“Even Moscow is no longer safe!” What used to be belligerence among many patriotic Russian bloggers and pro-Kremlin agitators online is increasingly turning to anger and uncertainty. “Engels” and “Djagilewo” are the code words for the new helplessness in Russia on social media.
That’s the name of two military airfields that were rocked by powerful explosions on December 5. They are the largest bases for long-range bombers in a country that Vladimir Putin sees as a superpower.
For the first time in more than nine months of war, Ukrainian combat drones hit such strategic targets far behind Russia.
The Ukrainian strike could not be more symbolic. Because the bombers from Engels and Diagilevo are regularly equipped with dozens of cruise missiles in order to shoot them down at civilian targets in Ukraine, mostly at critical infrastructure objects of electricity and heat supply.
Even if Ukraine, in contrast to Russia, has so far only targeted military targets in the neighboring country, these strikes have made it clear that the Russian capital is now actually within reach of the Ukrainians.
At 500 and well over 600 kilometers respectively, the two military airfields are even further away from the Ukrainian border than the Kremlin. Many experts are surprised. “The fact that the Russian anti-aircraft defenses didn’t react is astounding – the Russians may still not be expecting such attacks in the depths of Russian territory,” political scientist Frank Sauer from the Bundeswehr University told DW.
The Russian Defense Ministry claims to have shot down the drones. Two bombers were allegedly damaged by debris from the drones hit. However, several videos of private surveillance cameras from near the airfield in Engels published on the Internet speak against this. At dawn it is clearly seen that there was no explosion in the sky, just a powerful detonation after impact on the ground.
Five days later, military experts are still puzzling over exactly what hit the Russian airfields. The Ministry of Defense in Moscow speaks of a “drone of Soviet design”. Experts suspect it could be a modernized and explosive-equipped version of the Tu-141 – an old USSR reconnaissance drone from the 1970s.
“The achievement here is to bring the old aircraft to the target over the distance with pinpoint accuracy,” says Frank Sauer. He recalls that in March, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a Tu-141 strayed into Croatia and crashed into the capital, Zagreb.
A Tu-141 retrofitted with the latest navigation technology is also an option for Ulrike Franke from the European Council on Foreign Relations. However, the security expert remains skeptical about the claim from Moscow as long as there are no pictures of the debris from the drone. “Of course, Russia may claim it is a Soviet drone simply to show that the Ukrainians are incapable of developing their own drone.”
Building combat drones is not technological rocket science, Franke told DW. “It may well be that the Ukrainians developed such a drone during the war. In this war, Ukraine is always acting innovatively.” The security expert recalls Ukrainian attacks on Russian warships with water drones, but also the clever use of Turkish Bayraktar drones to distract the Russian navy’s radar systems and then use guided missiles to shoot them off the ground out to meet.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense is keeping a low profile when it comes to developing its own drones. However, Minister Oleksiy Reznikov made it clear in a Facebook post on December 8 that Kyiv attaches great importance to innovation: “In the past, one or two new types of drones were approved for our armed forces every year. Now we have approved seven new types of Ukrainian drones in the last 30 days.”
After the attack on Russian military airfields, The New York Times reported, citing security circles in Kyiv, that newly developed Ukrainian combat drones had been used for the strikes. These were built in a public-private partnership with Ukrainian companies from the civil sector.
Since Russia has deliberately destroyed Ukrainian infrastructure with kamikaze drones and cruise missiles, several private initiatives have called for donations “for acts of revenge”. For example, show star Serhiy Prytula collected donations in October to finance kamikaze drones for retaliatory strikes in Russia. Almost ten million euros were transferred to the donation account within a few days.
However, Ukrainian military expert Oleg Katkov does not believe that Ukraine has production-ready kamikaze drones. So far, Ukrainian developers have primarily focused on reconnaissance drones. “On the surveillance videos from Engels, a noise can be heard that is typical of a jet engine, like the Tu-141,” Katkov told DW. “But I assume that Ukrainian new developments will be operated with propellers.”
Whether new or modernized, experts agree that the Ukrainian drone strikes in Russia’s hinterland are of more than symbolic importance. “The Russians now have to rearrange their air defense systems, possibly withdraw systems from the war zone,” says Oleg Katkov. “Or they move their bombers even further inland, which makes future missile attacks more expensive and means more wear and tear on Russia’s old Soviet bombers.”
Ulrike Franke also sees the spectacular Ukrainian attacks as a signal to Western partners who have so far refused to supply Ukraine with long-range weapon systems. In particular, Kyiv has long been demanding high-tech ammunition from the USA for the HIMARS rocket launchers that have already been delivered.
Remote-controlled HIMARS missiles can hit targets at a distance of up to 300 kilometers. So far, Washington has only delivered missiles with a range of 80 kilometers. Long-range weapon systems, military experts say, play a key role in Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
“For fear of an escalation, one wants to avoid attacks with Western systems on Russian territory,” says Ulrike Franke from the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Now the Ukrainians are showing that they can carry out such attacks without Western systems.”
Author: Eugene Theise
The original of this article “Ukrainian drones against Russia’s war” comes from Deutsche Welle.