Moscow on Thursday claimed the town that houses its Engels Air Base, located deep inside Russia some 300 miles from the Ukrainian border. was attacked by a drone for the third time this month and the second time this week.
However, satellite images obtained by The War Zone on Thursday show no clear damage to the base that's home to the 22nd Heavy Bomber Aviation Division, which operates one squadron of Bear-Hs and another squadron of supersonic Tu-160 Blackjack bombers. While both types have been employed in the conflict in Ukraine and especially in recent months as Russia stepped up its standoff strikes on Ukraine's energy infrastructure, the satellite images show a significant reduction in Russian ling-range aviation activity at Engels.
You can see our complete analysis of the satellite image from our Downlink team below.
The assessment reads:
"New satellite imagery of Engels Air Base, located deep within Russia, from December 29 shows that repeated Ukrainian attempts to strike the air base, as well as the arrival of cold weather conditions, appears to have led to a significant reduction in activity. Only 11 bombers are present, down from 26 on Nov. 29. Recent snowfall at Engels also betrays the inactivity of some aircraft. While five Tu-95 Bears are visibly de-iced and parked on cleared aprons and taxiways, four others remain covered in snow. The two remaining Tu-160 Blackjack bombers appear covered in snow as well, though at least one of them shows signs of having its apron cleared of snow possibly to provide safe access to the taxiways. No clear damage is observed following alleged Ukrainian attacks against the facility on Dec. 26 and 29, but between reducing aircraft presence and installing new protective barriers, it appears Russia is trying to mitigate the persistent threat against its bombers deployed to the base."
In the latest incident, air defense systems in the Engels region shot down a drone, Saratov Oblast Gov. Roman Busargin reported Thursday on his Telegram channel. Streaks from surface-to-air missiles were seen reaching into the sky near the base on social media.
“As a result of falling fragments, the fence of a private house, a car and a garage were damaged, and a window on the balcony was knocked out in one of the houses," Busargin said. "There are no other damages. People were not hurt. Emergency services are on site.”
Busargin did not say where the drone came from, but Russians have attributed two prior attacks this month to Ukrainian drones.
On Dec. 26, a Ukrainian drone attack on the base resulted in three people killed and four injured, according to Russian media.
Several weeks earlier, on Dec. 5, Engels and Dyagilevo Air Base were struck by what the Russian MoD said were Soviet-made jet-powered unmanned aerial vehicles modified by Ukraine to carry explosives. The Russian MoD was referring to the jet-powered Tu-141 Strizh, originally built as a reconnaissance UAV. Smaller Tu-143s have also likely been used. You can read about that here.
Russian bombers have been widely used to launch cruise missiles against targets in Ukraine since the start of the war. Just today, Ukraine was hit by just such a barrage, which we will get to in a moment.
The British Defense Ministry on Thursday suggested that one reason Ukrainian drones have been able to fly so deep into Russian airspace is that Moscow has moved a lot of its air defenses into Ukraine, leaving the Motherland itself vulnerable.
Before we go into the latest news from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can get caught up on our previous rolling coverage here.
Ukrainian cities again lost power, buildings were damaged and civilians were injured as Russia launched another massive wave of missile and drone attacks Thursday.
At least three people were injured, and more than a dozen residential buildings and nearly a dozen power infrastructure sites were destroyed, officials said.
Ukrainian officials claimed that its air defenses shot down 54 of 69 missiles and all 11 drones launched on Thursday in an attack that Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said had been planned for two weeks.
Video emerged on social media claiming to show one of those missiles being down by an Igla man portable air defense system (MANPADS). The War Zone could not verify that claim but the video is compelling. While cruise missiles are hard to hit using MANPADS, there have been multiple kills like this during the conflict.
Russia attacked with Kh-101/Kh-555, Kalibr, Kh-22 and Kh-32 cruise missiles, Kh-31P anti-radar missiles, and Shahed-131/136 drones, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry (MoD). The missiles were launched from Tu-95MS Bear-H bombers, Tu-22M3 Backfire-C bombers and ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. In addition, S-300 anti-aircraft missiles were in a crude land-attack role against Ukrainian cities in the front-line zone.
Russia also launched missile strikes from S-400 air defense systems, Brig. Gen. Alexei Gromov, Deputy Chief of the Chief Operational Department of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, said Thursday during a media briefing, according to the Ukrainian Media Center Telegram channel. It's worth noting that the S-400 system can fire some of the same missiles that the S-300 can.
While Ukraine once again claimed a high degree of success shooting down incoming missiles and drones, officials said the damage was widespread nonetheless.
“More than 18 residential buildings and 10 objects of critical infrastructure in 10 regions were destroyed as a result of barbaric rocket attacks,” Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said. “The worst thing is that peaceful people have suffered again.”
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv criticized the Kremlin for "cruelly wielding cold & dark against" Ukraine as families "are again hunkering down as critical infrastructure & other targets across the country are attacked."
In the Darnytskyi district of Kyiv, “a two-story residential building with an area of 100 square meters caught fire as a result of a falling fragment of a downed enemy missile,” a spokesman for Ukraine’s State Emergency Services said at a press briefing. “In the Pecherskyi district, fragments of the rocket fell on a playground, in the Holosiivskyi district, the fragments fell next to a car. In the Solomyansk district, the fragments of the rocket fell on the roof of a 5-story residential building.”
At least three people in Kyiv were injured as a result of the attack, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the office of the president.
Images also emerged on social media of a spent missile fragment that landed in a house in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.
Critical infrastructure in the Kharkiv region came under attack from at least four Russian missiles, most likely from S-300 air defense systems, Oleg Syniegubov, Head of Regional State Administration said, according to the United24 Telegram channel. Images also emerged of the remnants of Iranian drones that were shot down.
Power outages were reported there and the Kharkiv Metro stopped running.
There was also damage reported in Odesa.
The damage was nationwide.
"Unfortunately, there is some damage to generation facilities and power grids,” Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Galushchenko said, according to the Telegram channel of Energoatom, Ukraine’s National Nuclear Energy Generating Company. “As of 11 a.m., the situation is difficult in the west of the country, in the Odesa and Kyiv regions. Therefore, there will be emergency power outages."
As Ukraine was digging out from those attacks, the Belarusian Defense Ministry (MoD) claimed a Ukrainian S-300 air defense missile landed on Belarusian territory. No one was hurt in this situation. Similar incidents occurred in Poland - where two people were killed - and in Moldova. In response, Ukraine's Defense Ministry said it has the right to defend itself from ongoing Russian attacks.
Belarus claimed it detected a Ukrainian S-300 air defense missile that entered its airspace and shot it down near the agricultural community of Gorbakha, according to the Belarusian Defense Ministry (MoD) Telegram channel.
In a protest of that incident, the Ukrainian ambassador was summed by the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, according to the Telegram channel of the RIA Novosti official Russian state news agency.
However, the military commissar of the Brest region seemed to downplay the incident, according to RIA Novosti.
"There is absolutely no reason for residents to worry,” that official said, likening Thursday’s incident to the Nov. 15 event in Poland. “Such cases, unfortunately, happen."
Responding to complaints from Belarus, the Ukrainian MoD said it was not ruling out the possibility of a so-called ‘false flag’ attack from Russia.
“The Ukrainian side is aware of the Kremlin's desperate and persistent efforts to involve Belarus in its aggressive war against Ukraine,’ Ukraine’s MoD said in a statement. “In this regard, the Ukrainian side does not rule out a deliberate provocation by the terrorist state of Russia, which laid such a route for its cruise missiles in order to provoke their interception in the airspace over the territory of Belarus.”
Regardless, Ukraine’s MoD said while it has “the unconditional right to defense and protection of its own sky,” it is “ready to conduct an objective investigation in Ukraine of the incident that occurred on December 29 in the sky over the territory of Belarus as a result of repelling a massive Russian missile attack. Ukraine is ready to invite authoritative experts from among the states that are not associated with supporting the terrorist state of Russia in any form to participate in such an investigation.”
No matter how the investigations into this latest incident pan out, one thing is virtually certain. With Russia launching massive missile and drone attacks, this won’t be the last time a neighboring country is directly affected.
Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR), told the BBC there is a deadlock in fighting.
"The situation is just stuck," Budanov told the BBC. "It doesn't move."
"We can't defeat them in all directions comprehensively. Neither can they," he said. "We're very much looking forward to new weapons supplies, and to the arrival of more advanced weapons."
Here are some key takeaways from the Institute for the Study of War’s latest assessment:
- The Russian offensive against Bakhmut is likely culminating.
- Russian forces appear to be preparing for a decisive effort in Luhansk Oblast and appear less likely to conduct a new offensive in Zaporizhia Oblast in the winter of 2023.
- The Kremlin continues to demonstrate that Russia has no genuine intention of engaging in negotiations with Ukraine by insisting that Ukraine accept Russia’s illegal annexations of Ukrainian land.
- Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations toward Kreminna, where Russian forces continued counterattacks to regain lost positions.
- Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut, Donetsk City, and in western Donetsk Oblast.
- Russian forces continued defensive and rotational operations in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts.
- The Kremlin has approved additional funds for the development of defensive fortifications and is attempting to staff fortification efforts in Russian border areas and occupied Ukraine.
Ukrainian mobile fire teams continue to play whack-a-mole with Iranian drones. These videos reportedly show them engaging the targets with machine guns.
But still some drones apparently manage to get through Ukrainian defense.
As the Russians have been pushed back, evidence keeps emerging of apparent atrocities they committed.
More than 1,100 bodies of civilians killed by Russian invaders were found in areas liberated by Ukraine in all four regions: Donetsk, Mykolayiv, Kherson, and Kharkiv Oblasts, the head of the Department of Organizational Analytical Support and Operational Response of the National Police, Police General Oleksiy Sergeev during a press brief Thursday. Of those victims, 31 were children, he said.
The Washington Post took an amazing deep dive into how Ukraine pulled off its Kharkiv and Kherson counteroffensives this summer.
"This reconstruction of the Kharkiv and Kherson counteroffensives is based on interviews with more than 35 people, including Ukrainian commanders, officials in Kyiv and combat troops, as well as senior U.S. and European military and political officials," the Post reported.
"What emerges is a story of how deepening cooperation with NATO powers, especially the United States, enabled Ukrainian forces — backed with weapons, intelligence and advice — to seize the initiative on the battlefield, expose Putin’s annexation claims as a fantasy, and build faith at home and abroad that Russia could be defeated."
Ukraine World, an English-language multimedia project about Ukraine run by Internews Ukraine, recently spoke with Nataliya Sad, spokeswoman for Ukroboronprom, the Ukrainian defense industry, about the state of weapons production in Ukraine.
"Western weapons received by Ukraine after the full-scale invasion is less than 50% of the country's arsenal," Ukraine World reported. "This indicates that Ukraine's defenders are still fighting mostly with Soviet weapons which were inherited from the time of Ukrainian independence. It is a matter of keeping this entire arsenal in combat-ready condition. Many have the impression that creating a new combat unit is more difficult than repairing a damaged one. In fact, everything is the other way around."
Production "had to be moved due to the high probability of missile strikes and had to be carried out of the country. All this slows down the production process. Despite this, over 9 months this year, we have produced seven times more than we did in all of last year, and for some types of military equipment 10-12 times more. We are keeping up the pace because it is clear that enough equipment can turn the tide of the war."
Speaking of weapons provided to Ukraine, the first images of at least 12 Panthera T6 armored vehicles have emerged being delivered to Ukraine, according to the Ukraine Weapons Tracker OSINT group.
The U.S., meanwhile, is considering shipping Bradley Fighting Vehicles to Ukraine, according to Bloomberg.
"The US government is considering sending Bradley Fighting Vehicles to Ukraine as part of a further package of military support, according to people familiar with the matter," Bloomberg reported. "A final decision hasn’t yet been made, one of the people said. When the vehicles would be operational is also unclear, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue."
"Alexander Kovalenko, a military-political observer for the Information Resistance group, believes that the Russian occupiers have a suicidal stalemate on the Kinburn Spit. Soon there may be another 'gesture of goodwill' from the Russian invaders," the newspaper reported. "A gesture of goodwill" is a reference to previous Russian retreats.
With millions of Ukrainians living without power in frigid weather thanks to continuing Russian attacks on its power infrastructure, donations have poured in to help, like these nearly three dozen generators provided by a Portuguese soccer team.
Throughout this conflict, iconography has been factor for Ukraine, which is removing vestiges of Russian rule from its territory. The latest example is the removal of a statue of Catherine the Great from Odesa.
And finally, Ukrainians continue to show a sense of humor, in this case comparing Vincent van Gogh's 1889 painting "Irises" with the 2022 arrival of German-provided IRIS-T SLM air defense systems that have helped protect the skies over Ukraine.
That's it for now. We will update this story when there is anything major to add.
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