A third Russian airfield was set ablaze by a drone strike on Tuesday, a day after Ukraine demonstrated a new capability to penetrate hundreds of kilometers deep into Russian airspace with attacks on two Russian air bases.
Officials in the Russian city of Kursk, closer to Ukraine, released images of black smoke over the airfield early Tuesday morning after the latest strike. The governor said an oil storage tank was set on fire, but there were no casualties.
It comes a day after Russia confirmed a Soviet-era drone strike at Engels Air Base, home to Russia’s largest strategic bombers, and Ryazan, just a few hours’ drive from Moscow. Kiev did not directly claim responsibility for the strikes, but celebrated them.
“If Russia considers the incidents to be deliberate attacks, it is likely to consider them to be the most strategically important force protection failures since the invasion of Ukraine,” Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday.
“The Russian chain of command will likely seek to identify and impose severe sanctions on Russian officers found responsible for the incident.”
The Russian Ministry of Defense reported that three servicemen were killed in the attack in Ryazan. Although the attacks were aimed at military targets, it described them as terrorism and said the aim was to disable its long-range aircraft.
The New York Times, citing a senior Ukrainian official, said the drones involved in Monday’s attacks were launched from Ukrainian territory and that at least one of the strikes was carried out by special forces near a base.
Ukraine has never claimed responsibility for attacks inside Russia. Asked about the strikes, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleskyi Reznikov repeated the long-standing joke that the explosions at Russian bases were caused by careless smokers.
“Most Russians smoke in non-smoking areas,” he said.
Oleksiy Arestovich, adviser to the Ukrainian president, noted that Engels is the only base fully equipped for the large bombers used by Russia in its attacks against Ukraine.
“They try to distribute (strategic aircraft) to airfields, but all this complicates the operation against Ukraine. Yesterday, we achieved a great result thanks to their failure,” he said.
Russian commentators have said on social media that if Ukraine can strike this far inside Russia, it can strike Moscow.
“The ability of the armed forces of Ukraine to reach military targets on the territory of the Russian Federation has a very symbolic and significant meaning,” Ukrainian military analyst Sergey Zgurets wrote on the Espresso TV website.
Russia’s huge Tupolev long-range bombers, stationed at Engels Air Force Base, are a key part of the U.S.’s strategic nuclear arsenal, similar to Cold War-era B-52s. Russia has been using them in its campaign to destroy Ukraine’s energy grid with weekly waves of missile strikes since October.
The Engels base near the city of Saratov is at least 600 km (372 miles) from the nearest Ukrainian territory.
Russia responded to Monday’s attacks as a “massive blow to Ukraine’s military control system.” Rocket strikes across Ukraine destroyed homes and knocked out power, but the impact seemed less severe than the barricades that plunged millions of Ukrainians into darkness and cold last month.
Ukraine’s air force said it shot down more than 60 of about 70 missiles.
In the village of Novosofiivka, 25 km east of the city of Zaporizhzhya in southern Ukraine, the missile ripped a huge crater from the ground and completely destroyed a nearby house. Emergency personnel collected two bodies lying next to the wrecked car.
62-year-old Olkha Troshina said that the dead were her neighbors, who were waiting for her son and daughter-in-law near the car when the rocket hit. The houses were destroyed, and when winter came, he did not know where to go.
“We have nowhere to go back,” he said. “It would be better if it was spring or summer. If it was a warm season, we could do something. But what do I do now? “
Ukraine has warned of further blackouts in several areas as it repairs the damage.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at least four people were killed in the latest Russian strikes.
“There should be emergency shutdowns in many areas,” he said in a video message late Monday. “We will do everything to restore stability.”
Calling the invasion a “special military operation” to root out nationalists, Russia claims the attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure are on a military basis. Kiev says the attacks have no military purpose and are intended to harm civilians, which is a war crime.
“They don’t understand one thing – such missile attacks only strengthen our resistance,” said Ukrainian Defense Minister Reznikov. “In addition, they increase the desire of our partners to support us.”
The United States said Thursday it will hold a virtual meeting with oil and gas leaders to discuss how it can support Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. According to a letter seen by Reuters.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that “Russia will fail in its attempt to actually get the Ukrainian people to raise their hands.”