Putin's air force spy ops retreat away from war zone after plane downed, say British defence chiefs

Putin's air force spy ops retreat away from war zone after plane downed, say British defence chiefs

Vladimir Putin’s air force is retreating away from the Ukraine war zone after one of its spy planes was downed, say British defence chiefs.

They stressed that a replacement A-50 MAINSTAY surveillance aircraft was now operating further east inside Russia.

They believe this will hamper Russian operations inside Ukraine where both sides have also widely used drones on the battlefield.

In its latest intelligence briefing, the Ministry of Defence in London said: “On 14 January 24, a Russian A-50 MAINSTAY almost certainly exploded and subsequently crashed into the Sea of Azov (south of Ukraine).

“The A-50 MAINSTAY is a key enabler for Russian operations over Ukraine providing airborne early warning of threats as well as command and control functionality.”

The briefing added: “On 17 January 2024, the Russian Air Force appears to have begun operating another A-50 MAINSTAY, but this time over land within Russian territory near the Krasnodar region, farther eastwards from Ukraine.

“This activity is highly likely indicative of a reduced risk appetite for the airframes and an attempt to preserve remaining A-50 MAINSTAY at a loss to its overall effectiveness over Ukraine.

“Despite no official position from Russia on the loss of the MAINSTAY, this activity likely demonstrates a tacit Russian acknowledgement of a successful targeting operation by the Ukrainians against a high value air asset.”

A key role of the A-50 is to detect air defences and coordinates targets for Russian fighter jets.

The MoD stressed that if the loss of the A-50 had been an accident, the operating area of its replacement would probably not have changed.

Ukrainian Commander in Chief, General Valery Zaluzhnyi, has claimed his forces were responsible for downing the aircraft.

The frontlines in Putin’s ground invasion of Ukraine are now largely static.

But Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has also been forced to retreat, pulling back from its Sevastapol base in Crimea, having lost a number of vessels including its flagship, the Moskva, which was sunk in April 2022.

Meanwhile, a Ukrainian drone hit an oil storage depot in western Russia, causing a blaze, officials said as Kyiv’s forces apparently extended their attacks on Russian soil ahead of the war’s two-year anniversary.

Four oil reservoirs with a total capacity of 6,000 cubic metres (1.6 million gallons) were set on fire after the drone reached Klintsy, a city of some 70,000 people located about 40 miles from the Ukrainian border, according to the local governor and state news agency Tass.

Friday’s strike is apparently the latest in a recently intensified effort by Ukraine to unnerve Russians and undermine Putin’s claims that life in his country is going on as normal before its March 17 presidential election.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to hit more targets inside Russian border regions this year.

Russia’s air defences are concentrated in occupied regions of Ukraine, Kyiv officials say, leaving more distant targets inside Russia more vulnerable as Ukrainian forces develop longer-range drones.

The Russian city of Belgorod, also near the Ukrainian border, cancelled its traditional Orthodox Epiphany festivities on Friday due to the threat of Ukrainian drone strikes.

They are the first major public events known to be called off in Russia because of the drone threat.

Ukrainian national media, quoting an official in Ukraine’s Intelligence Service, said Ukrainian drones on Friday also attacked a gunpowder mill in Tambov, about 370 miles south of Moscow.

But Tambov governor Maxim Yegorov said the plant was working normally, according to Russia’s RBC news outlet.

The Mash news outlet had earlier reported that a Ukrainian drone fell on the plant’s premises on Thursday but caused no damage.

In Klintsy, air defences electronically jammed the drone but it dropped its explosive payload on the facility, Bryansk regional governor Alexander Bogomaz said.

There were no casualties, he added.

Russian telegram channels shared videos of what they said was the blaze at the depot, which sent thick black plumes of smoke into the air.

The same depot was hit by a Ukrainian drone last May but the damage was apparently less significant.