Ukraine says 9 Russian warplanes were destroyed in explosions in Crimea

Kyiv, Ukraine –

Ukraine’s air force said on Wednesday that nine Russian warplanes were destroyed in massive explosions at an airbase in Crimea amid speculation they were the result of a Ukrainian attack that would represent a significant escalation in the war.

Russia denied that any planes were damaged in Tuesday’s explosions, or that any attack took place.

Ukrainian officials stopped short of publicly claiming responsibility for the explosions, while scoffing at Russia’s explanation that a careless smoker might have caused ammunition at the Saki air base to catch fire and explode. Analysts have also said that the explanation does not make sense and that the Ukrainians could have used anti-ship missiles to attack the base.

While evading credit, several Ukrainian officials have deliberately underscored the importance of the peninsula, which Moscow annexed eight years ago.

Crimea is of great strategic and symbolic importance to both Ukraine and Russia, further emphasized by the way they both danced around what actually happened. The Kremlin’s demand that Ukraine recognize Crimea as part of Russia has been one of its key conditions for ending hostilities, but Ukraine has vowed to expel the Russians from the peninsula and all other occupied territories.

Hours after the blast, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised again to do just that.

“This Russian war against Ukraine and against the whole of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea, its liberation,” he said in his evening speech.

The blasts, which killed one person and injured 14, sent tourists fleeing in panic as plumes of smoke rose over the nearby shoreline. The video showed broken windows and holes in the bricks of some buildings.

Crimean regional leader Sergei Aksyonov said some 250 residents were moved into temporary housing after dozens of apartment buildings were damaged.

But Russian authorities tried to play down the explosions on Wednesday, saying that all hotels and beaches were not affected on the peninsula, which is a popular tourist destination for many Russians.

President Vladimir Putin has long insisted that Crimea is Russian and warned that any attempt to take it back would trigger massive retaliation. Moscow’s apparent absorption of the attack showed Putin’s weakness, Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.

“It is expected to protect Crimea like Russia itself,” Zhdanov said. “Now he is afraid to admit that it was the work of the Ukrainian armed forces.”

Russian warplanes have used Saki to attack areas in southern Ukraine, and social media was abuzz with speculation that Kyiv fired missiles at the base.

A Ukrainian presidential adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, who is more outspoken than other officials, said cryptically on Tuesday that the blasts were caused by a Ukrainian-made long-range weapon or by guerrillas operating in Crimea.

The base on the Black Sea peninsula, which dangles off southern Ukraine, is at least 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) from the nearest Ukrainian position, out of range of US-supplied missiles for its use in HIMARS systems.

The Ukrainian military has successfully used those missiles, with a range of 80 kilometers (50 miles), to attack ammunition and fuel depots, strategic bridges and other key targets in Russian-occupied territories.

HIMARS could also fire longer-range rockets, with a range of up to 300 kilometers (about 185 miles), and Ukraine has repeatedly advocated such weapons.

US authorities have so far refrained from providing them, fearing it could provoke Russia and widen the conflict. The explosions sparked speculation on social media that Ukraine may have finally obtained the weapons.

But Zhdanov, the analyst, suggested that Ukrainian forces may have attacked the Russian air base with a Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missile that has a range of about 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) and could have been adapted for use against ground targets.

The Ukrainian military could also have used Western-supplied Harpoon anti-ship missiles that have a range of about 300 kilometers (about 185 miles), he said.

“Official Kyiv has been silent about it, but unofficially the army acknowledges that it was a Ukrainian attack,” Zhdanov said.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said it could not independently assess what caused the explosions, but noted that simultaneous explosions at two locations on the base likely ruled out an accidental fire but not the possibility of sabotage or a missile. attack.

But he added that “the Kremlin has little incentive to accuse Ukraine of carrying out attacks that caused damage, since such attacks would demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems.”

If Ukrainian forces were, in fact, responsible for the explosions, it would be the first known major attack on a Russian military site in Crimea. A smaller explosion last month at the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol was blamed on Ukrainian saboteurs using a makeshift drone.

During the war, Russia has reported numerous fires and explosions at ammunition storage sites on its territory near the Ukrainian border, blaming some of them on Ukrainian attacks. Ukrainian authorities have mostly remained silent on the incidents.

Meanwhile, Russian shelling hit areas of Ukraine from Tuesday night to Wednesday, including the central Dnipropetrovsk region, where 13 people were killed and 11 others wounded, according to the region’s governor, Valentyn Reznichenko.

Reznichenko said Russian forces fired on the town of Marganets and a nearby town. Dozens of residential buildings, two schools and several administrative buildings were damaged by shelling.

“It was a terrible night,” Reznichenko said. “It is very difficult to get bodies out from under the rubble. We are facing a cruel enemy who exercises terror on our cities and towns on a daily basis.”

Russian forces also continued to shell the nearby city of Nikopol across the Dnieper River from the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe.

Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of bombing the power station, stoking international fears of a catastrophe.

On Wednesday, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven major industrialized democracies demanded that Russia immediately return full control of the plant to Ukraine.

“We remain deeply concerned about the serious threat that the seizure of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities and other actions by the Russian military pose to the security of these facilities, significantly increasing the risk of a nuclear accident or incident and endangering the the people of Ukraine, neighboring states and the international community,” they said in a statement.

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