A Ukrainian Saboteur Traveled 900 Miles to A Snowy Russian Airfield And, In The Dead Of Night, Lit A Russian Sukhoi Fighter-Bomber On Fire

David Axe


January 4, 2024


A Ukrainian agent slipped into Russia, traveled 900 miles to Chelyabinsk air base just north of Kazakhstan, sneaked onto the snow-covered tarmac under the cover of darkness and lit a fire on a Russian air force Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber.  It’s not the first act of sabotage by a Ukrainian agent inside Russia, but it might be the most daring. And it may have cost the Russian air force yet another of its increasingly endangered Su-34s.

The Ukrainian intelligence directorate claimed the twin-engine, two-seat Su-34 belonged to the 21st Composite Aviation Division, a known operator of the type. “The reasons for the plane catching fire are being clarified,” the directorate quipped.

The last time a Ukrainian agent sneaked onto a Russian airfield, near Pskov in October 2022, it was to blow up a Kamov Ka-52 attack helicopter. Pskov is 500 miles from the border with Ukraine.

Ukraine has other methods of striking Russian air bases from hundreds of miles away—drones and missiles—but direct sabotage might be the most embarrassing for the Russians. Where was air base security? The Russians know they’re at war, right?

It’s obvious why the Ukrainians would target Chelyabinsk and its Su-34s. The supersonic fighter-bombers are among the best in the Russian air force—and the most active along the 600-mile front line of Russia’s 23-month wider war on Ukraine.

Su-34s fly nearly daily missions lobbing 25-mile-range satellite-guided glide-bombs at Ukrainian positions. The powerful glide-bombs are “one of the biggest fears” among Ukrainian troops, according to Ukrainian soldier Olexandr Solon’ko.

Ukrainian forces are doing everything they can to shoot down every Su-34 they can. Rapidly repositioning long-range air-defenses in southern Ukraine last month, the Ukrainian air force shot down four Su-34s in the span of a week. If the sabotaged jet is a write-off, the Russians might be down to 125 or so Su-34s out of a pre-war fleet of no more than 150.

Ukraine’s sabotage campaign is effective but risky. More than a few Ukrainian saboteurs have been caught and killed. Perhaps most recently, Russian troops back in August reportedly intercepted a Ukrainian sabotage team sneaking across the border near Bryansk—and killed two of the saboteurs.


David Axe – Forbes Staff. Aerospace & Defense.  He is a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina.  Axe founded the website War Is Boring in 2007 as a webcomic, and later developed it into a news blog.  He enrolled at Furman University and earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 2000. Then he went to the University of Virginia to study medieval history before transferring to and graduating from the University of South Carolina with a master’s degree in fiction in 2004.