Hiding in plain sight, a Soviet-era air defence system arrives in Ukraine

The US offered Slovakia US-made Patriot missiles if it would ‘donate’ its aging S-300 air-defence system to Ukraine

Driving back to his village near the Ukrainian border earlier this month, the mayor had to stop to let a train pass, and assumed he would not have to wait long. But the flatbed wagons, stacked high with military equipment, just kept coming. He waited for nearly 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 funnelling weapons and ammunition into Ukraine by rail from the west.

The train that delayed Csoma’s drive home was not only unusually long but also signalled a singular escalation in western efforts to help Ukraine defend itself. It carried an air defence 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 warplanes and missiles.

As President Vladimir Putin of Russia vows to fight the war to its "full completion" and his forces regroup for an expected push in Ukraine's east, Nato countries, including the United States, are scrambling to keep the weapons flowing and bulk up the country's defences.


Bolstering Ukraine’s long-range air defence capabilities is seen as especially critical. Ukraine already had its own S-300 and other air defence systems, but some of these have been destroyed, leaving Russia with a large degree of freedom to hit Ukrainian targets from the air with warplanes and cruise missiles.

Increasingly desperate to reverse this imbalance, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy 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 warplanes into Ukraine.


Instead, the United States offered Slovakia, a fellow Nato member, a substitute battery of US-made Patriot missiles if it would “donate” its aging S-300 system to Ukraine.

Jaroslav Nad, Slovakia's defence minister and a gung-ho supporter of Ukraine, said it would have been unthinkable before Russia's invasion for his country to send large quantities of even basic weapons across its eastern border free of charge, never mind an old but still powerful Soviet-made anti-aircraft system.

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

Putin, he said, “is equal to Hitler”, 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 also steadily expanding the scope of their military aid. The No 2 Pentagon official met in Washington on Wednesday with the United States’ largest military contractors to discuss how ready they are to restock supplies and what new capabilities to send to Ukraine.

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

Other Nato members are already sending Ukraine bigger and better weaponry than before, including T-72 tanks and short-range air defence systems from the Czech Republic. The S-300 system from Slovakia is the biggest item a Nato country has sent so far.

It was previously deployed in Nitra, a city east of Bratislava at the other end of the country. From there it was hauled by truck and train to Dobra, where the state-controlled rail yard has Soviet gauge tracks, wider than the standard in Europe, which means it can run trains to and from Ukraine, which also has Soviet tracks.

Damaged tanks

Other big items now under discussion for transport to Ukraine via Slovakia include aging MiG-29 warplanes and sophisticated, self-propelled Howitzers called Zuzana 2. Also under review is a plan for Ukraine to send hundreds of damaged tanks, some of them captured from Russian forces, across the border for repair in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, all of which have experience fixing Soviet-made equipment.

Slovakia “is not going to send tanks because we don’t have any spare tanks,” Nad said, underscoring an issue confronting even Ukraine’s most eager backers. “We have to keep enough capabilities for our own armed forces.”

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

Hungary, Slovakia's southern neighbour, for example, has declared itself neutral in the conflict and barred weapons from passing through its own territory to Ukraine, –largely to avoid upsetting deliveries of cheap Russian gas – but it is believed to have quietly provided weapons through other countries.

Asked about this, a Hungarian government spokesperson in Budapest declined to confirm or deny that his country is providing military material, saying only that "Hungary's standpoint is well known, and it has remained unchanged."

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

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

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

Military cargo

Previous military cargo sent into Ukraine by rail through Dobra and the nearby town of Cierna nad Tisou contained mostly ammunition and basic military hardware. A separate weapons conduit through Poland, the main route for American arms, has involved weapons like Javelin, NLAW and Stinger missiles, which are light, portable, high-tech and relatively easy to hide in trucks passing through Polish border crossings into western Ukraine.

An air-defence battery is too big to hide, particularly when it travels on trains with more than 120 wagons in full view of drivers blocked by their passage. The cargo was so bulky it took two days to deliver it just a few miles from Dobra into Ukraine in two separate trains.

"Everyone knows what is going on," said Jakub Zsolt, a steel factory maintenance worker who lives across the road from the rail yard. He said his grandchildren were scared by all the commotion, but added that he had himself grown accustomed to the clatter of military helicopters and the rumble of trucks carrying weapons to the loading yard.

All the same, he said, he worries that Slovakia, a small country of just 5.4 million people, is now wading too deeply into Ukraine's war with Russia. "The Russians might attack us," he said, adding that he did not understand why Ukrainians needed so much help when "they come here driving much nicer cars – Porsches and Mercedes – than we drive in Slovakia".

Most refugees fleeing the war, nearly all women and children, don't drive anything, but cross on foot carrying just a change of clothes. Zsolt's jaundiced view of Ukraine highlights the success of opponents of the pro-western Slovak prime minister, Eduard Heger, who last week said, "we need to help Ukraine in every possible way to win this war".

His foes, playing to a substantial segment of the population traditionally favourable to Moscow, have sought to turn public opinion against support for Ukraine and seized on the war as a political opportunity.

Robert Fico, a scandal-tainted former Slovak prime minister, upended the government's efforts to keep the delivery of the S-300 battery secret until it had safely arrived in Ukraine when he posted a video on his Facebook page that showed a train carrying the disassembled air-defence system on its way to Ukraine.

He denounced Heger as “a freak in American hands who will do whatever the Americans tell him to do”, and demanded that the public immediately be told where the S-300 system was going.

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

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

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 as part of Czechoslovakia, and was inferior to US-made Patriot missiles. But, he added, Ukrainians know how to use it and will be able to reduce Russia's mastery of the skies.

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


The mayor in Dobra, Csoma, said he supported helping Ukraine, but was noncommittal when asked about the wisdom of sending a powerful weapon system like the S-300. Miffed not to be informed in advance about the disruption to traffic caused by the S-300 trains, he said: “They don’t tell me anything. They should at least let me know about this kind of thing.”

Nobody really worried much about the war spreading into Slovakia, he said, but the authorities have nonetheless dusted off old civil defence plans, with police taking an inventory of potential bomb shelters. In the event of conflict, the mayor said, he had been assured that district authorities would send buses to evacuate his village’s 520 people.

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

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times