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Clustered Russian Aircraft Present A Prominent Target In Ukraine


A satellite image from March 24 of the Melitopol airfield captured by Russian forces.

Late last month, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that Ukrainian forces had struck a Russian-occupied airfield in the southern city of Melitopol -- the fourth in a series of attacks on the site.

Kyiv’s forces were targeting what Ukrainian officials said was a Russian military base that was being established there and had already been used by the invading army as a platform for rocket attacks.

The presidential adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, said on March 27 that Russia had concentrated warplanes and other military equipment there, making it a prominent target for Ukrainian air strikes.

Melitopol lies on a stretch of southern Ukraine that Moscow has been eyeing since 2014, when it seized the Crimean Peninsula, further southwest, and backed separatist forces in the Donbas, to the northeast. Russian forces seized control of the city of 150,000 on February 25, the day after President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine.

On March 24, using satellite imagery from the private company Planet, Schemes (Skhemy) -- an investigative news project run by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service -- discovered the clustering of Russian military hardware at the airfield there.

A day earlier, Melitopol’s mayor, Ivan Fedorov, said on Facebook that “the occupiers are building their military base” at the location – a reference to the Russian armed forces. He said that Russian forces were launching “missiles [from the site] at other cities in Ukraine, and these missile launchers will be destroyed.”

Satellite images showed what appeared to be at least six Russian Su-25 ground-attack jets, five helicopters, trenches seeming to contain materiel, and ammunition transportation or storage equipment.

The first of three satellite images of the Melitipol airfield with Ukrainian-language notation, which were published in the Schemes report. This image shows what appear to be Su-25 planes (1) and helicopters (2) stationed at the site.
The first of three satellite images of the Melitipol airfield with Ukrainian-language notation, which were published in the Schemes report. This image shows what appear to be Su-25 planes (1) and helicopters (2) stationed at the site.
Trenches with special equipment (3) as well as separate caponiers (4) which are probably used for storing ammunition-delivery vehicles or ammunition itself.
Trenches with special equipment (3) as well as separate caponiers (4) which are probably used for storing ammunition-delivery vehicles or ammunition itself.
Locations at the airfield that could be used to house an air-defense system or to store equipment and ammunition (5), as well as a site that could be used for the storage of fuel and lubricants (6).
Locations at the airfield that could be used to house an air-defense system or to store equipment and ammunition (5), as well as a site that could be used for the storage of fuel and lubricants (6).

At the center of the facility was an anti-aircraft system, and a fuel depot was visible nearby. A comparison with satellite images of the same area from March 21, three days earlier, indicated that Russian occupying forces had advanced quickly in establishing a base there.

The Melitopol airport on March 24 (left) and March 21.
The Melitopol airport on March 24 (left) and March 21.

Arestovych said on social media on March 27 that the site had been struck four times and likened it to Chernobayivka, a Russian-controlled airfield in the neighboring Kherson region that Ukraine says it has struck successfully.

The Melitopol airfield is "catching up with Chornobayivka,” he said.

Russian media outlets, citing the Russian Defense Ministry, reported on March 18 that a high-precision Ukrainian Tochka-U rocket that was fired at Melitopol was intercepted. The reports did not specify the target and could not be independently verified.

No visual evidence of damage has been displayed on open-source intelligence sites and Ukrainian officials have not provided details on the military strikes at the Russian base in Melitopol.

However, Pavlo Lakiychuk, a military expert at the Kyiv-based think tank Strategy XXI, told RFE/RL on March 25 that the new base was turning into another Chornobayivka, suggesting similarities with the Kherson site, where Ukrainian forces have inflicted damage on Russian aircraft and equipment.

Lakkiychuk said that after successive hits at Chornovbayivka, Russia started to shift its hardware to Melitopol. In his comments on March 27, Arestovych wrote that the facility at Chernobayivka was struck “an 11th time.”

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In the same interview with Schemes, Lakiychuk said that Russia had sloppily moored three warships in close proximity to each other in the occupied Azov Sea port city of Berdyansk, east of Melitopol. A Ukrainian rocket attack sank one, damaged the other two, and set nearby facilities ablaze.

Written by Mark Raczkiewycz based on reporting by Kyrylo Ovsyaniy and Kira Tolstyakova
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    Kyrylo Ovsyaniy

    Kyrylo Ovsyaniy is an investigative journalist with Schemes (Skhemy), an investigative news project run by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. Since 2021 he has worked on the Corruption In Detail program, after beginning in 2019 with a regional  project. Born in Odesa, he has worked as a journalist there since 2018.

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    Kira Tolstyakova

    Kira Tolstyakova is a producer and editor for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. 

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