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

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

The strikes revealed major vulnerabilities in Russia’s air defenses and sent a signal to Moscow that its strategic assets far from the active combat zone are not off limits to Ukraine’s valiant military.

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

The two airfields hit by drones on Monday – the Engels-2 base in the Saratov region and the Diaghilev base in Ryazan, a few hours’ drive from Moscow – are home to bombers that can carry conventional missiles used to target Ukrainian infrastructure. but they can also carry nuclear weapons and typically serve as an important component of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

Ukraine has not officially claimed responsibility for the attacks and has been deliberately cryptic about its role in several explosions at strategically important 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.

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

The Russian Defense Ministry blamed Kiev for Monday’s attacks, but said the damage done was minimal.

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

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday that “if Russia judges the incidents to be deliberate attacks, it is likely to regard them as some of the most strategically significant failures in force protection since its invasion of Ukraine.”

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It is unclear 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 closer to the targets. Military experts who closely monitor Russian activities have also been baffled by the drones’ success in evading Russian air defenses.

“Russia prides itself on being ready for a NATO strike against the country by having plenty of air assets and precision-guided munitions. So if that’s the case, then how did this happen?” asked Samuel Bendet, a military analyst at the Virginia-based research group CNA, speaking in an interview.

Perhaps this points to some of the larger issues within Russian air defense; maybe they are not as safe, modern as they think,” Bendet added. “Regardless of the air defense assets located in Russia, they probably did not expect that such an attack could be possible.

The Russian military said Ukraine was using a “Soviet-era” drone. Alexander Kots, a prominent military correspondent for the Kremlin-friendly newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, said Engels Airport was hit by a Soviet Tu-141 Strizh drone, which uses technology from the 1970s.

“If Russia’s radar and air defenses could not defeat a Tu-141 flying hundreds of miles from striking its main air base for its strategic bombers in a military setting, that does not bode well for its ability to stop a massive 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 improve its one-way mission capability, Bendet said.

But the attacks have also drawn attention to Ukraine’s own drone program and recent efforts to develop its own long-range fighter jets.

Ukraine’s state-run 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 payload weight of 75 kilograms (165 pounds). “The next stage of UAV testing – on behalf of the Chief of the General Staff, we are preparing for flight tests under the influence of electronic warfare,” the company announced in a Facebook post on November 24.

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

“The Russians want to downplay the achievements of the Ukrainian defense, so they say they just repurposed an old clunker or plan. “But this might have been something else, something more sophisticated,” he said.

If Ukraine has indeed developed the capability to strike Russia by now, it will be deeply worrying for the Russians, Western officials said on Tuesday. The attack on Engels is particularly significant, in part, because it could force Russia to disperse the long-range bombers it has stationed there to other locations.

“It certainly makes Russians less confident that anywhere is safe.” Psychologically it takes a toll,” said one Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive topics.

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

Aside from the symbolism of the airfield strikes associated with Russia’s nuclear deterrent, the strikes could have immediate effects on Moscow’s battlefield strategy in Ukraine.

“In practical terms, this is a serious and unavoidable problem for the Russian Defense Ministry,” Ruslan Leviev, an analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team, said in a daily video briefing. “Ideally they should deploy more air defense systems, but the problem Russia and Ukraine face is that they have a finite number of them.”

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Leviev recalled reports that Moscow had moved some of its defense systems previously delivered 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 simply no additional defense systems and they are simply left unprotected,” Leviev said. “So you either leave your bases vulnerable or you move some of the air defense systems off the front line, both options are bad.”

Hours after Monday’s attacks, Moscow launched an eighth wave of massive missile strikes against Ukraine, apparently aimed at cutting off heating and electricity in the bitterly cold weather.

She fled the Russian occupation by boat. A few minutes later, she was shot dead.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to reporters Tuesday in Washington, noted that Ukrainian civilians have been regularly attacked by Russian forces, as well as Ukraine’s energy grid. Asked if he thought Ukrainian attacks in Russia were morally justified, Blinken said the United States “neither encouraged nor enabled” Kiev to launch attacks on Russian soil.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters: “We have not provided Ukraine with weapons for use in Russia. We were very clear that these are defense reserves.” He continued: “We do not allow Ukraine to attack outside its borders. We do not encourage Ukraine to attack outside its borders.”

Asked at the same press conference whether the United States was working to prevent Ukraine from developing its own strike capability in Russia, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said: “No. Absolutely not.”

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

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