Polish Patriot systems was possible.

"At the moment, everything is realistic. In fact, this would protect NATO countries from drones or missiles flying into their territory," he replied, also suggesting that the transferred systems could cover, in particular, the western border of Ukraine.

Чому Польща піднімає винищувачі під час атак РФ по Україні, але не "включає" ППО

Photo: Patriot air defense systems on the border with Poland could cover western Ukraine from ballistic threats up to a maximum of 25 kilometers inward. (Getty Images)

The idea doesn't seem to be generating enthusiasm among the Poles. Local media cited the response from the Ministry of Defense, stating that Poland "awaits years of transformation, including investments in missile defense." Based on this, it's difficult to say whether Polish Patriots will defend Ukrainian airspace, as it seems their defense ministry is at least currently avoiding giving a definitive answer.

Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Illia Yevlash confirmed that discussions about closing the airspace over western regions had already taken place and became relevant when a Russian missile spent 39 seconds in Polish airspace on April 27. In his opinion, the neighboring country has all the technical capabilities to partially close Ukrainian airspace. This, in turn, would allow scarce missile defense assets to be used in other directions to counter Russian aviation.

"However, this requires political will, and it's a larger conversation for our diplomatic corps and senior military leadership, who can coordinate this," he added, emphasizing the importance of the Patriot systems.

In March, Poland's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrzej Szejna, mentioned that NATO is considering the possibility of intercepting missiles flying towards member countries of the alliance. However, this would require consent from the Ukrainian side and consideration of international consequences, the diplomat noted. It's quite possible that such negotiations are currently underway.

Poland not only possesses Patriot systems but also an array of other defense complexes, plus they are currently developing a nationwide missile defense system called Wisła. Therefore, there would be a willingness, and the neighboring country could at least partially cover western Ukraine from Russian missiles, according to expert Romanenko.

He states that NATO countries bordering Ukraine should have long sought permission to destroy drones and missiles flying in their direction, for example, within a distance of 30 kilometers from the border.

"Since within 30 kilometers, a cruise missile would reach their territory 90% of the time. It's not a fighter jet; it can't make sharp turns. And a ballistic missile would reach them 100% of the time if aimed in their direction at such a distance. Protecting Ukraine in this case is a side effect. It would be a very understandable decision for their own defense," he emphasized.

In his opinion, such a scenario is entirely feasible and aligns with the security interests of the partners. Destroying missiles over Ukraine does not equate to engaging in combat, as they would be "operating" from their own territory, the expert added.

Furthermore, the issue is not solely about the application of Patriot-like systems, according to Kostyantyn Kryvolap. Because aerodynamic targets are not our main concern. Currently, Ukrainian missile defense intercepts 85-87% of cruise missiles and Shaheds, which is 10% if not more, higher than NATO's normative calculations. Regarding Patriot, it is guaranteed effective against ballistic threats within a radius of 25 kilometers.

"So if they position themselves close to our border, they would only be able to protect a strip within 25 kilometers. Against aerodynamic targets, it's 160 kilometers, but we can handle such targets ourselves. And against ballistic threats, they won't be able to do anything at this distance. So these statements are more political than technical," the expert concluded.