What Ukrainian attacks on Russian airbase mean, by Guy Plopsky

Guy Plopsky is the author of a number of articles on air power and Russian military affairs. He holds an MA in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from Tamkang University Taiwan.

Here I will share some thoughts on the significance of the damage and implications for the war of the attacks on Russian airbases. These don’t cover the recent (second) attack on Engels, as very little about it is currently known, and anything that could be said would be pure speculation. This also doesn’t cover what Ukraine may have used to carry out the attacks – I am not very familiar with Ukrainian unmanned capabilities and so would rather not speculate on that.

Post-strike satellite imagery suggests that at least two Russian aircraft were damaged in the attacks, both likely belonging to the VKS’ 22nd Guard Heavy Bomber Aviation Division: a Tu-22M3 long-range bomber at Dyagilevo and a Tu-95MS strategic missile carrier at Engels. Photos from Dyagilevo that were uploaded on the internet following the attack clearly show damage to the Tu-22M3’s stabilators and engine nozzles. As for the Tu-95MS, no photos from Engels are available, so it is difficult to assess the extent of the damage; however, satellite imagery of the base shows a large area near the aircraft covered in firefighting foam.

The attack on Kursk-Khalino caused an “oil tanker” to catch on fire (presumably a fuel storage tank). It appears that no other damage was caused to the base. Kahlino is actively used by Russian aircraft taking part in operations against Ukraine, including by VKS Su-30SM fighters assigned to the 105th Mixed Aviation Division’s 14th Fighter Aviation Regiment based there. Videos released by the Russian Defense Ministry also show a detachment of Su-35S mutirole fighters forward-deployed at the base. These appear to belong to the 159th Fighter Aviation Regiment (based in Besovets, Republic of Karelia). A detachment of Su-25-series ground attack aircraft is also known to have been deployed at the base (possibly still is).

Effects

On the whole, the effect of these attacks on Russia’s warfighting capability is negligible. The VKS operates a relatively large fleet of both Tu-22M3 and Tu-95MS bombers, and the damage caused to its air base infrastructure does not impede operations from these bases. That said, the attacks represent a huge blow to the Russians from a propaganda/morale point of view for a number of reasons:

Firstly: Ukraine has demonstrated that it can hit targets quite deep in Russian territory – something the Russians (or at least the Russian public) may have not deemed possible. Essentially, by carrying out these attacks, Ukraine sent a clear message to the Russian military: “even far from the frontlines, you are not safe.”

– Secondly, Engels isn’t just any air base – its one of two Russian strategic bomber bases. The Tu-95MS strategic missile carrier that Ukraine damaged at Engels is not only a conventional warfighting asset, but also a part of Russia’s strategic nuclear force. Russian strategic nuclear forces are revered by many in Russia. They are viewed as a symbol of Russian power. By  attacking Engels and damaging a Tu-95MS (even if it will likely be repaired and returned to service at some point in the future) Ukraine struck another major blow to Russian military prestige.

– With regard to the above, while little remains known about how these attacks were carried out (for example, how many drones were launched against the bases, etc.), they have once again led to many criticisms in Russia of Russian air defense capabilities. To be fair, the Russians have strengthened air defenses around some potential targets (including air bases) closer to Ukraine and, generally speaking, have reportedly become much more effective at intercepting Ukrainian drones. Furthermore, Russia simply lacks enough air defense assets to cover a very large number of military and other high-value targets across the country. That said, the attacks have once again brought to light questions about the effectiveness of Russian air defense equipment. In this regard, while Engels is relatively far from Ukraine, there are two S-400 sites manned by the 76th Air Defense Division’s 511th SAM Regiment that are deployed relatively close to the base; one is only about 7km away, the other a little over 20km. Why were they unable to defend the base? There could be a number of reasons. Surprise may have played an important role as the Russians possibly did not expect that the Ukrainians could carry out an attack using drones this far from Ukraine.

– Lastly, the attacks no doubt served as a big morale booster for the Ukrainians, especially the attacks on Engels and Dyagilevo, given that Russian bombers have been launching missiles at Ukrainian cities. In this regard, the attacks also once again demonstrated to the Ukrainian people and to the world that their military is trying its best to protect its people from the Russian onslaught.

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