Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has travelled to an eastern city near the front line in the war against Russia after two more strategic sites inside Russian territory were reportedly hit by drone attacks.
A fire blamed on a drone attack broke out at an airport in Russia’s southern Kursk region that borders Ukraine, the region’s governor said.
In a second incident, an industrial plant 50 miles from the Ukrainian border was also targeted by drones, Russian independent media reported, apparently missing a fuel depot at the site.
The strikes were carried out a day after Moscow blamed Kyiv for unprecedented drone attacks on two air bases deep inside Russia, and carried out another wave of missile strikes on Ukrainian territory.
Marking Ukraine’s armed forces day, Mr Zelensky travelled to the eastern Donetsk region and vowed to push Russian forces out of all of Ukraine’s territory.
Mr Zelensky said in a video address to Ukrainian forces from the city of the Sloviansk, a key Ukrainian stronghold in the east: “Everyone sees your strength and your skill. I’m grateful to your parents. They raised real heroes.”
Ukrainian officials have not formally confirmed carrying out the drone attacks, maintaining their apparent policy of deliberate ambiguity as they have done in the past when it comes to high-profile attacks on Russian targets.
However, presidential adviser Mikhail Podolyak taunted Moscow in comments on Twitter.
“If something is launched into other countries’ airspace, sooner or later unknown flying objects will return to the point of departure,” Mr Podolyak wrote. “The earth is round.”
The attacks on Russian bases – more than 300 miles from the border with Ukraine – exposed the vulnerability of some of Russia’s most strategic military sites, raising questions about the effectiveness of their air defences.
They also threatened a major escalation of the nine-month war. One of the airfield’s houses bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
Russia’s defence ministry said three Russian servicemen were killed and four others wounded by debris, and that two aircraft were slightly damaged.
The ministry did not say where the drones had originated. But Russian military bloggers said they likely were launched by Ukrainian scouts, and argued the strikes had inflicted serious reputational damage on Moscow.
The attacks on the Engels base in the Saratov region on the Volga River and the Dyagilevo base in the Ryazan region in western Russia were part of Ukraine’s efforts to curtail Russia’s long-range bomber force, the ministry said.
The Engels base hosts Tu-95 and Tu-160 nuclear-capable strategic bombers that have been involved in strikes on Ukraine. Dyagilevo houses tanker aircraft used for mid-air refuelling.
In a daily intelligence update on the war in Ukraine, the UK’s Ministry of Defence said Russia was likely to consider the base attacks as “some of the most strategically significant failures of force protection since its invasion of Ukraine”.
It said the bombers would likely be dispersed to other airfields.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russian authorities would “take the necessary measures” to enhance protection at key facilities in view of the latest Ukrainian attacks.