KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — In a new display of defiance from Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to an eastern city near the front line Tuesday, while Russia reported that strategic sites inside the country were hit by drone attacks for a second day.
A fire broke out at an airport in Russia’s southern Kursk region that borders Ukraine after a drone hit the facility, the region’s governor said Tuesday. In a second incident, an industrial plant 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Ukrainian border was also targeted by drones, Russian independent media reported, apparently missing a fuel depot at the site.
Federal authorities did not immediately blame Ukraine. But Tuesday’s reported strikes were carried out a day after Moscow blamed Kyiv for unprecedented, similar attacks on two air bases deep inside Russia. 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 some of the most brazen inside Russia during the war. In the aftermath, Russian troops carried out another wave of missile strikes on Ukrainian territory that struck homes and buildings and killed civilians.
Marking Ukraine’s armed forces day, Zelensky traveled to the eastern Donetsk region Tuesday and vowed to push Russian forces out of all of Ukraine’s territory.
“Everyone sees your strength and your skill… I’m grateful to your parents. They raised real heroes,” Zelensky said in a video address to Ukrainian forces from the city of Sloviansk, a key Ukrainian stronghold in the east.
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.
But 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,” Podolyak wrote. “The earth is round.”
The attacks on Russian bases — more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) from the border with Ukraine — were deeply embarrassing and exposed the vulnerability of some of Russia’s most strategic military sites, raising questions about the effectiveness of their air defenses. They also threatened a major escalation of the nine-month war. One of the airfields houses bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
Russian military bloggers once again took their anger online, criticizing the perceived lack of proper fortifications that allowed the attacks to happen.
A Russian pro-war blogger posting on the Telegram channel “Milinfolive” on Monday hit out at Russian military leadership, alleging that incompetence and lack of proper fortifications at the airbases made the alleged Ukrainian drone strikes possible. Another blogger pointed to the reputational damage inflicted by the attacks.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said three Russian servicemen were killed and four others wounded by debris, and that two aircraft were slightly damaged.
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 refueling.
In a daily intelligence update on the war in Ukraine, Britain’s Defense Ministry 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 of key facilities in view of the latest Ukrainian attacks.
Speaking in a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Peskov said that “the Ukrainian regime’s course for continuation of such terror attacks poses a threat.”
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.”