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Russian Air Base Is Attacked, as Ukraine Discounts Escalation Threat - The New York Times - 26.12.22

Russia said falling wreckage from a Ukrainian drone had killed three servicemen at the base, some 300 miles from Ukraine, which would be the third such long-range attack this month by Andrew E. Kramer.

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine launched a drone attack at an air base deep within Russian territory, killing three servicemen, the Kremlin said on Monday, as Kyiv’s forces demonstrated that they are increasingly willing and able to take the fight to Russia, and at longer range than ever before.

Engels, home to some of Russia’s nuclear-capable strategic bombers that are used to fire cruise missiles at Ukraine, was one of two air bases targeted by Ukrainian drones on Dec. 5.

It was the third such strike this month, reflecting the assessment by Ukraine’s political and military leaders that there was little risk of Moscow’s escalating its war in retaliation, despite its threats of dire consequences for attacks against Russia. The Russian military is already fighting at the limits of its conventional capabilities, Ukrainians say, and the Kremlin’s hints of using nuclear weapons ring hollow.

The Russian military, in a statement cited by the state-run TASS news agency, said that it had shot down a Ukrainian drone on Monday as it approached the Engels air base, about 300 miles from the Ukrainian border. It said that the falling wreckage had caused the casualties and that no aircraft had been damaged, assertions that could not be confirmed.

In the months after Russia invaded on Feb. 24, Ukraine’s allies voiced concern about attacks on Russian soil and the risk of retaliatory escalation, which the Kremlin and state-controlled media have threatened repeatedly. The United States and others still refuse to supply Ukraine with long-range weapons, and insist that the weapons they provide not be used to fire into Russia, but the fear of escalation has abated.

“There were many, many red lines stated by Russia regarding further escalation,” Serhiy Hrabskiy, a retired colonel and commentator on the war for Ukrainian news media, said in an interview. Despite warnings of dire consequences, “there is no reaction,” Mr. Hrabskiy said. “Why? Because the Russians simply do not have capacity to do so.”

Ukraine has struck repeatedly at military targets in Crimea and other Russian-occupied territory that Moscow now claims as its own, and at infrastructure like the Kerch Strait bridge linking Crimea to Russia. And now it is stepping up attacks into Russia itself.

Ukraine maintains a policy of not publicly claiming or denying responsibility for attacks in Russia, even as officials comment approvingly on them.

Col. Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, said on television that the latest attack was “a consequence of what Russia is doing” in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian attacks have been pinpricks compared to the widespread devastation Russia has wrought against Ukraine. But the strikes have boosted Ukrainian morale, damaged some Russian warplanes and infrastructure, and pierced the air of normalcy the Kremlin has tried to maintain for most of its people.

“If the Russians thought that no one at home would be affected by the war, then they were deeply mistaken,” Colonel Ihnat said. He added that explosions at Russian airfields complicated the bombing campaign against Ukraine, forcing Moscow to relocate some of its aircraft, though no one is claiming that the strikes have seriously impeded the Russian barrage.

The Dec. 5 attacks were carried out using a Soviet-era, jet-powered surveillance drone, modified to function as an offensive weapon, according to Russian and Ukrainian officials, shortly after a state-owned Ukrainian contractor said it had developed an attack drone with a range of over 600 miles — more than enough to reach Moscow.

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Russian Air Base Is Attacked, as Ukraine Discounts Escalation Threat - by Andrew E
. Kramer
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Ivan Nechepurenko, Richard Pérez-Peña and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

Andrew E. Kramer is a reporter covering the countries of the former Soviet Union. He was part of a team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a series on Russia’s covert projection of power. @AndrewKramerNYT

A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 27, 2022, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Using Drones, Ukraine Takes the Fight to Russia. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

A satellite image of Engels air base in Saratov, Russia, about 300 miles from the Ukrainian border. It is home to some of Russia’s nuclear-capable strategic bombers that are used to fire cruise missiles at Ukraine.

Credit...Maxar Technologies, via Reuters

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