Ukraine Situation Report: Russia May Have To Move Air Defenses To Cover Cities

Reported Ukrainian drone attacks near St. Petersburg indicates Russia may have a big problem with air defense capacity.

byHoward Altman|
Reported long-range Ukrainian drone strikes against St. Petersburg, Russia, raise questions about Moscow's ability to provide air defenses for its cities.
Leningrad Oblast Governor
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Reported long-range Ukrainian drone strikes against targets in St. Petersburg and elsewhere in Russia raise anew questions about whether Moscow will be forced to pull precious air defense systems and crews from near the front lines to protect its cities.

The Russian operator of a facility that was hit said it suspended operations after explosions and fire caused by “external action,” Financial Times reported Sunday. Novatek, Russia’s second-largest natural gas producer, said it had halted operations at the Ust-Luga terminal on the Baltic Sea following the incident, with local officials reporting “explosions” at the plant, according to Financial Times

The Russian MASH news agency blamed the attack on a drone.

“The drone, which allegedly attacked the Novatek Ust-Luga terminal, was captured [on video] by residents of the Leningrad region shortly before the explosion,” MASH reported on Telegram. “An aircraft-type UAV with a strong characteristic hum was noticed by at least several eyewitnesses. The company confirmed that the fire started due to external influences - one of the tanks continues to burn.”

Russian officials say they extinguished the fire on Monday, according to Sky News. However, it will likely take weeks before Russian energy company Novatek can resume large-scale operations at its Ust-Luga processing complex and Baltic Sea terminal, Reuters reported. Monday. The suspected drone attack is disrupting naphtha flows to Asia, analysts told Reuters.

The War Zone cannot independently confirm that the Ust-Luga terminal was struck by Ukrainian drones. Lt. Gen. Kyrulo Budanov, head of the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Directorate, declined comment.

The reported Ust-Luga attack is the second one in recent days on a Russian oil facility in that region, about 600 miles north of the Ukrainian border.

As we reported Jan. 18, Ukraine launched a long-range drone strike against Russia’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg, reportedly targeting an oil terminal.

An unnamed Ukrainian military source said that the attack kicked off a “new phase” in the conflict, which looks like it will rely heavily on the country’s rapidly increasingly arsenal of diverse long-range one-way attack drones.

Compounding the vulnerability to Ukraine’s long-range strike drones may be inadequate air defense coverage, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Col. Yuri Ignat said.

While Russian air defense systems were sufficient to protect targets near the front lines and in occupied Crimea, Ignat said that was not the case on Russian soil, according to the Kyiv Independent

"Russian air defense is thinning out," said Ignat. "They filled the front line and Crimea with it (air defense). But you see that the Russian territory is not so filled with air defense equipment." 

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) suggested in a recent analysis that additionally, Russian air defenses in and around St. Petersburg are arrayed to protect against attacks from NATO, not Ukraine. As a result, it might have to pull systems from elsewhere to beef up air defenses in that Baltic Sea port area.

“A Russian insider source claimed on Jan. 21 that Russian air defense coverage over Leningrad Oblast is poor and indicated that Russian air defenses in Leningrad Oblast are likely not arrayed to defend against strikes from the south,” according to ISW.

“Russian air defense systems in Leningrad Oblast are most likely positioned to defend against strikes from the northwest and west, as Russia has historically arrayed its air defense in the area to defend against hypothetical NATO attacks. The Russian military is currently reforming the Leningrad Military District (LMD) with the expressed intent to prepare for a potential future conventional war against NATO and may be arranging military assets in a way to posture along the border with NATO members.”

Ukrainian strikes in Leningrad Oblast “may prompt Russian forces to reposition short-range air defense systems along expected flight routes of Ukrainian drones to defend potential targets of strategic value. Russian forces using short-range systems such as the Pantsir may not be able to cover all important potential targets in Leningrad Oblast without bringing additional systems into the area, and continued Ukrainian strikes in deep rear areas in Russia may thus increase pressure on Russia’s air defenses overall.”

Forcing Russia to pull its air defense assets is a Ukrainian strategy that Budanov suggested to us during an exclusive interview in September:

If we're going deeper into strikes against the air defense system, it's more complicated here. First of all, the air defense systems themselves are very costly equipment and it takes a lot of time to produce those and Russian flags those systems because all this inventory is currently engaged in fighting against Ukraine and also in protection of Moscow. They've taken away air defenses from everywhere else."

Now it looks like Ukraine is exploiting those air defense holes.

In addition to the reported Ukrainian drone attacks near St. Petersburg, there are also claims that Ukraine successfully attacked a military factory in Russia’s Tula region late on Jan. 20, a source in the Special Services of Ukraine told the Kyiv Post. That's about 200 miles from the Ukrainian border.

Ukrainian drones targeted the Shcheglovsky Val defense enterprise in the Tula region, where Russia manufactured Pantsir-S surface-to-air missile systems and developed guided weapons for ground forces, air defense systems, quick-firing cannons and combat small arms, the publication reported.

Multiple Russian Telegram channels reported "loud explosions and fire" on the premises of the factory, the Kyiv Post reported.

"In Tula, the Shcheglovsky Val plant, which also manufactures the Pantsir air defense system, appears to have been impacted. The explosions were captured on video," stated Sota.

"A significant explosion and fire took place in the Proletarian district. The Shcheglovsky Val plant is situated there, producing, among other things, Pantsir-S complexes," added the VCHK OGPU channel.

Ukraine claims it attacked a factory in Russia that makes Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft defense system (Photo credit should read PAUL GYPTEAU/AFP via Getty Images)

Russian regional defense authorities, however, reported that the Ukrainian drone was destroyed before it could cause any damage.

"On the night of January 21, Russia’s alert air defense forces neutralized a drone over the Tula Region… According to unconfirmed information, there were no casualties or damages caused to the infrastructure as a result of the attempted attack," according to a statement given to the official Russian TASS news agency.

The Russian Defense Ministry later stated that the Ukrainian UAV was destroyed at about 11:50 p.m. Moscow time on January 20, TASS reported.

The War Zone cannot independently verify claims that the Tula plant was hit by Ukrainian drones. However, given Ukraine's development of long-range drones, its stated intent to use them more frequently deep into Russia and Kyiv's bogged down counteroffensive, we will almost certainly be reporting about more such claims. Ukraine might not be gaining ground, but its asymmetric attacks on Russian infrastructure can impact how Moscow conducts its war.

Before diving into more developments from the conflict in Ukraine, The War Zone readers can review our previous coverage here.

The Latest

Russia has apparently made progress in its long battle to advance on the Donetsk city of Avdiivka.

Geolocated footage published on Jan. 21 shows that Russian troops have advanced near the restaurant Tsarska Okhota along Soborna Street (in the south of Avdiivka) and along the strip of trees in the southwest of Avdiivka, according to ISW.

Ukrainians are not giving up that ground without a fight. More video has emerged showing the effectiveness of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, something we have reported on several times recently during a skirmish around Stepove, near Avdiivka.

There are also indications that Russia is making advances near the border of Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts as well, ISW is reporting, citing satellite imagery of new artillery craters west of Tabivka.

There are no expected announcements of new U.S. aid for Ukraine when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hosts a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG) tomorrow.

That’s because Congress has failed to pass President Joe Biden’s supplemental aid request, Deputy Defense Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters Monday. Late last year, Biden requested a $106 billion supplemental spending package to be split between Ukraine and Israel, but also including funds to boost competition with China in the Indo-Pacific, as well as security along the U.S. border with Mexico.

“I will say that the Ukrainians are well tracking what's happening in Congress right now and fully tracking that support for what they need on the battlefield is being held up by Congress,” said Singh.

Austin, who is hosting the meeting virtually because he is home recovering from complications from prostate cancer, had a call with his Ukrainian counterpart last week to discuss the issue, Singh said.

“But I don't think anyone is under the impression that we're going to the Contact Group with some large deliverable from the United States in terms of" a Presidential Drawdown Authority package. The U.S. is "going to continue to coordinate with allies and partners on what Ukraine needs for its war. But right now, unfortunately, the United States is not sending anything off its shelves. And we have not since December.”

Despite Ukraine being in critical need of military aid, including 155mm artillery shells, the U.S. is not expected to announce any additional assistance at tomorrow's Ukraine Defense Contact Group. (US Army photo) US Army

Norway's Chief of Defense, Gen. Eirik Kristoffersen, said time is running short on the ability to contain Russia

"The current window of opportunity will remain open for a year or two, perhaps three, which is when we will have to invest even more in our defense," Kristoffersen was quoted as having said by  the Norwegian Dagbladet media outlet.

"We do not know what will become of Russia in three years. We need to prepare a strong national defense to be able to meet an uncertain and unpredictable world," the Norwegian defense chief added.

The general pointed out that Russia has managed to restore its military capacity much more quickly than anticipated. Recently, Russia has switched to a wartime economy where weapons factories are working round the clock and is working with such states as Iran and North Korea.

Newly elected Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk visited Kyiv on Monday for the first time since taking office. He met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and pledged enduring Polish support for the fight against Russia.

"I am not ashamed to use these big words: it is here, in Ukraine, that the world front between good and evil runs," Tusk said during a press conference alongside Zelensky. “I would like to appeal from here to European leaders who have not fully understood what Ukraine is fighting for today. Anyone in the free world who pretends to be neutral deserves the darkest place in political hell.”

Ukraine got some good news Monday as well. During his press conference with Tusk, Zelensky thanked Poland for being “one of our greatest advocates and allies”. He said the pair held “very effective negotiations” on issues such as increasing military aid to Ukraine through a loan from Poland and joint weapons production.

There are unconfirmed rumors spreading that Budanov will soon be named to take over command of all Ukrainian Armed Forces from Gen. Valeri Zaluzhny.

"Zaluzhny is allegedly switching to a more political role as the secretary of Nat. Security & Defense Council (the war cabinet under the President)," claimed Viktor Kovalenko, a self-described "Ukraine and Russia analyst, former Ukrainian journalist, editor, and veteran." "It's a good option for him to have his name on a presidential ballot in the next elections."

The War Zone could not confirm that claim. We've reached out to Budanov and will provide updates if he responds. 

Speaking of Budanov, in a recent interview with Financial Times, he said that “it is not even conceivable to think that we can [succeed on the battlefield] without mobilization” — echoing the top brass’s call for more recruits. “The shortage [of manpower] is palpable,” he said.

Zelensky has said his army chiefs asked him to mobilize about 400,000 to 500,000 new soldiers to replace those killed or wounded, and to rest those involved in the most intense fighting.

Yet another vivid example of how drones are being used to hunt down individual troops emerged on social media. In this video below, a Russian soldier is chased around a destroyed tank by a drone, until it catches up with him.

Now onto drones taking out drone defenses. Another Ukrainian First Person View (FPV) drone can be seen in the video below destroying a Russian portable Fara-PV radar station by flying into an opening created in the corrugated tin roof of a Russian-occupied building.

The Ukrainian Aerobomber unit released video of one of its Mavic drones dropping grenades on a Russian Silok counter-drone electronic warfare system. The video shows a grenade falling on the system, then several more striking after it toppled to the ground.

An image of a rarely seen Polish S-125 Newa SC surface-to-air missile system being used by Ukraine appeared on social media. The system is a modernized variant of the Soviet-era SA-3 Goa, You can read more about it in our story here.

Images posted to social media offer a glimpse at a new Ukrainian underground command bunker system that the Ukrainian company Metinvest is starting to manufacture, the company said in a press release. The company said the systems consist of five to six connected bunkers, equipped with sleeping facilities and working areas for the command staff. They are designed to be easily assembled, disassembled, and transported and contain necessary communications, light, heating and communications equipment. When installed correctly, the command posts protect the troops inside from shelling. The first steel headquarters, designed for 30 servicemen, has already been handed over to the Ground Forces of Ukraine and installed in one of the hottest areas of the front.

It appears Russian troops are using bucket trucks to fire Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, giving the missiles and the soldier launching them better line-of-sight to potential targets.

It's unclear what, if anything, was hit. However, firing an ATGM from an elevated basket has its risks.

“For working with ATGMs, all available means are good!!!,” freelance reporter Pavel Kukushkin said on Telegram. The soldier, call sign 'Finn,' a fighter of the OSN 'Viking' of the Wild Division of Donbas!!!”

“A warning to Dill,” Kukushkin added. “The trick is dangerous - don’t repeat it!!! :)”

Firing ATGMs from elevated or telescopic masts is not new, there entire systems that leverage this exact concept, but doing it in an improvised fashion is certainly interesting.

At the beginning of its long war in Afghanistan, U.S. Green Berets famously used horses in combat. Now it appears that Ukraine may be doing the same, though it is unclear whether the soldier seen in the picture below toting an FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank guided missile while riding a horse is real or just for show.

A Ukrainian soldier who lost his legs during combat is seen in this video below engaged in post-injury recuperative therapy.

And finally, a cat found a warm spot, inside a Ukrainian soldier's jacket.

That's it for now.

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com

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