Russian Air Base Is Attacked, as Ukraine Discounts Escalation Threat

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.

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. 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.

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.

Ukrainian soldiers on their way to the front lines near Lyman, in the Donetsk region, on Sunday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

“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.

A member of the Ukrainian military near the front lines in the Donetsk region on Sunday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

“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.

The U.S. reaction to the Dec. 5 assaults was muted. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said, “We are not working to prevent Ukraine from developing their own capability.” Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, stated only that the United States was neither encouraging nor enabling attacks on Russia.

Both the State and Defense Departments declined to comment on the reported drone strike on Monday.

The attacks have further infuriated pro-war Russian commentators, who have railed about their country’s exposed vulnerabilities. They had already expressed anger over the Russian military’s poor combat performance. Not only have Russian air defenses failed to stop at least some of the strikes, but Ukrainian officials have also said that some were enabled by Ukrainian partisans or special forces operating behind the lines.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told The Associated Press on Monday that his government wanted to hold a “peace summit,” hopefully mediated by the United Nations’ secretary general, António Guterres, by late February, but that Russia could not be invited unless it first faced prosecution for war crimes. It was the latest in a string of claims by each country to be open to peace talks — but only on terms that are unacceptable to the other.

In the past three months, Russia has launched waves of missiles and drones at Ukraine, sending as many as 100 at a time in a bid to overwhelm air defenses. They have targeted civilian infrastructure like the electrical grid and heating plants, pitching millions of people at a time into the cold and dark amid dangerous winter weather.

In Bakhmut, a city on the front line in Donetsk, residents on Monday collected donated coal to heat their homes. Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Russian officials who originally denied such strikes have since insisted that the targets had military value, and have cast the attacks as retaliatory. President Vladimir V. Putin has cited the Kerch bridge bombing as the motive, though the concentrated strikes on Ukraine’s power grid began earlier.

Ukraine and its allies have dismissed that as nonsense, noting that Russia has not hesitated to kill, wound or terrorize civilians since it began its invasion, and would be doing so no matter how Ukraine responded. The concentrated infrastructure attacks, they say, are a reaction to the battlefield setbacks of the Russian military — an illegal attempt to force Kyiv to capitulate by imposing maximum suffering on civilians.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who received a hero’s welcome in Washington last week, warned in his nightly video address late Sunday that Russia could intensify its barrage to cause blackouts for much of the country before the New Year’s Eve holiday.

“We must be aware that our enemy will try to make this time dark and difficult for us,” he said.

Military analysts say that Russia may be running low on the cruise missiles and tactical ballistic missiles it has used against Ukraine. In an interview published on Monday, Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s director of military intelligence, told, a Ukrainian news outlet, that the Kremlin had enough for only two or three more big waves of attacks.

“They will run out,” Mr. Budanov said.

Explosions from cluster munitions being fired near the front lines in Donetsk on Sunday. Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Russia has increasingly resorted to using Iranian-bought drones, which are much cheaper than missiles, but they are also much slower and easier to shoot down and carry less powerful warheads. Ukrainian and Western officials have warned that Russia could also buy Iranian ballistic missiles, extending the life of its bombing campaign.

The most sophisticated missile in Russia’s arsenal is the Kinzhal, which Mr. Putin has boasted of as a new superweapon and has used a few times against Ukraine. Like a cruise missile or drone, it can maneuver evasively in flight, and like a ballistic missile, it is hypersonic, traveling many times the speed of sound. President Biden has described it as “almost impossible to stop.”

But Russia began its invasion with 47 Kinzhals in its arsenal, Mr. Budanov said, and has manufactured only “a few” more during the war.

“You can scare the world with the fact that you have a Kinzhal,” he said. “But when you start to really use them, what’s next?”

Ivan Nechepurenko, Richard Pérez-Peña and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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