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

A drone strike attributed to Ukraine rocked an airfield inside Russia on Tuesday, demonstrating once again Ukraine’s ability to reach into Russian territory one day after its forces struck two other air bases hundreds of miles inside Russia.

The attacks have 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 the emboldened Ukrainian military.

Officials in the Russian city of Kursk, just north of Ukraine, said the Tuesday drone attack set an oil storage tank ablaze at an airfield.

The two airfields struck by 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 carry conventional missiles used to target Ukrainian infrastructure but can also carry nuclear weapons and normally serve as an important component of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.

Ukraine did not officially claim 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 the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that all three attacks were carried out by Ukrainian drones.

“These were Ukrainian drones — very successful, very effective,” the official said of the strikes. The official added that the Russians have “sowed the seeds of anger, and they’ll reap the whirlwind.”

The Russian Defense Ministry blamed the Monday attacks on Kyiv but said the damage done was minimal.

Britain’s ministry of defense said Tuesday that “if Russia assesses the incidents were deliberate attacks, it will probably consider them as some of the most strategically significant failures of force protection since its invasion of Ukraine.”

It’s 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 closer to the targets. Military experts closely monitoring Russian activities were also left puzzled by the drones’ success in evading Russian air defenses.

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

Maybe this points to some of the bigger issues within the Russian air defense; maybe they’re not as secure, modern as they think,” Bendett added. “Whatever air defense assets located in Russia proper probably did not anticipate that an attack like that could be possible.

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

“If Russian radar and air defenses could not defeat a Tu-141 that flew hundreds of miles from hitting its main air base for its strategic bombers in a war setting, that doesn’t bode well for its ability to stop a mass cruise missile strike,” Rob Lee, a Russia military expert and a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said in a tweet.

Ukraine still has some Tu-141s in storage and could have enhanced its capability for a one-way mission, Bendett said.

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

Ukraine’s state weapons producer Ukroboronprom revealed last month that it is testing a new strike drone with a range up to 1000 km (621 miles) and a load weight of 75 kg (165 pounds). “The next stage of UAV testing — on behalf of the Chief of the General Staff, we are getting ready for flight tests under the action of electronic warfare,” the company said in a Facebook post on Nov. 24.

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

“Russians want to minimize Ukrainian defense achievements, and that’s why they’re saying they just repurposed an old clunker or the blueprint. But this may have been something else, something more sophisticated,” he said.

If Ukraine has indeed developed the capacity to strike so far inside Russia, this will be deeply worrying for the Russians, Western officials said Tuesday. The attack on the Engels base is particularly significant, in part, because this may force Russia to disperse the long-range bombers it has stationed there to other locations.

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

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 as retaliation 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 airfields linked to Russia’s nuclear deterrent, the attacks may have immediate effects on Moscow’s strategy on the battlefield in Ukraine.

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

Leviev recalled reports that Moscow has relocated some of its defense systems previously supplied to Syria to help cover forces on Russia’s nearly thousand-mile-long front line.

“Even for remote airfields, of which Russia has not one or two, there is just 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 from the front line, and both options are bad.”

Hours after the Monday attacks, Moscow launched an eighth wave of massive missile strikes against Ukraine that appear aimed at depriving the country of heating and electricity in bitterly cold weather.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to reporters Tuesday in Washington, noted that Ukrainian civilians were coming under attack regularly by Russian forces, as is Ukrainian’s energy grid. Asked whether he thought Ukrainian strikes into Russia were morally justified, Blinken said the United States had “neither encouraged nor enabled” Kyiv to launch strikes inside Russian territory.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters: “We have not provided Ukraine with weapons to use inside of Russia. We’ve been very clear that these are defensive supplies.” He continued, “We are not enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We are not encouraging Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.”

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. Absolutely not.

David L. Stern in Kyiv, Missy Ryan and Karen DeYoung in Washington, and Liz Sly in London contributed to this report.

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