Ukrainian Mi-24s set ablaze a Belgorod fuel depot.
In an incredible feat of airmanship and planning, a pair of Ukrainian Mi-24 attack helicopters slipped across the border with Russia on Friday morning and lobbed 25-pound unguided rockets at a fuel depot in Belgorod, igniting a blaze that burned through the daylight hours.
It’s not the first time Ukrainian forces have struck military facilities in Belgorod, which lies just 25 miles north of the border and 50 miles from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Russian troops have besieged Kharkiv since early in Russia’s six-week-old assault on Ukraine.
Three days before the Mi-24 raid, the Ukrainian army struck a separate depot in Belgorod with Tochka ballistic missiles. But the Friday raid was special. Not only for its impact on the Kremlin’s fuel stocks near Kharkiv—but also for its psychological effect.
A member of Russia’s emergency services wasn’t shy about the damage the Ukrainian Mil crews inflicted. “There are 16 tanks in the seat of the fire,” the official told state media. “The fire occurs in eight tanks with fuel and gasoline, occupying two thousand cubic meters, there is a threat of the fire spreading to another eight.”
The Kremlin no doubt can make good the material losses. The damage to Russia’s morale could last longer. It was an open question, in the days leading up to the Russian invasion, whether Ukraine’s helicopter force would play any meaningful role in the fighting—or even survive the initial Russian bombardment.
It survived. Analysts have confirmed, via photos and videos, just two losses among Ukraine’s pre-war fleet of around 30 each active Mi-8 transports and Mi-24 gunships. And on Friday, two of the twin-seat Mi-24s flew potentially a hundred miles or more to lob S-8 rockets at the Belgorod depot.
It’s hard to understate how daring the raid was. The Mi-24s flew through air space that, in theory, is heavily defended. If other forces supported the gunships, it wasn’t apparent in the dramatic videos of the raid that circulated on-line as the fires still burned.
The Mil crews’ tactics were apparent. They flew low, under cover of darkness, staying below the horizon of air-defense radars. They got close and let fly brute-simple, unguided rockets requiring no guidance by forces on the ground. Both Mi-24s apparently safely returned to whatever hidden base they launched from.
It’s possible the raid stretched the Mi-24’s endurance. On internal fuel alone, the 13-ton gunship can range just a couple hundred miles. The Ukrainians may have hung external fuel tanks under the ‘copters’ stub wings, giving them a bit of extra range.
In ambition if not in purpose, the Friday attack echoes a U.S. Army operation 31 years earlier. On the morning on Jan. 17, 1991, eight Army AH-64 gunships, led by two U.S. Special Operations Command MH-53 transports, flew hundreds of miles and fired Hellfire missiles at a pair of Iraqi radars. The attack poked a hole in Baghdad’s air-defense network for subsequent U.S. and coalition air raids.
It’s not clear the Friday raid is a prelude to a wider campaign of deep strikes by Ukrainian aircraft. Ukraine went into the current war with just 125 fighters and bombers and 60 helicopters—and already has lost at least 11 of the former and two of the latter.
More importantly, the Russians have been targeting Ukraine’s fuel depots, too, potentially starving Kyiv’s planes and ‘copters of the fuel they need for intensive operations.
The statement the Ukrainians made on Friday arguably matters the most. As the war enters its sixth week, Ukraine has plenty of fight left in it. Ukrainian brigades are counterattacking around Kyiv in the north and Kherson in the south, chasing after Russian exhausted Russian troops who are retreating—“redeploying,” according to the Kremlin—toward separatist-controlled Donbas in eastern Ukraine.
Maybe the Ukrainians can’t mount another Mi-24 raid on Russian territory as the war enters its second phase. But they’ve proved they can get creative, and find some way of striking back against their attackers.