Thick plumes of black smoke billowing over an air base in Crimea sent dozens of sun-seekers scurrying from the Russian-occupied peninsula, snarling traffic on the highway leading to the only bridge to their native land
Ukrainian officials retweeted videos of panicked Russian tourists running for the exits. One assessed that nine Russian fighter jets had been destroyed in the incident on Tuesday evening. But they did not go far enough to take credit for the damage caused to Saki Air Base, about 200 km from the nearest known Ukrainian position.
“Cigarette smoking kills,” a senior Ukrainian official wrote in a tongue-in-cheek text shortly after the blasts.
The Crimea blasts are the most serious of a series of incidents involving Russian targets behind the front lines that Western defense analysts suspect were carried out by pro-Ukrainian forces under the direct or indirect direction of Kyiv.
These unclaimed incidents have put the Kremlin in the uncomfortable position of having to deny that they could have been inflicted by groups friendly to Ukraine. Moscow suggested Tuesday’s blasts in Crimea, which it annexed in 2014, may have been accidental, due to mishandling of ammunition.
“Only the violation of fire safety requirements is considered the main cause of the explosion of several munitions at the Saki airfield,” said an anonymous Russian defense ministry source, quoted by the Interfax news agency.
Alongside what appear to be partisan actions against Russian soldiers in newly occupied Ukrainian territories, they are designed to sow unrest and doubt among the Russian population and boost Ukrainian morale, rather than make a material difference on the battlefield, they say Western analysts and officials.
“The mere fact that it took place so far behind enemy lines and in the Crimea, that [Russian president Vladimir] Putin sees de facto Russian territory as a real moral boost for Ukraine,” a European intelligence official said. “It also shows that Ukraine has higher capabilities than Russia might have previously thought.”
A Western military official said the propaganda benefit of the Saki Air Base explosions was “the combination of a grand slam, a hole-in-one and a last-second target” all at once.
In recent months, Kremlin-appointed officials have been killed in Ukrainian territories seized by Russian forces, some by car bombs, others by gunfire. The Kremlin-appointed deputy head of Russian-occupied Kherson province last week denied reports that its chief had been poisoned or suffered a stroke after being evacuated to Moscow for treatment.
Infrastructure that is key to Russia’s war effort has also been targeted. A “kamikaze” drone struck a Russian oil refinery in the southern Rostov region in June.
Russia has accused Ukraine of inflicting some of the damage, but has refused to confirm many of the incidents. State media have become accustomed to reporting “explosions,” rather than “explosions,” while officials have explained some of them as security breaches or industrial accidents.
Moscow’s refusal to acknowledge the attacks, analysts say, could be an attempt to prevent panic spreading among locals about Ukraine’s ability to attack Russia and maintain the illusion that it is only engaged in a “special operation” and not a full-scale invasion. .
However, the explosions at the Saki air base are of a magnitude far greater than any operation that Ukraine is suspected of carrying out.
Western military officials and analysts suggested it could have been caused by a Ukrainian-made missile or a group of saboteurs, rather than the less likely scenario of an accident.
A NATO official declined to elaborate on the incident, saying only that no Western-provided weapons were used in any assault. The New York Times and the Washington Post reported that Ukrainian special forces, working alongside Ukrainian partisans, were behind the assaults.
Ukrainian forces have previously used domestically developed weaponry, including the locally-made Neptune missile that sank the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Moskva in April.
A Western defense adviser said Kyiv had a few late-model Grom ballistic missiles with a range of 300 km. Plans to build these weapons, also known as Hrim-2 and equivalent to Russia’s Iskander, were announced as early as 2003. However, Rochan Consulting, a military adviser, said this missile should have been picked up by Russian air defense systems and said there was “There was no evidence to suggest that Russian air defense [nearby] was on”.
Another possibility is that the attack was carried out by Ukrainian insurgents or special forces using kamikaze drones. In late July, a modified drone carrying explosives was used to attack the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.
“It is absolutely possible that it was a group of local saboteurs,” the European intelligence official said.
The mystery behind the explosions plays into Ukraine’s hands, the NATO official stressed. “Why take the credit when you can leave the paranoia behind?” he said “It’s not like the Russians don’t know what hit them.”
For Russia, blaming the attack on Ukraine would imply acknowledging the weaknesses of its own defense and demanding an immediate response because Putin considers the Crimean peninsula to be part of Russia.
“The Kremlin has little incentive to accuse Ukraine of carrying out attacks that caused the damage, as such attacks would demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems,” the Institute for the Study of War said.
Crimea’s Russian-appointed governor, Sergei Aksyonov, responded to the explosions at the Saki airbase by declaring a state of high terror alert across the peninsula, while insisting the situation was “under full control”.
In his daily speech the same day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not explicitly refer to the explosions, but had special words for the peninsula.
“Crimea is Ukrainian,” he said, “and we will never give it up.”
Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Riga
What does winning the war in Ukraine look like for Moscow and Kyiv? Our Moscow correspondent Polina Ivanova and Moscow bureau chief Max Seddon spoke on Instagram live about the future of war. See it here.