Britain will double the number of long-range rocket launchers it is to send to Ukraine, said UK defence minister Ben Wallace last night as he claimed Kyiv’s forces were right to hit Russian targets in Crimea.
He announced the supply of the extra M270 rocket launchers, the UK’s most advanced missile system, as Ukraine prepares for a major counter-offensive in the south of the country.
A “significant number of precision-guided missiles” with a range of 80km will also be supplied, he said.
Ukrainian officials said the country’s special forces and resistance fighters were behind an unprecedented strike at Novofedorivka Airfield, 200km behind enemy lines in occupied Crimea.
At least 12 blasts rocked the Russian base near the Black Sea resort of Saki on Tuesday, sending mushroom clouds into the sky and holidaymakers fleeing.
The Ukrainian air force yesterday boasted that nine Russian jets were destroyed in the strike.
Moscow rejected reports of missile strikes or sabotage, and instead blamed an accidental fire for causing an ammunition explosion, which analysts said was an attempt to cover up the ineffectiveness of Russian air defences.
Russian military bloggers suggested the attack on the airfield was carried out with US-provided tactical missile systems with a range of about 300km. But Mr Wallace said it was “unlikely” Western-supplied weapons had been the cause of the blasts, saying the Crimean air base was a “legitimate target” for Ukraine.
“That air force base has been used by Russian forces to bomb Ukrainian targets. I think in anybody’s manual of war it would be a legitimate target,” he said, while on a visit to Denmark.
“I’m not going to sit in judgment over Ukraine. Ukraine is sitting there fighting for its very survival.”
One official told the New York Times that the base, thought to be home to Russia’s 43rd Air Regiment, had been used as a key staging post for attacks in southern Ukraine.
Satellite images taken before the blasts showed dozens of Russian aircraft lined up on the airfield tarmac.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a military adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, said the attack was just the start of Ukrainian strikes on Russian targets in Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. He said the next round of strikes were likely to happen “in the coming days”.
There were reports of traffic jams of more than 100km as civilians attempted to escape the peninsula yesterday via the Kerch Strait Bridge to mainland Russia.
Mr Arestovych said if Ukraine’s armed forces could reach the border of Crimea, they would have the entire region covered with “all sorts of weapons” without having to enter it.
One official told the Politico news website that August and September would be “very important” months for Ukraine’s fightback.
Before he announced the increase of Britain’s offering of multi-launch rocket launchers, Mr Wallace said Ukrainian troops had been in the UK for extra training to be “much better” on the systems.
The additional weapons take the UK’s total cost of military support for Kyiv since the invasion on February 24 to £2.3bn (€2.7bn).
Mr Wallace told reporters in Copenhagen: “It was very important when we gifted this [rocket system] that we said to the Ukrainians, ‘Look, you cannot use it in the same way, you have to be much better at discriminating about which targets you want to hit and your priorities, and we got a feedback loop to ensure it was worth carrying on giving those munitions.”
Western analysts said the air base attack had most likely been carried out by a drone evading Russia’s feeble air defence systems.
A similar-attack was carried out earlier this month at the Sevastopol naval base in Crimea.
The Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, said: “The Kremlin has little incentive to accuse Ukraine of conducting strikes since such strikes would demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defence systems.”
(© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)
Telegraph Media Group Limited