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Ukrainian drones hit two air bases deep inside Russia in brazen attack

Firefighters at a local church in Russian-occupied Donetsk, which was damaged by shelling in Russia's war against Ukraine on Monday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

RIGA, Latvia — Blasts rocked two military installations deep inside Russia on Monday, including an airfield that served as a base for bombers allegedly used in Moscow’s relentless airstrikes on Ukraine’s critical civilian infrastructure. The attack marked Kyiv’s most brazen hit on Russian territory since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion nine months ago.

Russia’s airstrikes continued Monday with a fresh barrage fired at targets across Ukraine just hours after reports of the explosions in Russia, which occurred at the Engels-2 strategic bomber base in Saratov, on the Volga River, and at the Dyagilevo military air base in the Ryazan region.

The Russian Defense Ministry accused the Ukrainian military of orchestrating the blasts, which killed at least three Russian soldiers and injured four others. Kyiv did not claim responsibility but a senior Ukrainian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive operation, confirmed that they were carried out by Ukrainian forces.

In a statement issued late Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged the attacks and said its forces intercepted low-flying Ukrainian drones.

Both bases are far from the Ukrainian border and the drones would have had to travel up to 400 miles undetected to reach them — signaling a potentially serious security lapse by Russia.

The Russian Defense Ministry said that wreckage of the intercepted drones had “slightly damaged” the hull of two planes. The Washington Post could not independently verify the assessment.

Russian media first reported that a drone hit the runway of the Engels-2 strategic bomber military air base in the southwestern Saratov region, about 350 miles from the Ukrainian border, on Monday morning.

Two service members were injured and two planes were damaged, according to the Baza Telegram channel, which is close to Russia’s security services and the Interior Ministry.

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Astra, a Telegram news channel, reported that the two damaged planes were Tupolev Tu-95 strategic nuclear bombers. The Tu-95s can carry the type of cruise missiles used to attack Ukraine’s infrastructure but normally play an important part in Russia’s strategic forces and nuclear deterrence capabilities.

The second explosion occurred at the Dyagilevo military air base in the Ryazan region, about 130 miles southeast of Moscow. Three people were killed, according to Russian state media reports. Tu-95 and Tu-22M nuclear-capable long-range bombers are stationed at the Dyagilevo base.

Kyiv’s unwillingness to claim responsibility for the attacks is in keeping with a pattern of Ukrainian officials being deliberately cryptic in their commentary following explosions in recent months at strategically important Russian military sites.

“The Earth is round — discovery made by Galileo. Astronomy was not studied in Kremlin, giving preference to court astrologers,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote Monday on Twitter, in an apparent reference to the two explosions. “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.”

Last week, Der Spiegel, the German news site, reported that the Engels-2 airfield was bustling with activity, probably in preparation for another missile attack on Ukraine, with satellite images showing rows of what appeared to be Tu-95 and T-160 long-range strategic bombers parked on the base.

If Ukraine indeed managed to reach two Russian airfields so far from its own borders using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the attack would mark one of Kyiv’s most daring operations to date.

“According to my information, the airfield in Engels was hit by the Soviet Tu-141 Strizh UAV,” Alexander Kots, a military correspondent of the Kremlin-friendly newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, wrote on his popular Telegram channel after the Russian Defense Ministry statement.

Kots questioned how the drones could have reached the bases undetected, noting that Moscow is within the same distance.

“So it freely crossed almost 650 km over the territory of the Russian Federation,” Kots wrote. “Was stealth technology mastered in the U.S.S.R. long before it became a trend? You know, there is less than 650 km to Moscow from the Ukrainian border.”

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Another Russian military blogger, Dmitry Konanykhin, described the strike on nuclear-capable bombers as an embarrassment. “Russia’s strategic nuclear forces can be beaten with penny drones.”

Within hours after reports of the two blasts, air raid sirens wailed all across Ukraine as Russia launched a new barrage of missiles.

At least two people were killed when a missile hit the village of Novosofiivka in the Zaporizhzhia region, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in the Ukrainian presidential office.

Many of the Russian missiles were destroyed by Ukrainian air defenses, but at least some of the missiles appeared to hit infrastructure targets and there were new reports of power outages, including in neighboring Moldova.

In Kyiv, authorities urged residents, many of whom expressed frustration and exhaustion over the repeated attacks, to take cover in shelters. Thousands in the capital city quickly headed underground including into subway station.

Rumors had been circulating for two weeks that Russia is preparing a larger-scale attack on Ukraine’s infrastructure, Georgiy Yasinskiy, a member of the Kyiv city council, said in a phone interview.

“People are smart — we’re not ignoring this one,” Yasinskiy said. “Everyone has been expecting this attack, but people are considering this one to be more serious.”

In a telephone call last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that the strikes on Ukraine’s infrastructure were “forced and inevitable” because of Ukraine’s attacks on Russian targets, including the Crimean Bridge, and because of Western military support for Ukraine.

But Russia’s missile campaign, which began in early October, seemed to reflect Putin’s own recognition of his military’s failures and that he would not succeed in conquering and seizing all of Ukraine as he had hoped.

After failing to take Kyiv last spring, and then being ousted from territory they had occupied in the northeast Kharkiv region in September, Russian troops in recent weeks were forced to retreat from the city of Kherson in the south, despite Moscow’s claims that the city had been annexed.

Having fallen short of its battlefield objectives, the Kremlin now appears intent on leaving millions of Ukrainians without electricity, heat and water during the frigid winter months — raising the prospect of a humanitarian catastrophe. The attacks, however, have only hardened the resolve of Ukrainians to repel the Russian invaders.

Pro-war commentators in Russia expressed dismay at the strikes on the two air bases.

“Such an unrequited and brazen strike on the base of one of the parts of the [nuclear] triad publicly demonstrates their vulnerability to simple conventional means of destruction, and shows that the combat security work has actually been reduced to zero,” Voenniy Osvedomitel, a popular commentator, said on Telegram.

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Some commentators called for even more brutal strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.

“A massive humanitarian military strike against Ukraine has begun. … Its goal is to stop the terror attacks the Kyiv regime is conducting on Russian territory,” Sergei Markov, a politician and frequent pundit on Russian state TV shows, wrote on his Telegram blog. “One can even say there are a hundred Russian missiles in the sky flying there for humanitarian purposes. That’s what we need to call them. Humanitarian strikes, missiles of goodness.”

In Kyiv, Diana Ivanchenko, 19, and Sasha Zhelikhovski, 27, graphic designers, huddled underground after leaving the 28th floor of their downtown office building. They said they were tired of having to stop work because of the strikes, and Zhelikhovski said they might not get paid for a full day given the disruption.

“The most simple situation now is very difficult, just to live normal life,” Zhelikhovski said. “This is a huge problem.”

Dmitry Gyrenko, 35, had already spent more than an hour out of his workday sheltering at the Klovska subway station in downtown Kyiv. His power and water had shut off last week and had just started to come back over the weekend before Monday’s attacks forced him below ground yet again.

“I’m so angry — so angry,” Gyrenko said. “It’s enough.”

“We know for what reasons we’re suffering, and the sources of the suffering,” Ukrainian Finance Minister Sergii Marchenko said in an interview Monday at his office. Marchenko and his team were forced to take cover during the airstrikes Monday in the ministry’s parking lot.

“I don’t think poverty, life without water or electricity, or zero temperatures or below-zero temperatures, where heating is impossible, it can only create additional stubbornness in heads of our people who would prefer to be independent.”

Stein and Stern reported from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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