RIGA, Latvia — Russia accused Ukraine on Friday of escalating their war by carrying out a helicopter attack against a fuel depot in the Russian city of Belgorod, in what appeared to be Ukraine’s first airstrike on Russian soil since the invasion began.
Ukrainian officials would not confirm or deny the attack, suggesting that it could be a Russian error or even linked to Russian helicopter pilots who had refused to fly into Ukraine. These officials suggested that Moscow should sort out what was happening on its own territory.
Despite this apparent trolling, many military and intelligence analysts said it had been a Ukrainian attack carried out by two Mi-24 helicopters that swept in low; fired rockets at the fuel depot, causing a massive explosion and igniting fuel tank fires; and then departed, still flying at a very low altitude. No casualties were reported.
If the attack is confirmed, it would mark an audacious and risky move by Ukraine, with its forces shifting from a largely defensive posture to a direct airstrike on Russia at a time when the Russian military appears weakened.
Videos of the attack taken from several angles swiftly surfaced on Russian social media, and local governor Vyacheslav Gladkov immediately blamed Ukraine for the strike.
Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the attack happened at about 5 a.m. He said the fuel depot, not far from the border with Ukraine, was a facility that provided fuel for civilian transportation and was not used for military vehicles involved in the war.
“Ukrainian helicopters delivered a missile strike upon a civilian oil storage terminal located on the outskirts of Belgorod,” he told a briefing. “A number of tanks were damaged and caught fire after being hit by missiles.” He added, “The oil terminal has no relation to the Russian armed forces.”
But the British Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence briefing that the fires at the fuel depot, coupled with explosions earlier in the week at an ammunition depot near Belgorod, could affect the Russian war effort and “will likely add additional short-term strain to Russia’s already stretched logistics chains.” The ministry said that Russian forces encircling Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv, about 40 miles from Belgorod, “may be particularly affected.”
The incident, which occurred as Russian troops are pulling back from several areas of Ukraine, is deeply embarrassing for Russian forces after their poor performance in the war. The Russian campaign was expected to take days but has dragged on, with huge losses of troops and material. Russian military officials have frequently asserted that Ukraine’s air force is almost destroyed.
While acknowledging an attack, Peskov asserted that Russia’s control over its own airspace was not in doubt. “Air superiority in the operation is an absolute fact, it really is. As for what happened, it is up to our law enforcement agencies, not us, to make assessments.”
Hard-line Russian state television anchor Vladimir Solovyov appeared furious about the attack. “Who is responsible for the air defense in the Belgorod direction?” he demanded on his Telegram channel. “Are the locations of the strike helicopters destroyed? When will the security zone for the Belgorod region be established?”
The attack came after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that Ukraine’s air force and air defense network had been “practically destroyed,” adding that “air superiority has been achieved.” He said Russia had accomplished its main goals, including degrading Ukraine’s military.
Rob Lee, of King’s College London’s war studies department, said the attack, most likely carried out by Ukraine, dealt Russia a propaganda blow.
“Shoigu said the war is going well. And days later they do this helicopter attack in Russia proper, this brazen, bold attack, and it’s embarrassing,” Lee said. “It helps break the propaganda being pushed in Russia.”
By striking across the border, Ukrainian forces would be putting the lie to Russian news coverage that says the campaign is going according to plan, Lee said. “But here’s very clear and undeniable proof that the war is not going to plan, that the Ukrainian military is not destroyed, and the Ukrainian air force can still do operations in Russia more than a month into the war.”
When Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was asked about the allegations of Ukrainian involvement, he said he could not confirm or deny the claim because he did not have all the relevant military information.
Ukraine military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said Ukraine did not bear responsibility for catastrophes and mistakes in Russia. He declined to confirm or deny Ukrainian involvement but said it was not the first time Russia had made such accusations.
Ukraine’s operation is defensive, “to resist Russia’s military aggression in the territory of Ukraine,” Motuzyanyk added.
After Russia invaded on Feb. 24, Ukrainian forces initially mounted a defense focused on Kyiv and other major cities, and in recent days have been retaking settlements near the capital and along the front lines.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych also insisted that Ukraine was focused on defending itself.
“Maybe someone smoked in the wrong place” and caused the Belgorod fire, he said. “Maybe it was an act by some soldiers who don’t want to fight in Ukraine. Everything that happens on Russian territory is the responsibility of the Russian leadership. All questions to them.”
Lee said this was probably not Ukraine’s first attack on Russian soil. Ukraine has probably fired Tochka-U missiles into Russian territory on several occasions during the war. He dismissed speculation that the helicopter attack may have been a Russian false flag, arguing that Moscow no longer needs to create a pretext for war.
After the Belgorod ammunition depot was rocked by explosions earlier this week, Russian media initially said the blasts appeared to have been caused by firing from the Ukrainian side, but officials later blamed the explosions on a fire on the premises. Lee said it may have been caused by a missile from Ukraine.
The latest incident risks undermining progress in talks between the two sides aimed at reaching a peace deal — now at a delicate stage — after Ukraine offered concessions to Russia on Tuesday in return for a military withdrawal.
Russian negotiators announced Tuesday that Moscow’s forces would de-escalate their combat operations near Kyiv and Chernihiv to “build trust,” focusing their fight on eastern Ukraine. The announcement caused outrage among prominent hard-line state television presenters and pundits, and on social media.
But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he did not trust Russia’s announcement of a de-escalation, telling Ukrainians in one of his regular addresses Thursday, “We don’t believe anyone, not a single beautiful phrase.” U.S. officials have also been skeptical of Moscow’s announcement, seeing it as a sign that Russia is probably taking time to regroup and reorganize its attack.
Stern reported from Mukachevo, Ukraine, and Berger from Jerusalem.