A Ukrainian drone blew up an ammunition dump at a Russian airfield near Hvardiiske in occupied Crimea on Tuesday, according to Russian media.
“Puffs of black smoke were visible above the military air base,” Kommersant reported.
The Hvardiiske attack coincided with separate strikes on Russian facilities in Crimea, including a Ukrainian commando raid on a Russian ammo dump near Mayskoye—and came exactly a week after a Ukrainian attack on another Russian airfield on the strategic peninsula, which Russian forces seized in February 2014 in the opening phase of the now eight-year Russia-Ukraine war.
It’s unclear whether any of the warplanes that fly from Hvardiiske—reportedly 12 Su-24 bombers and 12 Su-25 attack planes—suffered any damage. The jets support the Russian navy’s beleaguered Black Sea Fleet, whose headquarters are in Sevastopol in Crimea.
In any event, the steady drumbeat of Ukrainian deep strikes across southern Ukraine has startled Russian commanders and even everyday Russians vacationing on Crimea’s beaches. A record 38,000 cars crossed the new bridge connecting Crimea to Russia on Monday—almost all of them leaving Crimea.
The airfield near Hvardiiske is just north of Simferopol in central Crimea. The front line between Russian-occupied Kherson and the free city of Mykolaiv is 150 miles north of the airfield.
Thus it makes sense that an explosives-laden drone apparently on a one-way mission struck the Hvardiiske base. The airfield is too deep inside Russian lines for Ukraine’s manned warplanes safely to penetrate, and too far away for Ukraine’s ballistic and cruise missiles to reach.
Unless of course the Ukrainians secretly have developed longer-range missiles. It’s worth noting that the Aug. 9 attack on Saki, which destroyed potentially dozens of Su-24 and Su-30 warplanes belonging to the Black Sea Fleet, bore the hallmarks of a ballistic-missile strike. Namely, wide, deep craters. Saki lies 120 miles from the front.
Between their ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, drones, special operations forces and saboteurs, the Ukrainians now can hold at risk Russian targets as far as 150 miles from the line of contact. The Saki raid compelled the Black Sea Fleet to relocate that base’s surviving warplanes. The attack on Hvardiiske could lead to the fleet pulling back its planes even farther.
The farther a warplane’s base is from the fighting, the more fuel the plane must burn reaching its target—and the less time it can spend over the battlefield. The Russian air force possesses just 19 Il-78 tanker planes. They’re too few—and too busy supporting the air force’s strategic bombers—to help shepherd attack jets toward the Ukrainian front.
It’s no secret the Ukrainian armed forces have concentrated their best troops and artillery around Kherson—even accepting some territorial losses in the east in order to do so. In May, those troops crossed the Inhulets River north of Kherson, creating a lodgement that could, in theory, support a wider counteroffensive in the south.
But Ukrainian forces including the 17th Tank Brigade apparently haven’t penetrated very far south of the Inhulets. It’s possible commanders are waiting for Ukrainian deep strikes to cut off and starve the Russian 49th Combined Arms Army in and around Kherson.
On paper, the 49th CAA with its two-dozen battalions is a powerful force. But the 49th CAA with no air support and no resupply might quickly crumble in the face of a determined attack.
Hence the escalating Ukrainian deep strikes on ammunition dumps, bridges, railways and airfields across southern Ukraine. Planners in Kyiv are shaping the southern battlefield. It remains to be seen whether and when the army brigades on the ground might take advantage of that shaping—and what their odds are when they collide with the 49th CAA.
If Ukraine’s southern campaign fails, it won’t be the fault of the gunners, rocket crews, drone-operators, commandos and partisans who heroically are blowing up Russia’s bases in the region.
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