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Is Ukraine’s new drone a game-changer in the war?

Kyiv, Ukraine – A mysterious weapon hit a target deep in the heart of Russia.

On Monday morning, a deafening roar that sounded like a landing jet awakened a city stretched across the flat steppes of the Volga region.

According to surveillance camera footage, a flash of lightning followed by a resounding explosion shook Engels, named after the philosopher and home to more than 300,000 people.

It hit one of Russia’s largest and most important military airfields, home to strategic Tupolev Tu-160 and Tu-95 bombers.

The planes can carry nuclear warheads and Moscow has repeatedly used them to rain down non-nuclear missiles on Ukraine.

Russia accused Ukraine.

Kiev has not claimed responsibility, but if it is confirmed to be behind them, as is widely believed, they would mark the deepest attacks in Russia since the war began in February.

Since October 10, seven waves of attacks have killed civilians and destroyed or damaged homes, power plants and other infrastructure needed to protect millions of Ukrainians from the winter.

Located about 650 km (404 mi) from the easternmost part of the Kharkiv region controlled by Kiev, the English airfield was seen as a safe haven that Ukraine could not possibly reach.

Not anymore – according to a top military analyst in Ukraine.

“This is a historic moment, unexpected not only for our enemies, whose plans have been thwarted, but also for allies,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, Ukraine’s former deputy chief of general staff, told Al Jazeera.

The new weapon can reach most of western Russia, including Moscow, the lower Volga and annexed Crimea, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is stationed.

“The weapon is powerful and accurate enough to do serious damage, including hitting anything related to oil, chemicals and energy, as well as major bridges — across the Volga, for example,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a historian told the German University of Bremen, at Al Jazeera.

Four Russian cities with more than a million inhabitants are located on the Volga, the longest river in Europe.

For centuries, the Russians saw it as their most important and symbolic water vein – and often called it ‘matushka’ or ‘dear mother’.

The Volga’s tributaries include the Moskva, the river that zigzags through Moscow and supplies water to its 12 million inhabitants.

The Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan the Terrible, only proclaimed himself Tsar after conquering the Volga basin, and during World War II, evacuation “behind the Volga” meant protection from Nazi German air raids.

Dozens of Soviet factories and factories were relocated there, turning the region into the USSR’s main industrial belt that continues to produce automobiles, textiles, chemicals, plastics, and gasoline.

Now any of these plants can be destroyed or damaged.

“Russia will have to completely reconsider its views on air and missile defense, something that will take time and will not guarantee any security anyway, and the losses are counting,” Mitrokhin said.

In addition, tens of millions of ordinary Russians will no longer feel safe.

“Residents of those areas, Muscovites included, should realize that at some point a ‘mushroom’ from an explosion may grow outside their window and something dangerous will start burning,” Mitrokhin said.

Until now, the damage from the alleged Ukrainian raids has been more symbolic.

Two Tu-95 bombers were damaged at Engels Air Base and a fuel truck burned down at Dyagilevo Air Base in Ryazan, Russian officials said.

At least three servicemen were killed and some were injured, they said.

The attacks failed to prevent dozens of planes from taking off again on Monday and bombing Ukraine.

Moscow, which blamed Kiev, said they were carried out by “Soviet-made jet drones” that were shot down before reaching their targets.

Officials in Kiev flatly denied responsibility – using every shade of irony and sarcasm in their responses.

“The earth is round,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wrote on Twitter Monday.

“It’s a pity that they don’t study astronomy in the Kremlin, they prefer court astrologers. Otherwise they would have known that if you send something into another country’s airspace, sooner or later the plane will come back,” he wrote.

“It doesn’t matter what the enemy wants [to say] — we haven’t started anything yet,” Defense Ministry spokesman Yuri Ihnat said in televised remarks on Monday.

His words deliberately mimicked Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said in July that Russia “has not yet started anything serious in Ukraine”.

The comments continued a new Ukrainian tradition of ridiculing and defaming Russia and its military, but did not shed any light on the weapon’s identity.

However, Russian comments about the “Soviet-made jet drone” offered a clue.

The USSR developed only one.

The Tu-141 reconnaissance drone codenamed “Strizh” (Swift) was made public in 1979, the year Moscow invaded Afghanistan.

It is almost 15 meters long, has a rear-mounted delta wing with a wingspan of less than four meters and weighs about six tons.

The speed is subsonic, about 1,100 km (683 mi) per hour, and the range is about 1,000 km (621 mi)

The drone can soar up to six kilometers (37 miles) above the Earth, but can also hover as little as 50 meters (164 feet) above it, significantly complicating the work of Russian air defenses.

Most importantly, the Strizh was produced in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and the 2014 revival of production may have been relatively easy.

In October, Ukroboronprom, Ukraine’s state-run weapons consortium, said it was developing a heavy-duty drone capable of carrying nearly 75 kilograms of explosives. No further details were available.

“We tell you almost nothing, but this ‘nothing’ works successfully on the battlefield,” Ukroboronprom spokeswoman Natalya Sad said in televised remarks.

She did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

Lieutenant General Romanenko said the Strizh “might have been used” to develop the new drone.

“Authorities cannot make statements [with more details]and that’s right,” he said.

‘Should Worry Kremlin’

The drone strikes send a disturbing signal to Moscow.

“It must certainly worry the Kremlin, especially those who have no room in the bunker,” Sergey Bizyukin, an exiled opposition activist from Ryazan, where one of the bombed airports is located, told Al Jazeera.

But for now, ordinary Russians are less concerned about the attacks, as they are concerned with the “partial mobilization”.

Moscow has driven hundreds of thousands of men to the front lines in an effort to step up its war effort.

Kremlin-controlled media downplay defeats in Ukraine, and only the deteriorating economic situation can spark protests among Russians, Bizyukin said.

“The rest will understand when their fridges start to run out,” he said.

When Moscow supported separatists in southeastern Ukraine in 2014, observers compared the conflict to “two Soviet armies” fighting each other.

But as Ukraine increasingly relies on Western-supplied, NATO-approved weapons, the comparison only holds true when it comes to advanced airborne weapons.

The West refused to provide modern fighter jets and air defense systems, and what it did deliver was “a drop in the ocean,” said Romanenko, who specialized in air defense during his 40 years of service in the Soviet and Ukrainian armies.

The 16 Tu-160 bombers that bombed Ukraine are among the heaviest and fastest supersonic fighters in the world.

The irony is that half of them used to belong to Kiev.

But President Leonid Kuchma’s cramped government decided in the late 1990s that they were unnecessary and too expensive to maintain.

In late 1999 and early 2000, the planes took off from Priluky airbase in northern Ukraine to land at Engels airfield as part of Kiev’s payment for Russian natural gas.

“[Russia] will most likely strengthen their air defense tools, because airfields are equipped for a certain type of aircraft,” Romanenko said.

“Let them have headaches and sleep badly at night.”

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Merry

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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