(Reuters) – British military intelligence said on Tuesday that a weekend drone attack on an airfield deep inside Russia which Moscow blamed on Ukraine is highly likely to have destroyed a TU-22M3 supersonic long-range bomber.
Kyiv, which on Monday claimed to have attacked another Russian military airfield, says Russia has used the TU-22M3 to bomb targets across Ukraine. Western military experts believe Russia has around 60 of the aircraft.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Saturday that a military airfield in the Novgorod region where such planes are stationed had been attacked by a Ukrainian drone and one plane had been damaged. It gave no more details.
Reuters could not immediately verify the British assertion about the nature and scale of the damage which, if confirmed, would underscore the vulnerability to drone attack of advanced planes which are a major part of Moscow’s war effort.
There was no immediate comment from Ukraine, which rarely takes public responsibility for attacks inside Russia or on territory Moscow controls, though it has said it will do everything it can to degrade Russian military assets.
Russia, which has designated Britain a hostile country because of its military and financial support for Ukraine, did not comment on the British damage assessment.
In one of its regular updates on Ukraine, British military intelligence said that “a Tu-22M3 BACKFIRE medium bomber of Russia’s Long Range Aviation (LRA) was highly likely destroyed at Soltsy-2 Air base in Novgorod Oblast, 650 km (403 miles) away from Ukraine’s border”.
“This is at least the third successful attack on LRA airfields, again raising questions about Russia’s ability to protect strategic locations deep inside the country,” it said.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Saturday the attack had been carried out by a Ukrainian copter-style drone which had been shot down by small arms fire and that nobody had been hurt.
British military intelligence said that if a copter-style drone had really been used to launch the attack, it added weight to the idea that some drone attacks were being launched from inside Russia as such drones were unlikely to have had the range to reach the airfield from outside Russia.
Russia has often used supersonic TU-22M3 planes to bomb Ukraine, it added, criticising what it called the “notoriously inaccurate” heavy anti-ship missiles which the plane fires.
Russia has repeatedly says it uses high-precision missiles to strike targets and does not deliberately target civilians or civilian targets, an assertion Kyiv and its allies reject.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones and Giles Elgood)