KYIV, Dec 26 (Reuters) – A drone believed to be Ukrainian penetrated hundreds of kilometers across Russian airspace, triggering a deadly explosion at Moscow’s main strategic bomber base in the latest attack to expose gaps in its air defenses.
On Monday, Moscow said it had shot down the drone, which crashed into Engels Air Base, killing three military personnel. As per its usual policy on events in Russia, Ukraine did not comment.
The base is hundreds of miles from the Ukrainian border, the main airport for bombers that Kiev says has been used in recent months to attack Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. The planes are also designed to launch nuclear-capable missiles as part of Russia’s long-term strategic deterrent.
A suspected drone had already struck it on December 5, and the latest attack, exposing what was widely described at the time as a humiliating hole in Russia’s air defenses, suggests that Moscow has yet to plug.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that no aircraft were damaged, but several Russian and Ukrainian social media accounts were destroyed. Reuters could not independently confirm the reports.
As the war enters its 11th month, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted leaders of other former Soviet states in St. Petersburg on Monday for a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States grouping, from which Ukraine long ago withdrew.
In televised remarks, Putin made no direct reference to the war, saying threats to security and stability in the Eurasian region are increasing.
“Unfortunately the challenges and threats in this area, especially from outside, are growing every year,” he said. “Unfortunately we have to accept that differences also arise between Commonwealth member states.”
Test of authority
The invasion of Ukraine is a test of Russia’s longstanding authority among other former Soviet states. Fighting has escalated in recent months between CIS members Armenia and Azerbaijan in a standoff with Russian peacekeepers, while a border dispute has flared between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Putin said such disagreements should be resolved through “fraternal assistance and mediation measures.”
On Sunday, Putin said he was open to talks on Ukraine, blaming Kiev and its Western allies for failing to engage in talks. He has shown no sign of backing down from his demand that Ukraine accept Moscow’s annexation of a fifth country by armed force. Kiev says it will fight until Russia withdraws.
“We are ready to negotiate with all those involved regarding acceptable solutions, but it is up to them – we are not refusing to negotiate with them,” Putin said in an interview on Rossiya 1 state television.
An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy denied the claim: “Russia is single-handedly attacking Ukraine and killing citizens,” Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. “Russia does not want negotiations, but tries to avoid responsibility.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that on Monday
Kyiv is well aware of Moscow’s proposals to “militarize” and “denazify” Ukraine, and it is up to the Ukrainian authorities to fulfill them, citing Russian objectives that Ukraine and its Western backers have dismissed as propaganda.
Otherwise, “the issue will be decided by the Russian military,” Lavrov was quoted as saying by Russian state news agency TASS, despite Moscow’s embarrassing battlefield setback to its original Ukraine invasion plans.
Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address that the situation on the frontline in the Donbas region was “difficult and painful” and needed all the country’s “strength and concentration”.
He also said that nearly nine million people have lost power due to Russia’s targeting of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. That figure is about a quarter of Ukraine’s population.
After the invasion, Ukraine drove Russian forces from the north, defeating them outside the capital, forcing a Russian retreat to the east and south. But Moscow still controls the eastern and southern territories claimed by Putin.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have died in cities Russia has razed to the ground, thousands of troops on both sides have been killed, and Putin has been forced to call up hundreds of thousands of reservists for the first time since World War II.
Ukraine’s military said early Monday that it shelled dozens of towns along the Moscow front in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kherson and Zaporizhzia regions.
Since October, Russia has been deliberately attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with drones and missiles. Moscow says the aim is to degrade Kiev’s fighting capabilities. Ukraine says the attacks have no military purpose and that harming civilians as winter sets in is a war crime.
Ukraine’s energy grid operator said on Monday there were still significant power shortages, and emergency consumption restrictions had been introduced in five Ukrainian regions and the capital.
Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Michael Perry, Angus MacSwan, Peter Graff, Matt Spetalnick; Edited by Alexandra Hudson, John Stonestreet and Alistair Bell
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