The explosions at the Engels-2 and Dyagilevo airbases, if confirmed as Ukraine’s, would mark its deepest attack so far into Russia and against key military facilities used in the Kremlin’s war.
The Soviet-era Engels-2 airbase, named after the Communist philosopher, Friedrich Engels, 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.
“Based on the location of the airbase, its jets have played a major role in the recent bombings in Ukraine,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, of the Saratov region facility – 450 miles east of Ukraine.
Lee said any Ukrainian attack on the Engels-2 base was likely to be aimed at disrupting Russian plans to strike Ukrainian infrastructure. “Ukraine has been warning for weeks now that Russia was preparing for a fresh wave of missile attacks on its energy grid. This could have been a pre-emptive strike,” he said.
Citing satellite images from Engels-2, Der Spiegel last month reported that Russia was preparing a new large-scale missile attack on Ukraine.
Lee estimated that Russia kept about 15 to 16 Tu-95MS bombers at the Engels-2 airbase and 15 Tu-160s, which represents the largest share of the country’s Tu-160 arsenal.
Gleb Irisov, a former Russian air force lieutenant who left the military in 2020, described Engels-2 as a “key airfield for the country’s strategic aviation”.
“If indeed Ukraine managed to hit the base, it shows the country is making a lot of progress in their ability to reach bases far away from the battlefield.”
The airbase in Dyagilevo, less than 150 miles from Moscow, also houses the 121st heavy bomber aviation regiment whose jets are believed to have attacked Ukraine.
It also serves as the base for Russia’s only Il-78 tanker regiment, a strategically vital division responsible for the air-to-air refuelling of the country’s military aviation.
“Destruction of strategic bombers will undoubtedly get more attention, but, if Russia loses Il-78 tanker aircraft, that might be the biggest issue for Moscow,” Lee said. “The production of new tanker aircraft is notoriously slow so this could turn out to be the most damaging part for Russia.”
Lee said that one of the main issues for the Russian air force was that many of its aircraft were not housed in hangars, leaving them exposed to attacks.
“It is clear that Russia didn’t prepare plans to defend airbases deep inside the country,” Lee said.
“Despite the fact that this isn’t the first attack on Russian soil, Moscow has been very slow to react and protect its jets.”
While it was not immediately clear what caused the explosion at either military base, Baza, a Russian media outlet with sources in the security services, reported that the Russian airfield at Engels-2 was attacked by a drone.
Lee believes the drones would have been launched by Ukraine from within Russian territory. “The unmanned aerial vehicle attacks have a relatively short range and they wouldn’t have been able to fly all that way from Ukraine,” Lee said.
The explosion at the Engels-2 airfield led to anger among some prominent Russian pro-war bloggers who blamed the country’s military for the inability to protect its airbases.
“The sheep in the rear continue to demonstrate their absolute unsuitability … Even now, the airfields with strategic aviation are not covered by air defence systems,” Voenniy Osvedomitel, a popular commentator, wrote on his Telegram channel.