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.
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.
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 airfields 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 that the strikes had inflicted serious reputational damage on Moscow.
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 that Russian authorities will “take the necessary measures” to enhance protection at key facilities in view of the latest Ukrainian attacks.
Mr Peskov reaffirmed that Russia sees no prospects for peace talks now, adding that “the Russian Federation must achieve its stated goals”.
Russia, meanwhile, maintained intense attacks on Ukrainian territory, shelling towns overnight near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant that left more than 9,000 homes without running water, local Ukrainian officials said.
The towns lie across the Dnieper river from the nuclear plant, which was seized by Russian forces in the early stages of the war. Russia and Ukraine have for months accused each other of shelling at and around the plant.
The head of Ukraine’s northern Sumy region, which borders Russia, said that Moscow launched over 80 missile and heavy artillery attacks on its territory.
Governor Dmytro Zhyvytsky said the strikes damaged a monastery near the border town of Shalyhyne.
Ukrainian air force spokesman Yurii Ihnat said the country’s ability to shoot down incoming missiles is improving, noting there had been no recent reports of Iranian-made attack drones being used on Ukrainian territory.
He refused to comment on damage caused at the two Russian air bases, adding: “We will have to wait for satellite photos and open-source information.”