The Ukrainian military on Dec. 29 apparently sent more explosives-laden drones to strike a Russian air force base outside Moscow.
It was at least the fourth such raid in a month—and it apparently rattled Russian air-defenders. If you believe the chatter on social media, in the chaos following the attack a Russian missile battery shot down … a Russian air force Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jet.
The alleged shoot-down, if it happened—and that’s a big if—could mirror a possibly similar incident that occurred over Kyiv in the first heady days of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine that started in late February. In that incident, jumpy Ukrainian air-defenders may have shot down a Ukrainian air force Su-27.
We don’t know a lot about the apparent Dec. 29 raid on Engels, a bomber base 400 miles southeast of Moscow. We know more about previous attacks on the same base on Dec. 26 and Dec. 5.
Russian media confirmed Ukrainian drones were responsible for the earlier raids. It’s possible the drones were 1970s-vintage, jet-propelled Tupolev Tu-141 reconnaissance vehicles that the Ukrainians pulled out of storage, packed with explosives and programmed to strike Engels.
The Dec. 5 raid on Engels damaged a Tupolev Tu-95 bomber. A simultaneous strike on Dyagilevo air base, 100 miles southeast of Moscow, damaged a Tupolev Tu-22M bomber. Three Russian personnel died in the Dyagilevo raid.
It seems the Dec. 26 attack mostly was a bust for the Ukrainians. Russian air-defenders reported shooting down the approaching drone or drones. Three Russian troops reportedly died from the falling debris.
The Dec. 29 raid apparently also failed to damage Engels. Roman Busargin, the governor of the surrounding Saratov Oblast, confirmed the destruction of a Ukrainian drone and denied reports that local students were evacuating their schools.
Users of the Telegram social-media app meanwhile circulated rumors that spooked Russian air-defenders around Engels opened fire on a blip on their radars—a blip that turned out to be a Russian Su-27. The pilot died, according to the rumors.
There’s a good chance this isn’t true. It’s worth noting that Busargin made no mention of the alleged shoot-down. Nor is there any video or photo evidence of the incident. Yet.
But there’s certainly precendent for a friendly-fire shoot-down. On July 17, Russian air-defenses around the city of Alchevsk in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine shot down a Russian air force Sukhoi Su-34M—one of the air force’s best jets.
Russian propagandist Yevgeny Poddubny captured the incident on video—and a separate video of the wreckage confirmed the plane’s identity.
Five months earlier, in the darkness on Feb. 25, a Ukrainian air force Su-27 exploded while patroling over Kyiv. The famous pilot, Oleksandr Oksanchenko, died as a result.
While it’s theoretically possible a very long and very lucky shot by a Russian S-400 missile battery, possibly positioned somewhere in Belarus,, was responsbile for the February shoot-down, it’s more likely—as some media have reported—that a Ukrainian missile battery mistook the Sukhoi for a Russian jet.
It was the first full day of the wider war, after all—and Russian planes were thick in the sky over north-central Ukraine. “Both Russian and Ukrainian aircraft were threatened by friendly fire at this time,” Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi, Jack Watling, Oleksandr Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds explained in a study for the Royal United Services Institute in London.
It’s possible the same fear and confusion that made the sky over Kyiv so dangerous back in February now has afflicted the air space over Saratov Oblast.
Yes, Russian missile batteries are shooting down many, if not most, of the drones the Ukrainians are hurling at Engels and Dyagilevo. But they’re not shooting down all the drones—and they might be endangering friendly aircraft, too.
“Russia has long given a very high priority to maintaining advanced ground based air-defenses,” the U.K. Defense Ministry stated, “but it is increasingly clear that it is struggling to counter air threats deep inside Russia.”