Russian Airfields Have A Ukrainian Drone Problem
For the second time this month, Ukraine has launched a drone attack on the Engels military air base near Saratov, hundreds of miles inside Russia. While there are no reports of damage, three servicemen were killed.
The Russian military reported on Monday that it shot down a Ukrainian drone approaching an airbase deep inside Russia, the second time the facility has been targeted this month — raising questions about the effectiveness of Russia’s air defenses if drones can fly that far into the country.
Russia's Defense Ministry said the incident took place in the early hours of Monday, and three servicemen were killed by debris at the Engels airbase, which houses Tu-95 and Tu-160 nuclear-capable strategic bombers that have been involved in launching strikes on Ukraine in the 10-month-old war.
While the airbase was able to shoot the drone down, the reality of a Ukrainian drone penetratring hundreds of miles of Russian air space before being shot down indicates a major vulnerability in Russia’s air defenses.
While Ukraine has not explicitly acknowledged the drone strike, Ukrainian officials have been signalling their intent to carry Putin’s war back into Russia.
Ukrainian air force spokesperson Yurii Ihnat, speaking to Ukrainian television on Monday, didn't directly acknowledge his country's involvement in Monday's incident, but said: “These are the consequences of Russian aggression."
He added: "If the Russians thought that the war wouldn't affect them deep behind their lines, they were deeply mistaken”
Indeed, the drone strikes, while having done at most only minimal damage, are affecting Russia in fairly significant ways.
After Russia’s TASS news agency acknowledged the drone strike, rumors began to fly about possible other attacks near the airfield, including possible civilian infrastructure targets.
Law enforcement officials are checking data on incidents at military facilities in Engels, Saratov Region, after information about cotton at the airfield appeared on Telegram channels. There were no emergencies at civilian facilities in the city, Governor of the Saratov Region Roman Busargin said in his Telegram channel .
Governor Busargin was also obliged to quell local fears about attacks on the civlian infrastructures in the region.
"Dear fellow countrymen, information about the state of emergency in Engels is spreading on social networks and the media tonight. There were no emergencies in the residential areas of the city. There is absolutely no threat to residents. All stories about the evacuation from the city are a blatant lie created far beyond the borders of the country "Civilian infrastructure facilities were not damaged. Information about the incident at a military facility is being checked by law enforcement agencies," Busargin wrote.
While the physical impacts of Ukraine’s drone strikes have been minimal at best, the psychological impacts on at least the Russian leadership appear to be fairly significant. The drone strikes are at the very least unnerving.
The ability of Ukrainian drones to penetrate that far into Russian airspace seemingly unopposed means that Russian civilians cannot be kept completely shielded from the consequences of the war. While Engels is a military airfield, Kursk Airport is not.
Kursk was part of the previous wave of drone strikes against Russian airbases earlier this month.
That Russia’s airbases and airports continue to be vulnerable to drone and other assaults is highlighted by the decision by Russian military to close Kursk Airport at the start of Putin’s war and limit civilian traffic in and out of other airports in the region.
Kursk Airport has not sent or received flights since February 24. Also, a temporary flight restriction applies to airports in a number of Russian cities.
Thus a handful of single drone strikes inside Russia are disrupting air operations far beyond the individual airbase. That is a strategic win for Ukraine.
What makes the Ukrainian drone strikes even more remarkable is that they appear to have been carried out using Soviet-era hardware.
Recent attempts to attack Russian military airfields were carried out using Soviet Tu-141 Strizh jet drones modified by Ukrainian specialists, TASS military observer Viktor Litovkin did not rule out. According to his assessment on Thursday, more than a hundred such drones could have ended up in the hands of the Kyiv authorities after the collapse of the USSR.
Consider the ramifications of Viktor Litovkin’s statement: An unmanned aerial vehicle that is over 30 years old is able to fly virtually unopposed nearly 400 miles past the Ukrainian border into Russia proper to attack Russian military assets. While air defenses around the Engels airbase were apparently able to shoot this latest drone down at the last minute, Engels is not the only potential target near Saratov.
As I noted after the last drone strike near Engels, the Saratov region has a number of oil pipelines, as well as an oil refinery. A drone strike on those targets could potentially disrupt deliveries of crude to Russia’s oil terminal at Novorossiisk.
Not for nothing did the Associated Press view the first drone strike at Engles as an escalation of hostilities.
Which makes the drone strike something a bit more than aerial “tit for tat” retaliation in response to Moscow’s latest missile strikes on Ukrainian cities.
It came after Moscow launched more than 10 rocket attacks on the Kupiansk district in the Kharkiv region and shelled more than 25 towns along the Kupiansk-Lyman frontline on Christmas Day, while nearly 20 towns were hit in Zaporizhzhia, according to Ukraine‘s top military command.
Once again it must be noted that Russia’s missile strikes are a repeated, deliberate, and willful violation of the Geneva Conventions which Russia has repeatedly ratified. As such, they may be fairly adjudged to be war crimes, and the EU has indeed acknowledged that they are war crimes.
Thus far, Ukraine’s responses and retaliations to these missile attacks have been directed at legitimate military targets, but the continued vulnerability of airbases such as Engels to Soviet-era drones highlights the potential for Ukraine to turn from military assets to civilian infrastructures, which are likely extremely vulnerable to such attack.
With Russia waging near total war on Ukraine, seeking to destroy not just military targets but civilian infrastructures far removed from the front lines in eastern Ukraine, the longer this war goes on, the greater the probability that Ukraine will eventually shift from targeting Russian airbases to Russian pipelines and other economic infrastructures. Should Ukraine possess more advance drones than the Soviet-era hardware used against Engels, Ukraine might easily have the capacity to deliver a fairly devastating blow against Russia’s hydrocarbon-based economy.
The best way for Russia to avoid that outcome would be to end this war. Putin could do that today just by withdrawing Russian forces from Ukrainian sovereign territory and stopping the illegal missile strikes against Ukrainian cities.
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