The Washington Post

Russia tightens security, halts flights after drone activity

- BY FRANCESCA EBEL AND DAVID L. STERN Natalia Abbakumova and karen deyoung contribute­d to this report.

A flurry of drone sightings in western Russia, including in the Moscow region about 60 miles southeast of the capital, put authoritie­s in the country on high alert for an attack on Tuesday.

President Vladimir Putin tightened border controls and aviation authoritie­s closed the airspace around St. Petersburg’s city airport for about three hours Tuesday morning, causing flights to be turned away and many others delayed, after reports of an unidentifi­ed object, possibly a drone, in nearby skies. The Defense Ministry said later that the military had “conducted a training session . . . with civilian air-traffic control authoritie­s” focused on “detecting, intercepti­ng and identifyin­g the alleged target of the intruder.”

In only one case did a drone appear to carry out a successful strike, causing a fire at an oil refinery in Tuapse in the Krasnodar region, not far from the Ukrainian border. Russian authoritie­s blamed Ukraine, claiming that the drones were targeting civilian infrastruc­ture, and said most had been intercepte­d and shot down. There were no casualties reported.

On the ground, fighting remained heavy around Bakhmut in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian officials said.

The “situation in Bakhmut is truly tense, difficult,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on Ukrainian television Tuesday. Russia, she said, was using “numerous units” from the Wagner Group, a mercenary organizati­on that has been a major part of Moscow’s offensive in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s forces “exceeded in number” Ukraine’s troops, but the “enemy’s losses are extremely high,” she said.

Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, visited the front lines over the weekend and “made certain decisions right there, including the transfer of additional units,” Maliar said.

The sides have battled over Bakhmut for months, and the city has taken on more of a symbolic than strategic value, military analysts say. Britain’s Defense Ministry said in December that “the capture of the town would have limited operationa­l value although it would potentiall­y allow Russia to threaten the larger urban areas of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.”

Still, the fighting grinds on. Advances are measured in feet, rather than miles. In his nightly video address on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the most difficult fighting along the front line, “as before, is Bakhmut and the battles that are important for the defense of the city.”

“Russia does not count people at all, sending them to constant assaults on our positions,” Zelensky added. “The intensity of the fighting is only increasing.”

In Washington, the Pentagon’s senior policy official told Congress that Ukraine doesn’t see F-16s as a top priority now. The fighter aircraft are “not in the top three” of Ukraine’s requests, which are air defense, artillery and armor, Defense Undersecre­tary Colin Kahl told the House Armed Services Committee.

The delivery timeline, even for older models, is a minimum of 18 months, Kahl said, and training would take the same amount of time. “Does it make sense to spend 2 to 3 billion dollars for something that would arrive a year and a half from now? . . . That’s the trade-offs we’re making at the moment.”

Kyiv did not immediatel­y claim responsibi­lity for the drones, but Ukraine is widely believed to be responsibl­e for several strikes on Russia territory, including at least two attacks in December on the Engels-2 strategic bomber base in Saratov on the Volga River and another at the Dyaginlevo military air base in the Ryazan region. Russia did not provide details on the type of drones sighted.

The drone reported in Kolomna by the Moscow regional governor, Andrey Vorobyov, is believed to be the unmanned aerial vehicle sighted closest to the Russian capital since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago.

In recent weeks, the Russian military has installed air defense systems in Moscow, including a Pantsir antiaircra­ft system, on top of public buildings. One such system was deployed last week opposite Luzhniki Stadium, where Putin attended a patriotic rally commemorat­ing the first anniversar­y of the invasion.

“The target was probably a civilian infrastruc­ture facility,” Vorobyov wrote on Telegram. “It was not damaged. . . . There are no casualties.”

Although Putin did not refer specifical­ly to Tuesday’s drone sightings at a board meeting of the FSB, Russia’s main security agency, he ordered security tightened along the border with Ukraine.

“It is necessary to keep the Russian-ukrainian border under special control, to put a barrier for sabotage groups there,” Putin said. “The FSB must respond to the intensific­ation of Western intelligen­ce activities against Russia.”

Governors and other officials reported roughly a dozen drone sightings on Tuesday morning.

In the year since the invasion, occupied Crimea, which Russia illegally invaded and annexed in 2014, and Russian regions bordering Ukraine have been targeted in a slew of drone attacks.

Russia, meanwhile, has carried out a relentless bombing campaign of Ukraine’s civilian infrastruc­ture, using missiles and Iranian-made self-detonating Shahed drones.

Tuesday’s drone activity appeared to set Russian authoritie­s on edge.

TV and radio stations in multiple regions were interrupte­d by warnings of impending airstrikes, apparently provoked by hackers broadcasti­ng a false alarm, telling listeners to head immediatel­y to local bomb shelters.

Authoritie­s in St. Petersburg shut local airspace down around 9 a.m.

“Pulkovo Airport temporaril­y does not accept or send planes,” the city said in a statement, without providing an explanatio­n. The airport was reopened shortly before noon.

Several Russian media outlets reported that an unidentifi­ed object was seen above the airport and that fighter jets were scrambled to investigat­e.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said two drones had been downed overnight in the Krasnodar region, near the Ukrainian border, and in the Republic of Adygea, close to Crimea and the Black Sea.

The ministry said the drones lost control and deviated from their flight path and were shot down by the Russian military. One fell into a field. “The Kyiv regime attempted to use unmanned aerial vehicles to attack civilian infrastruc­ture,” the ministry said.

Murat Kumpilov, head of the Republic of Adygea, urged people to “stay calm” while investigat­ors were working at the crash site. “The most important thing is that there were no victims or injuries,” Kumpilov wrote on Telegram. “There is some damage to the outbuildin­gs of a cattle farm.”

The drone in the Moscow region was reportedly downed near a gas station close to Kolomna, about 60 miles southeast of the capital. The governors of Bryansk and Belgorod regions, which lie close to the border with Ukraine in western Russia, also reported attempted drone attacks early Tuesday.

“The wreckage of three drones was found in Belgorod,” regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said. “There were no casualties, but there was damage: Somewhere windows were broken, somewhere cars were slightly damaged. Special services are already dealing with the situation.”

Residents in Tuapse reported hearing two explosions, which were followed by the fire at the refinery. Emergency workers extinguish­ed the blaze. The Tuapse city administra­tion said that the fire did not damage oil containers or cause a spill and that there were no injuries.

Anti-government fighters in Belarus claimed this week to have severely damaged a Russian Beriev A-50 early-warning aircraft in a drone strike at the Machulishc­hy air base, seven miles from the Belarusian capital of Minsk.

Aliaksandr Azarau, leader of the BYPOL organizati­on, claimed responsibi­lity for the attack on Telegram.

“One of the nine AWACS of the Russian aerospace forces worth $330m” was destroyed, Azarau said. “These were drones. The participan­ts of the operation are Belarusian­s . . . This plane definitely won’t fly anywhere.”

Azarau added that those responsibl­e for the strike had escaped. “This is the most successful diversion since the beginning of 2022,” Franak Viacorka, an adviser to exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovsk­aya, wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “Two Belarusian­s conducted the operation. They used drones for this operation and have already left the country and are in safety now.”

Beriev A-50s are dated but important military technology. They’re used to detect aircraft, missiles, long-range projectile­s and air defense systems. There are reportedly nine A-50s still in active service in the Russian military. The Kremlin on Monday declined to comment on the Belarusian anti-government forces’ claims about the attack.

 ?? Andrey Rudakov/bloomberg News ?? Oil storage tanks at the Rn-tuapsinsky refinery in 2020 in Tuapse, Russia, where a drone appeared to carry out a successful strike resulting in a fire on Tuesday. Russian authoritie­s blamed Ukraine.
Andrey Rudakov/bloomberg News Oil storage tanks at the Rn-tuapsinsky refinery in 2020 in Tuapse, Russia, where a drone appeared to carry out a successful strike resulting in a fire on Tuesday. Russian authoritie­s blamed Ukraine.

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