Authorities in the Russian city of Kursk, north of Ukraine, said a drone strike on Tuesday set an oil storage tank at the airport on fire.
The two airfields hit by drones on Monday — the Engels-2 base in the Saratov region and the Dyakhilevo base in Ryazan, a few hours’ drive from Moscow — were jet bombers capable of carrying conventional missiles used to target Ukrainian infrastructure. It carries nuclear weapons and generally serves as a key component of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.
Ukraine has not officially claimed responsibility for the attacks and has been deliberately secretive about its role in several explosions at strategically important Russian military bases in recent months.
But a senior Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that all three strikes were carried out by Ukrainian drones.
“These are Ukrainian drones – very successful, very effective,” the official said of the strikes. The official added that the Russians had “sown the seeds of anger, and they will reap the whirlwind.”
The Russian Defense Ministry blamed Monday’s attacks on Kiev, but said the damage was minimal.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday that “if Russia judges these incidents to be deliberate attacks, they will be considered the most strategically significant failures of force protection since the invasion of Ukraine”.
It is not clear how Ukrainian forces carried out the attack, what drones were used, and whether they were launched from Ukrainian territory or with the help of special operations groups close to targets inside Russia. Military experts who have been closely monitoring Russian operations were also baffled by the drones’ success in evading Russian air defenses.
“Russia boasts that it is ready for a NATO strike against the country with numerous air assets and precision-guided munitions. So, how did this happen?” Samuel Bendet, a military researcher at the Virginia-based CNA Research Group, said in an interview.
“Perhaps this points to some larger problems with Russian air defense; “Maybe not as safe and modern as they think,” added Bendet. “No matter what air defense assets Russia has in place, such an attack is not expected to be possible.“
The Russian military said Ukraine used an unmanned aerial vehicle “produced in the Soviet era”. Alexander Kotz, chief military correspondent for the Kremlin-friendly newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, said the Engels airfield was attacked by a Soviet Tu-141 Strish drone, which uses technology from the 1970s.
“If Russian radar and air defenses can’t defeat the Tu-141, flying hundreds of miles from its main air base to hit a combat system, it doesn’t bode well for its ability to stop a massive cruise missile attack,” said Rob Lee Tweet, a Russia military expert and senior fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Research. stated.
Ukraine still has some Tu-141s in storage and may have improved its capacity for one-way travel, Bendet said.
But the strikes have also drawn attention to Ukraine’s own drone program and recent efforts to develop its own long-range combat UAVs.
Ukraine’s state arms manufacturer Ukroboronprom revealed last month that it was testing a new strike drone with a range of 1,000 km (621 miles) and a weight of 75 kg (165 pounds). “The next phase of UAV testing – on behalf of the Chiefs of Staff, we are preparing for flight tests under Electronic Warfare,” the company said in a Facebook post. Mail Nov. 24.
There is no evidence that the new drone was used in the attacks, but Bendet says it may be more advanced than a Soviet-era drone.
“The Russians want to play down the Ukrainian defense record, so they say they recreated an old clunker or blueprint. But it could have been something else, something more sophisticated,” he said.
Western officials said on Tuesday that if Ukraine had indeed developed the ability to strike so far into Russia, it would be of deep concern to the Russians. An attack on the Engels base was particularly important because it would disperse the Russian long-range bombers stationed there.
“It certainly undermines Russians’ confidence that anywhere is safe. Psychologically it’s a blow,” said one Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly referred to his country’s vast nuclear arsenal and made veiled threats that he is prepared to take drastic measures to prevent the West from going to war or to retaliate if Ukraine targets critical infrastructure inside Russia. The vulnerability of strategic sites to relatively simple drone technology may change the way Western leaders perceive these threats.
In addition to signaling airfield strikes linked to Russia’s nuclear deterrence, the strikes could have immediate consequences for Moscow’s strategy on the battlefield in Ukraine.
“In a practical sense, this is a serious and immediate problem for the Russian Defense Ministry,” Ruslan Leviv, an analyst with the Conflict Investigation Agency, told a daily video conference. “It’s just that they need to put in more air defense systems, but the problem Russia and Ukraine face is that they have a limited number of them.”
Leviv recalled reports that Moscow had relocated some defense systems previously provided to Syria to help cover forces along Russia’s nearly thousand-mile-long front line.
“Even remote airfields in Russia, where there are not one or two, do not have additional security systems, they are simply unsafe,” Leviev said. “So you either leave your bases vulnerable or move some air defense systems off the front line, and both options are bad.”
Hours after Monday’s attack, Moscow launched an eighth wave of massive missile strikes against Ukraine, apparently aimed at depriving the country of heat and electricity in bitterly cold weather.
Speaking to reporters in Washington on Tuesday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted that Ukrainian civilians are under constant attack by Russian forces, as is the Ukrainian energy grid. Asked if he thought Ukrainian attacks inside Russia were morally justified, Blinken said the United States “does not encourage or enable” attacks inside Russian territory.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters: “We are not providing weapons to Ukraine for use inside Russia. We were clear that these were defensive items. He continued, “We will not allow Ukraine to be attacked beyond its borders. We do not encourage Ukraine to attack beyond its borders.
Asked at the same news conference whether the United States was acting to deter Ukraine from invading Russia, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said: “No. Absolutely not.”
Missy Ryan and Karen Deung in Washington and Liz Sly in London contributed to this report.
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