A third Russian airport was engulfed in flames after a drone strike on Tuesday, a day after Ukraine demonstrated a seemingly new ability to penetrate hundreds of kilometers deep into Russian airspace with attacks on two Russian air bases.
Officials in the Russian city of Kursk, near Ukraine, released pictures of black smoke over an airport in the early hours of Tuesday morning after the latest strike. The governor said that an oil storage tank was set on fire, but there were no injuries.
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 fleet of strategic bombers, and in Ryazan, just a few hours’ drive from Moscow.
The attacks on Russian bases – more than 500 kilometers from the border with Ukraine – have raised questions about the effectiveness of its air defenses. They also threatened a major escalation in the nine-month war. One of the airports houses bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
Ukrainian officials mock Moscow
Ukrainian officials have not officially confirmed carrying out the drone attacks, maintaining a clear policy of deliberate ambiguity as they have in the past regarding high-profile attacks on Russian targets.
But presidential adviser Mikhail Podolak mocked Moscow in comments on Twitter.
“If something is launched into the airspace of other countries, sooner or later UFOs will return to the launch point,” Podolak wrote. “The earth is round.”
In a daily intelligence update on the war in Ukraine, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said the base attacks were likely to be seen by Russia as “one of the most significant strategic failures to protect forces since its invasion of Ukraine”. She added that the bombers are likely to spread to other airports.
The Russian Defense Ministry said three soldiers were killed in the Ryazan attack. Although the attacks targeted military targets, it described 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 this far inside Russia, it might strike Moscow as well.
Ukraine says it has shot down the vast majority of the missiles
Russia’s large, long-range Tupolev bombers at Engels are an important part of its strategic nuclear arsenal, as are the B-52 bombers deployed by the United States during the Cold War. Russia has used it in its campaign since October to devastate Ukraine’s power grid with almost weekly waves of missile strikes.
Russia responded to Monday’s attacks with what it called “a massive strike against Ukraine’s system of military control,” though it did not identify any specific military targets for what Ukraine described as Moscow’s latest strikes on civilian infrastructure.
Across Ukraine, missiles destroyed homes and knocked out electricity, but the effect appears less severe than last month’s bombing that plunged millions of Ukrainians into darkness and cold.
The Ukrainian Air Force said it shot down more than 60 of the 70 missiles. President Volodymyr Zelensky said at least four people were killed.
A missile blew a huge crater in the village of Novosovivka, about 25 kilometers east of the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia, and completely destroyed a house nearby. Medics recovered two bodies next to a wrecked car.
Olha Troshina, 62, said the dead were her neighbors who were standing next to the car and killed their son and daughter-in-law when the missile hit. With homes now destroyed as winter set in, she didn’t know where to turn.
“We have nowhere to go back,” she said. “It would have been nice if it had been spring or summer. We could have done something if the season had been hot. But what am I going to do now?”
“These missile strikes increase our resistance”
Moscow still has enough missiles for a few giant bombs before they run out, said Kirillo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Agency.
Russia claims a military justification for the attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. Kyiv says the strikes are intended to harm civilians, which is a war crime.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said: “They do not understand one thing – such missile strikes increase our resistance.”
Marking the Day of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Zelensky visited the eastern region of Donetsk on Tuesday and vowed to withdraw Russian forces from all Ukrainian territory.
“Everyone sees your strength and your skills… I am grateful to your parents. They have raised real heroes,” Zelensky said in a video address to Ukrainian forces from the city of Sloviansk, a key stronghold of Ukraine in the east.
No ongoing political talks to end the war. Moscow insists that it will not negotiate unless Kyiv and the West accept its sovereignty over the Ukrainian lands that it claims, while Kyiv says that Russia must withdraw from all its lands.
Exchange of 60 prisoners of war each
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that talks would only be possible when Russia achieves the goals of its unspecified “special military operation”.
However, the two sides discussed issues such as the exchange of prisoners.
Russia and Ukraine said on Tuesday they had exchanged 60 prisoners of war from each side, the latest in a series of such exchanges.
The Russian Defense Ministry said 60 freed Russian servicemen would be flown to Moscow for medical treatment and psychological support.
The Ukrainian presidential chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, hailed the returning Ukrainians as heroes and said they included dozens of people who resisted in the city of Mariupol — including the besieged steelworks in Azovstal — until Russia was forced to surrender in May.
The two sides have exchanged hundreds of prisoners in a series of exchanges over the past few months.