Two Russian Fighter Jets and Two Military Helicopters Crashed in Southern Russia While Ukrainian Forces Struck Deep Into Russian-Controlled Territory in Ukraine

From a Wall Street Journal story by Stephen Kalin and Georgi Kantchev headlined “Four Russian Military Aircraft Downed Near Border With Ukraine”:

DNIPRO, Ukraine—Two Russian fighter jets and two military transport helicopters crashed in southern Russia on Saturday, while Ukrainian forces struck deep into Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, moves that suggest Kyiv’s military capabilities are growing.

The crashes are the worst losses for Russia’s military aviation since the first week of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when Moscow mistakenly assumed that Ukrainian air defenses had been destroyed. It has lost more than 70 planes since then.

Russian state news agency TASS said a Su-34 fighter and a Mi-8 helicopter went down Saturday in Russia’s Bryansk region. Another Mi-8 and a Su-35 also crashed, according to Russian military correspondents and an official of a Russian proxy state that claims territory in eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russia claimed that Ukraine used U.K.-supplied cruise missiles in strikes on Luhansk, an area controlled by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.

The attacks are the latest in a crescendo of strikes that are reaching deeper into Russia or Russian-held territory, suggesting that Ukraine is seeking to degrade Moscow’s forces ahead of an expected Ukrainian offensive in coming weeks.

Nine crew members died in Saturday’s aircraft crashes, according to Russian military commentators and an official in occupied Ukrainian territory. Videos showed a blast in the sky and wreckage on fire in a wooded area. Bryansk Gov. Alexander Bogomaz wrote on Telegram that a woman was injured and five homes damaged in one crash in Klintsy, a town 30 miles from the Ukrainian border.

The cause of the downings wasn’t clear. TASS cited emergency services blaming engine fire, but some Russian military correspondents suggested the aircraft could have been ambushed by Ukrainian special forces using shoulder-mounted missiles.

The U.S. has provided Stinger antiaircraft missiles, which are primarily useful against low-flying aircraft. Poland, the U.K. and others have also supplied similar systems.

The Ukrainian government typically doesn’t speak about incidents inside Russia, but Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, commented about the lost aircraft on Facebook. “The Russians are very upset today,” she wrote.

The crashes follow a string of drone attacks deep inside Russia or Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine, including an incident last week when two small drones struck the Kremlin.

Ukraine has used Western-supplied weapons to target Russian logistics hubs throughout the war, significantly undermining Moscow’s ability to support its troops on the front line.

In the past two days, blasts have hit a fuel depot and an industrial compound in the Russian-occupied eastern city of Luhansk and a nearby suburb. Luhansk, some 70 miles from the nearest Ukrainian positions, hadn’t been targeted since the war began because it is outside the range of Ukrainian artillery and U.S.-supplied Himars missile systems.

Russia and the local authorities it backs there said the attacks were carried out by new, Storm Shadow air-to-ground cruise missiles supplied by the U.K. Military analysts speculated that Kyiv is already using the new missiles, but the Ukrainians have declined to comment on whether it has deployed them.

Kyiv is looking to dislodge Russian forces from territory they have occupied in the south and east of Ukraine. It plans to deploy troops trained and armed by the West, hoping that advanced modern weaponry and tactics will help the Ukrainians overcome the Russians’ numerical advantage.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has said the Ukrainian military needs more time before launching its offensive to avoid huge casualties, but Kyiv already appears to be laying the ground with sabotage and attacks on Russian fuel-storage sites and other military logistical nodes.

Germany announced Saturday its biggest package of military equipment for Ukraine to date, worth a total of 2.7 billion euros, equivalent to about $2.93 billion. It includes mobile artillery systems and artillery ammunition, four new IRIS-T SLM air-defense systems of the kind already deployed around Ukraine and additional missiles for those systems.

The package also includes 30 Leopard 1 main battle tanks and 20 more lightly armored Marder infantry fighting vehicles, according to a list published by the German Defense Ministry.

Germany has become the third-largest supplier of military aid to Ukraine after the U.S. and the U.K., according to a ranking compiled by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a think tank.

Meanwhile, Mr. Zelensky traveled to Rome on Saturday to meet Pope Francis—who has offered to mediate with Russia—and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, one of Europe’s most staunchly pro-Ukrainian leaders.

On the battlefield, Ukrainian troops have already begun advancing on Russian forces in some parts of the eastern city of Bakhmut.

Bakhmut—the main focus of the fighting in Ukraine for months—has acquired great significance for Russia, which is seeking a victory after suffering a series of stinging setbacks since last summer. Kyiv, in turn, has viewed the fight for the city as an opportunity to wear down Russian troops and buy time for its own much-anticipated offensive.

Russian troops have come close to controlling Bakhmut. However, over the past four days, Ukrainian forces have advanced around a mile on tactically significant areas of the city’s southern front, as elements of Russia’s 72nd Separate Motor Rifle Brigade made a hurried withdrawal, the U.K.’s Defense Ministry said Saturday.

That Russian formation was created late last year after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a mass mobilization of civilians to make up for casualties estimated in the tens of thousands. “Its deployment to such a demanding and operationally important sector highlights Russia’s severe shortage of credible combat units,” the U.K. Defense Ministry said.

Ukraine’s military has suffered from a lack of modern weapons and an inability to speedily repair the Western donations that they have.

To help address that shortage, German defense company Rheinmetall and Ukraine’s largest weapons maker, Ukroboronprom, said on Saturday that they had agreed to jointly repair and develop weapons in Ukraine. The companies said that they will produce some Rheinmetall products domestically.

Rheinmetall makes part of the Leopard tank that has been donated in large numbers to Kyiv, several types of infantry fighting vehicles and air-defense systems, which are also now in Ukraine. It declined to say what products it would make in Ukraine, but Chief Executive Armin Papperger has previously said the company would make its Panther tank in Ukraine.

Ukrainian arms production has been hit hard by Russian attacks, prompting Ukrainian weapons makers, including Ukroboronprom, to shift manufacturing out of the country. Local manufacturing also faces significant logistical challenges in getting supplies into Ukraine.

Alistair MacDonald, Bertrand Benoit and Yaroslav Trofimov contributed to this article.

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