Hammerblow for Putin as Russias two top fighter pilots killed in HIMARS missile blast

Ukrainian crews reload a HIMARS launcher

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The motorcade of Lt-Col Maksim Potyomin and Colonel Anatoly Stasyukevich was hit by a precision US-supplied HIMARS (high mobility artillery rocket systems) missile in a strike which is believed to have been targeted. The two fighter pilots, who were deployed in the Donetsk region, were part of Moscow’s most decorated military.

Lt-Col Potyomin, 41, Col Stasyukevich, 54, fought in the same unit in the town of Krymsk, in Krasnodar Krai.

They died on July 8 but the news of the attack only emerged later.

Kyiv last month hailed the arrival of eight HIMARS in Ukraine as a possible game-changer for the course of the conflict, now about to hit the half-year mark.

The advanced weapons are more precise and offer a longer range than the Soviet-era artillery that Ukraine had in its arsenal, allowing defenders to attack Russian targets and weapons depots further behind the front lines.

Col Stasyukevich, chief of staff of the 1st Guards Baranovichi Red Banner mixed aviation division, was a third-generation military pilot.

The death of Lt-Col Potyomin, who was married and had two children, aged 15 and eight, was confirmed by his family.

His godmother Natalya Duddinka told Russian media of her “huge, huge grief”, saying “there are no words to express this pain”.

Lt-Col Potyomin’s father Alexey Potyomin, chairman of the Volgograd Regional Parachuting Federation, said: “My son’s car was hit by a HIMARS missile, which we have been hearing so much about lately…

“His injuries were incompatible with life.”

The pilot was reportedly posthumously awarded the order of courage by a Putin decree.

News of the fighters’ deaths followed claims by Russia that it had destroyed four of Ukraine’s HIMARS missiles, which Kyiv rejected as “fake”.

Russia’s defence ministry said on Friday “four launchers and one reloading vehicle for the US-made multiple launch rocket systems (HIMARS) were destroyed” between July 5 and 20.

Kyiv argued the Kremlin was seeking to undermine the West’s support for Ukraine.

Serhiy Leshchenko, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff, said the country’s forces continued to use HIMARS to “cause numerous losses to the aggressor state”.

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He told reporters at a media briefing: “Russia is trying to stop the supply of weapons from the West and intimidate Ukraine’s allies with the fictional power of Russia’s armed forces.”

Last week, Kyiv used HIMARS to attack a crucial bridge across the Dnieper River in Moscow-controlled parts of the southern Kherson region, punching large holes in the asphalt and prompting local Russian-installed officials to warn it could be completely destroyed if the attacks continue.

Today, Ukraine said its troops had the powerful rocket systems to destroy 50 Russian ammunition depots since receiving the weapons last month.

In remarks on national television, Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov underlined the growing impact the HIMARS are having as Ukraine tries to repel Putin’s invasion.

He said: “This cuts their (Russian) logistical chains and takes away their ability to conduct active fighting and cover our armed forces with heavy shelling.”

Mr Reznikov said Ukrainian artillery crews had conducted “precise” strikes on several bridges. He gave no details of which bridges.

Reznikov also said Ukraine had received three Gepard anti-aircraft armoured fighting vehicles, the first of 15 expected, and that Kyiv was expecting to take delivery of several dozen Leopard tanks.

Washington said it will send four more HIMARS to Ukraine in its latest package of military support.

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