Two days of drone attacks inside Russia’s border with Ukraine have exposed the vulnerability of some of Moscow’s most important military sites, observers said.
Ukrainian officials did not formally confirm carrying out drone strikes inside Russia, and they have maintained ambiguity over previous high-profile attacks.
But Britain’s defence ministry said Russia was likely to consider the attacks on Russian bases more than 500km (300 miles) from the border as “some of the most strategically significant failures of force protection since its invasion of Ukraine”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russian authorities will “take the necessary measures” to enhance protection of key facilities. Russian bloggers who generally maintain contacts with officials in their country’s military criticized the lack of defensive measures.
A fire broke out at an airport in Russia’s southern Kursk region that borders Ukraine after a drone hit the facility, the region’s governor said on Tuesday. In a second incident, an industrial plant 80km (50 miles) from the Ukrainian border was also targeted by drones, which missed a fuel depot at the site, Russian independent media reported.
“They will have less aviation equipment after being damaged due to these mysterious explosions,” said Yurii Ihnat, spokesman for the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “This is undoubtedly excellent news because if one or two aircraft fail, then in the future, some more aircraft may fail in some way. This reduces their capabilities.”
Moscow blamed Kyiv for unprecedented attacks on two airbases deep inside Russia on Monday. The attacks on the Engels base in the Saratov region on the Volga River and the Dyagilevo base in the Ryazan region in western Russia were some of the most brazen inside Russia during the war.
In the aftermath, Russian troops carried out another wave of missile strikes on Ukrainian territory struck homes and buildings and killed civilians, compounding damage done to power and other infrastructure over weeks of missile attacks.
The attacks on airfields deep inside Russia will have struck a powerful psychological blow, senior Western officials said, saying it meant Moscow would have to think much more carefully about how to keep its long-range bombers safe.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the strikes were the deepest inside Russia since its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
“If it were [the Ukrainians] … it does show that they can operate in Russia at will, and that will deeply worry the Russians,” one official said. “Psychologically I think it strikes a blow.”
The officials said they were confident that it was at the Engels base that Russia kept its strategic long-range bombers, but that now it would have to think of moving them. “It may have the effect of pushing those bombers into dispersed locations,” the official said. “It certainly makes the Russians less confident … [that] anywhere is safe.”
Russia has used the bombers in its campaign since October to destroy Ukraine’s energy grid, attacks that the Western officials said reflected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s growing desperation.
Military analysts see the drone strikes on Russia as a response to its attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.
Some experts believe Ukraine used Soviet-era reconnaissance drones dating to the 1970s, possibly modified to carry weapons. Several sources suggested the drones might have been Tupolev Tu-141 jet models, large unmanned aircraft capable of high-altitude flight.
They “likely underwent heavy modification … to have a bombing capacity, likely acting as a kamikaze-style drone”, said Vikram Mittal, a professor at the US West Point military academy.
“This isn’t sophisticated technology,” said Jean-Christophe Noel of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), suggesting the Ukrainians simply “used it to crash” into a target while bearing explosives.
“Ukraine’s ability to undertake targeting at this distance is impressive,” said Mick Ryan, a former Australian general who has been following the conflict closely. Ukraine’s armed forces “might have had third party assistance in planning the strike, but this is not a certainty”, he added.
“A combination of open-source material, knowledge of the Russian air defence network gaps and on-the-ground observation might have sufficed.”
Few observers lend credence to the Russian defence ministry claim that the Ukrainian drones were intercepted and the damage caused by debris.
“What is truly surprising is that the drones were able to get past the Russian air-defence systems,” Mittal said.
It is impossible for Moscow to protect all of its vast territory, but strikes on such crucial military installations will raise questions.
“Tu-141s are 1970s technology,” said Rob Lee of the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).
“If Russian radar and air defences could not prevent a Tu-141 that flew hundreds of miles from hitting its main airbase for its strategic bombers … that doesn’t bode well for its ability to stop a mass cruise missile strike,” Lee added.
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