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Military briefing: Ukraine drone strikes show Russia it has ‘no safe zones’

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Kyiv has for months urged its western allies to supply long-range missiles so it can hit Russian military bases far behind the front lines and puncture what Ukrainian military chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi has called the “sense of impunity that [Russia’s] physical remoteness provides”.

This week Kyiv showed it could conduct long-range strikes without western equipment after it launched locally made drones that hit three military bases deep inside Russia — one only 160km from Moscow.

Ukrainian defence officials and analysts said the attacks — which Russia said killed three people and “slightly damaged” two aircraft — are part of a new tactic that seeks to disrupt Russian military planning and rattle public opinion by showing that nowhere is safe.

“The attacks are repeatable. We have no limitation on distance and soon we will be able to reach all targets inside Russia — including in Siberia,” said a Ukrainian government defence adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In Ukraine, we know how hard it is to defend against these kinds of air attacks. Soon Russia will also have no safe zones.”

Ukraine’s government has not publicly taken responsibility for the strikes and many of the details remain secret, as is typical with Kyiv’s other special operations, such as a combined air and marine drone attack on a Russian naval base at Sevastopol in October.

But what sets Ukraine’s latest attacks apart is their range and that they penetrated Russian air defences to hit strategic military bases previously considered invulnerable.

One of the bases, the Engels airfield near Saratov in southern Russia about 600km from the Ukraine border, is home to Russian long-range nuclear-capable bombers. According to Ukrainian officials, it is also a launching ground for cruise missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.

“These air bases handle strategic bombers . . . which Russia has used to not only strike Ukrainian civilian targets but also to threaten the entire world,” said Serhiy Kuzan, head of the Ukrainian Security and Co-operation Centre think-tank in Kyiv. “But Ukraine’s strikes have destroyed the image of the Russian Federation . . . Even such sites are weakly protected.”

Defence officials and analysts said one lasting result of the attacks could be Russia dispersing its armed forces inside the country, which would help safeguard them but complicate operations. In September, Russia’s Black Sea fleet moved some of its submarines more than 300km east from their home port in Russian-annexed Crimea to Novorossisyk on mainland Russia amid fears they were vulnerable to Ukrainian strikes.

“These attacks . . . will certainly make the Russians less confident . . . They will have to think about how they distribute military assets and keep them safe,” said a western defence official. “The Russians will be doubting their ability to defend their strategic assets in [the country].”

Ukraine also hopes the attacks, if repeated on a sufficient scale, will help swing Russian public opinion against the conflict.

Moscow has launched thousands of missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure that have left swaths of the country without electricity, heat and running water. However, all previous Ukrainian attacks inside Russia or in Russian occupied territory were on military bases near the border or in Crimea.

Ukrainians shelter in Kyiv’s metro system during a Russian missile attack on the city
Ukrainians shelter in Kyiv’s metro system during a Russian missile attack on the city © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

“The drone attacks are not going to win the war for Ukraine. The best way to do that is to destroy Russian military assets inside Ukraine. But it does help our influencing operations inside Russia, which the west has not wanted to support,” the Ukrainian adviser said.

The strikes have heightened anxiety in Russian border regions, which have faced artillery fire and drone attacks from Ukraine since the early months of the war. Their regularity and intensity made Russia’s initial attempts to explain them away as “loud bangs” futile and prompted a switch to rhetoric urging citizens to do their part for the war effort.

In Belgorod, a region bordering Ukraine, officials have promoted an “I heart anti-aircraft defences” campaign on social media, dug trenches along the frontier and created “self-defence battalions” of local civilians.

While Kyiv’s tactics are clear, technical details of this week’s attacks remain murky.

Kuzan suggested the drones may have been made by state arms producer Ukroboronprom, which recently said it was testing an attack drone with a 1,000km range. “This shows that Ukraine, even under such difficult conditions, is capable of developing sophisticated systems,” he said.

According to Russia’s defence ministry, however, the drones were updated versions of Soviet-era unmanned TU-141 reconnaissance aircraft that date back to the 1970s.

Based on those specifications, a Ukrainian engineer who builds drones to meet military requirements said those used in the latest attacks could have travelled at close to the speed of sound. Replacing the TU-141’s original camera would also have allowed “over 50kg of explosive, maybe as much as 100kg. Essentially it would be a cheap cruise missile”, he said.

However, it takes time to produce such equipment from scratch and replenish stocks, said the engineer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“If it is the same kind of drones used in the Sevastopol [naval base] attacks, that was over a month ago. To change the course of the war, Ukraine needs deep-range attack drones that are cheap and quick to produce.”

The defence adviser, meanwhile, said the drones were neither the Ukroboronprom models nor modified Soviet ones but rather a joint government-private sector initiative that could produce new ones “often”.

He also suggested they had used inertial navigation systems to find their targets. Although less accurate than GPS, these do not require satellite connections so they cannot be jammed. This would make them harder to intercept and help explain how they managed to penetrate Russian air defences.

“The technology is accurate enough to send men in rockets to the moon, and that is far harder than hitting a massive Russian air base 1,000km away.”

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga

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