Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian airfields reveal the vulnerabilities of its air defense


RIGA, Latvia — A drone strike attributed to Ukraine rocked an airport inside Russia on Tuesday, once again demonstrating Ukraine’s ability to reach Russian soil a day after its forces bombed two more air bases hundreds of miles inside Russia.

The attacks exposed significant vulnerabilities in Russia’s air defenses and sent a signal to Moscow that its strategic assets are far from an active combat zone not far from the borders of the Ukrainian military.

Officials in the Russian city of Kursk, in northern Ukraine, said that the drone attack on Tuesday set fire to an oil storage tank at an airport.

The two airfields hit by the drones on Monday — the Engels-2 base in the Saratov region and the Dyagilevo base in Ryazan, a few hours’ drive from Moscow — are home to jet bombers that can but can carry conventional missiles used to target Ukrainian infrastructure. It carries nuclear weapons and normally serves as an important component of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrence.

Ukraine has not officially claimed responsibility for the attacks and has deliberately concealed its role in several explosions at strategically important Russian military sites in recent months.

But a senior Ukrainian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that the three attacks were carried out by Ukrainian drones.

“These were Ukrainian drones – very successful and very effective,” said the official responsible for the strikes. The official added that the Russians “sowed the seeds of anger and will reap the whirlwind.”

Russia’s defense ministry blamed Monday’s attacks on Kyiv but said the damage was minimal.

Ukrainian drones hit two air bases deep in Russia in a brazen attack

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday that “if Russia assesses that the incidents were deliberate attacks, it is likely to regard them as some of the most significant strategic failures of force protection since its 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 inside Russia with the help of special operations teams closest to the targets. Military experts who closely monitor Russian activities have also been left baffled by the drones’ success in evading Russian air defences.

“Russia prides itself on being ready for a NATO strike against the country by having so many air assets and precision-guided munitions. If so, how did this happen?” asked Samuel Bendett, a military analyst with the Virginia-based research group CNA, speaking in an interview.

Perhaps this points to some of the larger issues within Russia’s air defense; They may not have been as secure and modern as they think they are,” Bendett added. Whatever air defense assets Russia has, you probably didn’t expect an attack like this to be possible.

The Russian military said Ukraine had used a “Soviet-era” unmanned aerial vehicle. Alexander Kots, a senior military correspondent for the Kremlin-friendly newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, said Engels airfield was hit by a Soviet Tu-141 Strizh drone, which uses technology from the 1970s.

“If Russia’s radar and air defenses can’t defeat a Tu-141 that has flown hundreds of miles from striking its main air base for its strategic bombers in the course of the war, it doesn’t bode well for its ability to stop a group strike with a cruise missile,” said Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and senior fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute, in a tweet.

Bendett said Ukraine still had some Tu-141s in storage and could boost its one-way mission capability.

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

Ukraine’s state arms producer Ukroboronprom revealed last month that it was testing a new drone with a range of up to 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) and a payload weight of 75 kilograms (165 pounds). The company said on its Facebook page: “The next stage of testing drones – on behalf of the Chief of the General Staff, we are preparing flight tests under electronic warfare.” Mail On November 24th.

There is no evidence that a new drone was used in the attacks, but Bennett says it may have been something more advanced than a Soviet-era drone.

“The Russians want to downplay Ukraine’s defense achievements, which is why they say they reused an old tool or scheme. But that might have been something else, something more complicated,” he said.

Western officials said on Tuesday that if Ukraine did indeed develop the ability to strike inside Russia so far, it would be very worrying for the Russians. The attack on Engels is particularly important, in part, because this could force Russia to disperse the long-range bombers that were stationed there to other locations.

It certainly makes Russians less confident that any place is safe. “Psychologically, it deals a blow,” said a Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive topics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly hinted at his country’s vast nuclear arsenal, making veiled threats that he is ready to resort to extreme measures to deter Western involvement in the war or as retaliation if Ukraine targets critical infrastructure inside Russia. The vulnerability of strategic locations to relatively simple drone technology may change the way Western leaders view these threats.

Aside from the symbolism of striking airfields associated with Russia’s nuclear deterrence, the attacks could have immediate implications for Moscow’s battlefield strategy in Ukraine.

“In practice, 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. “Ideally, they would need to put more air defense systems in place, but the problem that both Russia and Ukraine face is that they have a limited number of these systems.”

Leviev pointed to reports that Moscow had transferred some defense systems it had previously supplied to Syria to help cover forces on Russia’s nearly 1,000-mile front line.

“Even for remote airfields, of which Russia does not have one or two, there are no additional defense systems and they are simply left without protection,” said Leviev. “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 attacks, Moscow launched an eighth wave of massive missile strikes against Ukraine, apparently aimed at depriving the country of heating and electricity in frigid weather.

She fled from the Russian occupation by boat. Minutes later, she was shot.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday in Washington, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted that Ukrainian civilians are regularly attacked by Russian forces, as well as Ukraine’s energy grid. Asked if he believed Ukrainian strikes on Russia were morally justified, Blinken said the United States “did not encourage or enable” Kyiv to launch strikes inside Russian territory.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, “We have not supplied weapons to Ukraine for use inside Russia. We have been very clear that these are defense supplies.” He continued, “We do not enable Ukraine to strike outside its borders. We do not encourage Ukraine to strike outside its borders.”

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

Missy Ryan and Karen de Young in Washington and Liz Slay in London contributed to this report.

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