Putin 'Overestimated' Russia's Military in Ukraine, But He's Still a Threat, Air Force Secretary Says

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall III
Frank Kendall III, then nominee to be secretary of the Air Force, appears for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin overestimated the power of his military forces when deciding to invade Ukraine, as reports of low morale among troops, equipment woes and a lack of airpower emerge from the battlefield.

But Kendall told reporters that none of Russia's failures in Ukraine has made it less of a threat in his eyes.

"Nothing I've seen so far has changed my fundamental impression [of Russia]," he told reporters at the Air Force Association's annual conference in Orlando. "I would be more inclined to put Russia in the near-peer competitor category than the peer competitor category ... with the exception of their nuclear capabilities."

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Kendall is one of the first military service branch leaders to publicly speak out about Russia's missteps since Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine last week, with the United States and NATO allies avoiding direct military confrontation.

"In my view, President Putin made a very, very serious miscalculation," Kendall said in his opening speech at the conference. "He severely underestimated the global reaction the invasion of Ukraine would provoke, he severely underestimated the will and courage of the people of Ukraine, and he overestimated the capability of his own military."

While a lot of attention has been paid to issues such as expired rations and vehicle malfunctions that have caused a massive Russian convoy to slowly inch its way to Kyiv, one of the looming questions is why Russia has yet to achieve air dominance in Ukraine.

Notably, Russia has a far larger air force than its neighbor. Flight Global's 2022 World Air Forces directory lists Russia as having 1,511 combat aircraft, while Ukraine has just under 100.

And while casualty reports and aircraft kills have yet to be confirmed by the U.S. government or independent sources, the numbers are looking bleak for Russian forces.

Ukraine has a small number of Bayraktar TB2 drones, which had destroyed at least 32 Russian vehicles as of last week, according to open-source intelligence analyst Stijn Mitzer.

On Wednesday, the Ukrainian Defence Ministry claimed that nearly 6,000 Russian troops and 30 aircraft had been eliminated by its forces as of that morning.

Russia's Defence Ministry announced a far smaller number of fatalities, 500, but has not shared what aircraft assets have been lost. Neither country's numbers have been independently verified.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity on Wednesday, told reporters that they've analyzed some of the failures Russian troops have had on the ground and are also curious why they are being timid in the skies.

"We're seeing the same sort of activity in the air," the senior official said. "There's a certain risk-averse behavior. They are not necessarily willing to take high risks with their own aircraft and their own pilots, and of course we're seeing that on the ground in the fairly slow and stodgy progress that they have made."

Kendall declined to comment on why Russia is not deploying all its aircraft in the invasion when asked by Military.com at a media roundtable, but said they should still be a concern for the Ukrainians.

"Overall, Russia has a significant capability," he said. "They have the numbers and the quality to be a viable air threat, definitely."

Kendall didn't spend much time on Russia during his speech, saying that current events in Europe should not change America's focus on China, which he considers to be the larger military adversary.

But he did say that the U.S. military needs to put Putin in his place, adding it's up to the service branches to deter further aggression from Russia.

"Where this will lead, I honestly don't know, but if President Putin thought he could divide NATO, divide Europe, and even divide the United States, he was wrong," Kendall said in his speech. "Now it's up to all of us to ensure that something like this does not happen again."

-- Travis Tritten contributed to this article.

Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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