Ukraine drone attacks on Russia’s airfields reveal its air defense vulnerabilities

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RIGA, Latvia — Ukraine’s drone strike on an air base inside Russia on Tuesday again demonstrated Ukraine’s ability to reach Russian territory a day after its military attacked two other air bases hundreds of miles inside Russia.

The attacks exposed major vulnerabilities in Russia’s air defenses and sent a signal to Moscow that its strategic assets, far from an active war zone, are off limits to the Ukrainian military.

Officials in the Russian city of Kursk, north of Ukraine, said a drone strike on Tuesday set an oil storage tank on fire at an airfield.

The two airfields targeted by Monday’s drone strikes — the Engels-2 base in the Saratov region and the Diaghilev base in Ryazan, a few hours’ drive from Moscow — are home to jet bombers that can carry conventional missiles used to target Ukrainian infrastructure. It carries nuclear weapons and usually serves as a key component of Russia’s strategic nuclear defenses.

Ukraine has not officially claimed responsibility for the attacks and has been deliberately secretive about its role in a number of explosions at strategic Russian military sites 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 were Ukrainian drones – very successful and very effective,” the official said of the attack. 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 attack on Kiev, but said the damage was minimal.

Ukrainian drones attack two air bases deep in Russia

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday that “if Russia judges the incidents to be deliberate attacks, it will be seen as some of the most strategically significant failures of military protection since the invasion of Ukraine.”

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It is unclear how Ukrainian forces carried out the attack, which drones were used, and whether they were launched from Ukrainian territory or from inside Russia with the help of special operations teams near the target. Military experts who closely monitor Russian operations were also surprised by the drones’ success in evading Russian air defenses.

“Russia prides itself on being ready for a NATO strike against the country, with numerous aviation assets and precision-guided munitions. If so, how did this happen? ” Samuel Bendt, a military analyst at Virginia-based research group CNA, said in an interview.

Perhaps this points to some larger problems within Russian air defenses; “Maybe not as safe and modern as they think,” Bendet added. “Regardless of the air defense assets located in Russia, such an attack would not have been expected.

The Russian military said Ukraine used a drone “made in the Soviet era”. A Soviet Tu-141 Strysh drone, which uses 1970s technology, hit Engels Airfield, said Alexander Coates, a leading military correspondent for the pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

“If Russian radar and air defenses cannot defeat a Tu-141 flying hundreds of miles from hitting a key airbase for strategic bombers in a war situation, it does not bode well for its ability to intercept a mass cruise missile attack. Rob Lee, a Russia military expert and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said in a tweet.

Ukraine still has some Tu-141s in storage and could increase capacity for a one-way mission, Bendet said.

But the strikes have drawn attention to Ukraine’s own drone program and recent efforts to develop its own long-range combat UAVs.

Ukraine’s state arms maker Ukroboronprom revealed last month that it was testing a new strike drone with a range of up to 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) and a weight of 75 kilograms (165 pounds). “The next stage of UAV testing – on behalf of the Chief of General Staff, we are preparing for flight tests under the function of electronic warfare,” the company said in a Facebook post on November 24.

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There is no evidence that a new drone was used in the attack, but Bendt says it could be more advanced than a Soviet-era drone.

“The Russians want to reduce Ukrainian defense gains, that’s why they say they’ve reinvented an old clunker or blueprint. But it could be something else, something more complex,” he said.

Western officials said on Tuesday that if Ukraine had developed the capability to launch an attack so far inside Russia, it would be of great concern to the Russians. An attack on Engels’ base is particularly significant because it could prompt the long-range bombers Russia has stationed there to disperse to other locations.

“It certainly makes Russians less confident that anywhere is safe. Psychologically it is a blow,” said a Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly hinted at his country’s vast nuclear arsenal, raising veiled threats that he is prepared to resort to tougher measures to prevent Western intervention in the 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.

Aside from the symbolism of striking air bases linked to Russia’s nuclear defenses, the strikes could have an immediate impact on Moscow’s strategy on the battlefield in Ukraine.

“In a practical sense, this is a serious and imminent problem for the Russian Defense Ministry,” Ruslan Leviev, an analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team, said in a daily video briefing. “They need to install more air defense systems, but the problem that Russia and Ukraine face is that they have a limited number of them.”

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Levev recalled that Moscow had replaced some of the defense systems it had previously supplied to Syria to help troops along Russia’s nearly thousand-mile-long front.

“Even remote airfields in Russia that don’t have one or two have no additional defense systems and are left unprotected,” Leviev said. “So you either weaken your bases or move some air defenses off the front lines, both options are bad.”

Hours after Monday’s attack, Moscow launched its eighth massive missile attack on Ukraine, aimed at cutting the country off heating and electricity amid bitterly cold weather.

She fled the Russian occupation by boat. She was shot minutes later.

Speaking to reporters in Washington on Tuesday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken indicated that Ukrainian civilians are under attack by the Russian military, as is Ukraine’s energy grid. Asked whether he thought a Ukrainian attack on Russia would be morally justified, Blinken said the United States had neither encouraged nor enabled Kyiv to launch an attack inside Russian territory.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters: “We have not provided weapons to Ukraine for use inside Russia. We have made it very clear that these are defense materials. He continued, “We will not allow Ukraine to invade beyond its borders. We do not encourage Ukraine to attack across the border.

Asked at the same news conference whether the United States was working to prevent Ukraine from developing its own ability to strike inside Russia, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said: “No. Of course not.”

Missy Ryan and Karen DeYoung in Washington and Liz Sly in London contributed to this report.

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