A third Russian airfield was ablaze on Tuesday from a drone strike, a day after Ukraine demonstrated an apparent new ability to penetrate hundreds of kilometres deep into Russian air space with attacks on two Russian air bases.
Officials in the Russian city of Kursk, located close to Ukraine, released pictures of black smoke above an airfield in the early morning hours of Tuesday after the latest strike. The governor said an oil storage tank there had been set ablaze but there were no casualties.
It came a day after Russia confirmed it had been hit by what it said were Soviet-era drones — at Engels air base, home to Russia’s strategic bomber fleet, and in Ryazan, a few hours’ drive from Moscow.
The attacks on Russian bases — more than 500 kilometres from the border with Ukraine — raised questions about the effectiveness of their air defences. They also threatened a major escalation of the nine-month war. One of the airfields houses bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
Ukrainian officials taunt Moscow
Ukrainian officials have not formally confirmed carrying out the drone attacks, maintaining their apparent policy of deliberate ambiguity as they have done in the past when it comes to high-profile attacks on Russian targets.
But presidential adviser Mikhail Podolyak taunted Moscow in comments on Twitter.
“If something is launched into other countries’ airspace, sooner or later unknown flying objects will return to the point of departure,” Podolyak wrote. “The Earth is round.”
In a daily intelligence update on the war in Ukraine, Britain’s Defence Ministry said Russia was likely to consider the base attacks as “some of the most strategically significant failures of force protection since its invasion of Ukraine.” It said the bombers would likely be dispersed to other airfields.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said three service members were killed in the attack at Ryazan. Although the attacks struck military targets, it characterized them as terrorism and said the aim was to disable its long-range aircraft.
Russian commentators on social media said that if Ukraine could strike that far inside Russia, it might also be able to hit Moscow.
Ukraine says it shot down vast majority of missiles
The huge Tupolev long-range bombers that Russia stations at Engels are a major part of its strategic nuclear arsenal, similar to the B-52s deployed by the United States during the Cold War. Russia has used them in its campaign since October to destroy Ukraine’s energy grid with near weekly waves of missile strikes.
Russia responded to Monday’s attacks with what it called a “massive strike on Ukraine’s military control system,” though it did not identify any specific military targets for what Ukraine called Moscow’s latest strikes on civilian infrastructure.
Missiles across Ukraine destroyed homes and knocked out power, but the impact seemed to be less severe than barrages last month that plunged millions of Ukrainians into darkness and cold.
Ukraine’s air force said it had shot down more than 60 of around 70 missiles. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at least four people were killed.
A missile tore a huge crater out of the earth in the village of Novosofiivka, about 25 kilometres east of Zaporizhzhia city in southern Ukraine, and completely shredded a nearby house. Ambulance workers collected two bodies lying by a destroyed car.
Olha Troshyna, 62, said the dead were her neighbours who were standing by the car seeing off their son and daughter-in-law when the missile struck. With houses now destroyed and winter setting in, she had no idea where she would go.
“We have no place to go back to,” she said. “It would be fine if it were spring or summer. We could have done something if it were a warm season. But what am I going to do now?”
‘Such missile strikes only increase our resistance’
Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s Defence Intelligence agency, said Moscow had enough missiles left for just a few more giant barrages before they were depleted.
Russia claims a military justification for attacks on Ukraine’s civil infrastructure. Kyiv says the strikes are intended to hurt civilians, a war crime.
“They do not understand one thing — such missile strikes only increase our resistance,” Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said.
Marking Ukraine’s armed forces day, Zelenskyy travelled to the eastern Donetsk region Tuesday and vowed to push Russian forces out of all of Ukraine’s territory.
“Everyone sees your strength and your skill…. I’m grateful to your parents. They raised real heroes,” Zelenskyy said in a video address to Ukrainian forces from the city of the Sloviansk, a key Ukrainian stronghold in the east.
No political talks are underway to end the war. Moscow insists it will not negotiate unless Kyiv and the West accept its sovereignty over Ukrainian lands it claims, while Kyiv says Russia must quit all its territory.
Exchange of 60 POWs each
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday talks would only be possible when Russia achieves the goals of its “special military operation,” which he did not define.
However, the sides have discussed issues such as prisoner swaps.
Russia and Ukraine said on Tuesday they had exchanged 60 prisoners of war on each side in the latest of a series of such swaps.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said the 60 freed Russian soldiers would be flown to Moscow to receive medical care and psychological support.
Ukraine’s presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak hailed the returning Ukrainians as heroes and said they included dozens who had held out in the city of Mariupol — including the besieged Azovstal steelworks — until Russia forced its surrender in May.
The two sides have exchanged hundreds of prisoners in a series of swaps over the past several months.