Three Russian servicemen have died after a Ukrainian drone attack on a crucial airbase deep inside Russian territory, Moscow has said.
According to the defence ministry, a Ukrainian drone was shot down on the approach to Engels base early on Monday morning but falling debris killed three service personnel.
The strike was the second recent attack on the airbase, located about 300 miles away from the Ukrainian border and more than 450 miles south-east of Moscow.
Earlier this month, three servicemen were killed and two aircraft were damaged during an apparent Ukrainian drone attack on the airbase.
The defence ministry said no planes were damaged as a result of Monday’s attack. The details could not be independently confirmed.
The Soviet-era Engels airbase, named after the communist philosopher Friedrich Engels, is a crucial site for Russian air force operations against Ukraine and for the country’s strategic nuclear forces.
It is home to Russia’s 121st heavy bomber aviation regiment, which includes the Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bomber squadrons whose missiles have devastated Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
Gleb Irisov, a former Russian air force lieutenant who left the military in 2020, described the Engels airbase as a “key airfield for the country’s strategic aviation”.
The Ukrainian government made no comment on the reported attacks. Kyiv does not publicly admit to mounting attacks inside Russia but has previously cheered such incidents as payback.
The attack on the Engels airbase once again exposed Russian air defence gaps and demonstrated Kyiv’s ability to penetrate hundreds of miles into Russian airspace.
Monday’s incident also renewed criticism among pro-invasion bloggers and activists over the state of Russia’s military as the war in Ukraine enters its 11th month.
“Comrades, this is war and the enemy will continue to attack … Unfortunately, not all officials understand the complexity of the situation,” Andrey Rudenko, a popular pro-war propagandist, wrote in his channel on Telegram.
“Until there are tough measures taken to address the failures of the defence industry, it will be difficult for us to win.”
In Kyiv, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Russia could intensify its shelling of Ukraine’s electrical grid in the coming days, with an intention to plunge Ukraine into darkness before the New Year’s Eve holiday.
“There are only a few days left in this year,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address late on Sunday. “We must be aware that our enemy will try to make this time dark and difficult for us.”
Following Zelenskiy’s trip to the US last week, Kyiv again reiterated its intention to hold a special global peace summit this winter dedicated to ending the conflict. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said in an interview with the Associated Press on Monday that he would like to have the summit by the end of February.
“The United Nations could be the best venue for holding this summit, because this is not about making a favour to a certain country. This is really about bringing everyone on board,” Kuleba said. He added that the UN’s secretary-general, António Guterres, could be a possible mediator for peace talks but he said Russia could only attend if the country faced a war crimes tribunal first.
Kuleba’s comments came a day after Russian forces launched more than 40 rocket attacks on Ukraine, according to Ukraine’s military.
Dozens of towns in the regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia were shelled by Moscow’s troops on Sunday, the Ukrainian military said.
Russian shelling on Sunday stood in contrast to Vladimir Putin’s claims that his country was ready for talks to end the war in Ukraine.
“We are ready to negotiate with all the participants in this process about some acceptable outcomes, but this is their business – it’s not we who refuse negotiations, but they,” Putin told a Russian journalist on Sunday.
Western and Ukrainian officials have dismissed Putin’s repeated statements that Moscow was looking to end the conflict, with the CIA director, William Burns, saying earlier this month that Russia was not yet serious about a real negotiation to end the war.
Also on Monday, Putin met the heads of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a Moscow-led group consisting of former Soviet states, for an “informal meeting” in St Petersburg.
In footage posted by the Kremlin, Putin is seen welcoming the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Since ordering his troops into Ukraine, the Russian leader’s influence has diminished in central Asia and the Caucasus – a traditional Russian sphere of influence – as nations have sought to distance themselves from Moscow’s faltering war.
In previous meetings with central Asian republics this year, Putin has sometimes found himself publicly challenged and even criticised, a sign the Kremlin is losing its global prestige.
Some of Russia’s allies have gone as far as to send aid and other supplies to Ukraine. On Sunday, Ukraine announced that Kazakhstan had sent 41 generators, while Russia has previously slammed Azerbaijan’s decision to transfer humanitarian supplies to Kyiv.
At the start of the meeting on Monday, Putin made no secret of the growing tensions within the CIS block.
“We have to admit, unfortunately, that disagreements also arise between the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States,” Putin said.
“The main thing, however, is that we are ready and will cooperate, and even if any problematic issues arise, we strive to solve them ourselves,” he added.
The meeting, in which the leaders will “sum up” 2022, is part of Putin’s end-of-year flurry of diplomatic activity.
Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, are expected to hold a phone call before the end of the year, as Moscow aims to deepen its ties with Beijing amid growing isolation from the west.