Following the publication of images on April 3 allegedly showing a Russian Air Force Su-35S shot down by Ukrainian air defences, reports have emerged that a Soviet S-125 medium range surface to air missile system was responsible. The Su-35 is the most costly fighter in Russia Air Force service fielded at squadron level strength, and its loss marks the first since the fighter began combat operations in early 2016. The S-125 has a long history of successes against high performance fighters, and first entered service in the Soviet Air Defence Forces in 1961. The system is particularly well suited to neutralising targets at lower altitudes, although over time as its sensors have been modernised and its range increased it also gained the ability to engage higher targets. The system gained its first kills during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where in Egyptian hands it reportedly downed several Israeli F-4E Phantoms which were at the time the top fighters in the Western world. Perhaps its most notable kill, however, was gained in 1999 by Yugoslav forces when at least one of two neutralised U.S. Air Force F-117 stealth fighters was brought down using the system. The system has since reportedly been used to intercept Israeli subsonic cruise missiles over Syrian skies.
Although long since retired from the Russian Military, largely due to its lack of mobility, the S-125 continues to be widely fielded elsewhere with approximately two dozen countries deploying them. Ukraine in late 2020 returned its units to service, and has modernised them considerably to the S-125-2D Pechora standard with a much extended 40km range. Russia also continued to modernise S-125 systems in its reserves for export into the 2010s, and has exported these to a number of clients most notably Venezuela where they complement Russian-supplied S-300VM systems. The downing of the Su-35, if confirmed, would contribute to the S-125’s standing as one of the deadliest anti aircraft missile systems in history – closely rivalled by the higher altitude longer range S-75 system it was built to complement which entered service four years prior. Where the system was designed to keep Western air forces at bay, and has burnished its record against Western aircraft, Ukraine’s alignment with the NATO after the overthrow of its government in 2014 has resulted in its arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union being aimed primarily against Russia and being employed in line with Western interests.