KYIV, Dec 26 (Reuters) – A drone believed to be Ukrainian penetrated hundreds of kilometers through Russian airspace and set off a deadly explosion at the main base for Moscow’s strategic bombers in the latest attack exposing gaps in its air defenses.
Moscow on Monday said it shot down the drone, which crashed at Engels Air Base, killing three service members. As per its usual policy on events inside Russia, Ukraine does not comment.
The main air base for the bombers, which Kiev says Moscow has used in recent months to attack Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, is hundreds of miles from the Ukrainian border. The same planes are also designed to launch nuclear-capable missiles as part of Russia’s long-term strategic deterrence.
A suspected drone strike had already struck it on December 5, exposing what was widely described as a humiliating hole in Russia’s air defenses at the time, with the latest attack saying Moscow was still unconnected.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that no aircraft were damaged, but Russian and Ukrainian social media accounts said several were destroyed. Reuters could not independently verify these reports.
As the war enters its 11th month, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted leaders of other former Soviet states in St. Petersburg on Monday for a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States, from which Ukraine has long left.
In televised remarks, Putin made no direct reference to the war, while saying threats to the security and stability of the Eurasian region were growing.
“Unfortunately the challenges and threats in this area, especially from outside, are only increasing every year,” he said. “We must also unfortunately acknowledge that differences of opinion arise between Commonwealth member states.”
The invasion of Ukraine is a test of Russia’s long-held power among other former Soviet states. Fighting has escalated in recent months between CIS members Armenia and Azerbaijan in a conflict involving Russian peacekeepers, while a border dispute has erupted between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Putin said such differences should be resolved through “friendly assistance and mediation.”
On Sunday, Putin said he was open to talks on Ukraine, blaming Kiev and its Western allies for failing to engage in talks. He has shown no sign of backing down from his demand that Ukraine recognize one-fifth of Moscow’s armed conquest. Kiev said they will fight until Russia leaves.
“We are ready to negotiate with all those involved on acceptable solutions, but it depends on them – we are not negotiators, they are,” Putin said in an interview with Rossiya 1 state television.
An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed the comments: “Russia is attacking Ukraine and killing civilians,” Mykhailo Podoliak said on Twitter. “Russia does not want negotiations, but tries to avoid responsibility.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday
Moscow’s plans for the “militarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine are well known to Kiev, and it is up to the Ukrainian authorities to carry them out, citing Russian intentions that Ukraine and its Western backers dismiss as propaganda.
Otherwise, “the issue will be decided by the Russian military,” Lavrov was quoted as saying by Russian state news agency TASS, despite embarrassing battlefield setbacks to Moscow’s original Ukraine invasion plans.
In his late-night video speech, Zelenskiy said the situation on the frontline in the Donbas region was “difficult and painful” and required all the country’s “strength and concentration”.
He added that Russia’s targeting of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has left nearly nine million people without electricity. That number is about a quarter of Ukraine’s population.
After the invasion, Ukraine drove Russian forces from the north, defeating them on the outskirts of the capital and forcing a Russian retreat to the east and south. But Moscow still controls territory in the east and south that Putin claims to have annexed.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have died in cities Russia has leveled, and thousands of troops have been killed on both sides, forcing Putin to call in hundreds of thousands of defectors for the first time since World War II.
The Ukrainian military said early Monday that Moscow shelled dozens of front-line towns in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kherson and Zaporizhia regions.
Since October, Russia has been deliberately attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with drones and missiles. Moscow says the aim is to reduce Kyiv’s fighting capabilities. Ukraine says the attacks had no military motive and were intended to harm civilians as winter sets in, a war crime.
Ukraine’s energy grid operator said on Monday that electricity was still in significant short supply, as emergency consumption restrictions were introduced in five Ukrainian regions and the capital.
Report by Reuters Bureau; Written by Michael Perry, Angus MacSwan, Peter Graf, Matt Spedelnik; Editing by Alexandra Hudson, John Stonestreet and Alistair Bell
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