(MOSCOW) — Explosions that struck two military airbases deep inside Russia on Monday were the result of drone attacks launched by Ukraine, according to Russian and Ukrainian officials, in what appeared to be an audacious attempt to hit the long-range bombers Russia has used to devastate Ukraine’s power grid.
Russia’s defense ministry on Monday confirmed the attacks on the bases that are located hundreds of miles from the frontline, saying two of its aircraft were damaged and three military personnel killed.
The unprecedented strikes were the first time Ukraine has hit so far into Russia, targeting bases that had generally been thought of as untouchable, according to military experts.
A senior Ukrainian official from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s circle, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told ABC News that Ukrainian drones had struck the Russian military airfields Monday.
Russian media reported an explosion early Monday morning at the Engels-2 airbase in the Saratov region in southern Russia, a key airfield that houses Tu-95 and Tu-60 nuclear-capable bombers.
Another explosion was reported at the Dyagilevo military airbase in Ryazan, a city less than 150 miles from Moscow and also houses Tu-95 bombers. Russian state media initially reported that a fuel tanker exploded at the base, killing three people and wounding at least five others.
Russian officials initially avoided commenting on the explosions but on Monday evening, Russia’s defense ministry said “Soviet-made” Ukrainian drones had caused it. But the ministry said Russian air defenses had shot down the drones and the damage was caused by their wreckage landing on the airfields.
Hours after the attacks, Russia launched a new barrage of missile strikes against Ukraine, including from strategic bombers, again targeting its energy infrastructure. Ukraine’s air force claimed it shot down 60 of 70 Russian cruise missiles, but the strikes left several regions partially without power. Zelenskyy said the Russian attacks had also killed four people Monday.
Russia’s defense ministry claimed the drone attacks on its airbases had failed to disrupt the planned strikes, claiming they had destroyed 17 targets.
The airbase explosions, nonetheless, were a significant shift, marking the first time Ukraine has sought to hit the bombers that for months have regularly attacked its civilian infrastructure with impunity and recently sought to bring its energy grid to its knees. The Russian bombers usually launch cruise missiles from outside Ukraine’s borders, well beyond the reach of its air defenses, experts said.
Satellite images from the company Maxar taken over the two days before Monday’s attacks showed roughly two dozen Russian bombers parked at the Engels-2 base.
The Russian defense ministry said two of its aircraft had suffered “superficial” damage in the blasts. Video circulating on Russian social media appeared to show two Tu-22 bombers at the Dyagilevo base with damage to their tail ends, standing next to a burned out fuel truck.
Russian pro-war commentators reacted with fury to the attacks, calling it a humiliation that the country’s nuclear airbases were vulnerable to conventional drones and blaming it on negligence among commanders.
A top advisor to Zelenskyy posted a cryptic comment on Twitter mocking Russia over the explosions.
“The Earth is round – discovery made by Galileo. Astronomy was not studied in Kremlin, giving preference to court astrologers,” wrote Mykhailo Podolyak, the presidential adviser. “If it was, they would know: if something is launched into other countries’ airspace, sooner or later unknown flying objects will return to departure point.”
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