Explosions at a Russian airbase in Crimea that Ukraine says destroyed nine fighter aircraft may indicate new Ukrainian offensive capabilities that complicate Kremlin efforts to support its invading forces, according to European intelligence officials and defense analysts.
“In just one day, the occupiers lost 10 combat aircraft, nine in Crimea and one more in the direction of Zaporizhzhia,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation. More Russian armored vehicles, ammunition warehouses and logistics routes were also destroyed, and “the more losses the occupiers suffer, the sooner we will be able to liberate our land,” he said.
The exact nature of Tuesday’s blasts remains unclear, as Russian officials blame safety lapses involving munitions and deny any Ukrainian role while officials in Kyiv hint at the involvement of their forces. Rumors have swirled online that Ukrainian special forces, partisans, drones or long-range rockets were responsible, which would represent a serious security failure at an important Russian air base some 200 kilometers (124 miles) behind the front lines, according to defense analysts.
The destruction of combat aircraft at the Saky base follows an unexplained attack on the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea in July. The suspected Ukrainian assault will likely change Moscow’s view of Crimea as a secure base to support its invasion forces, especially if more strikes follow, the intelligence officials said.
That could force an already stretched Russian military to divert resources to protect areas previously seen as secure, just as Ukraine’s army is pressing to advance toward the southern city of Kherson seized by Moscow’s troops early in the war. A huge road and rail bridge connecting Crimea to Russia across the Kerch Strait represents an obvious target for Ukraine’s military to sever supply lines to an important staging post for the Kremlin’s forces.
On Thursday, Belarus dismissed reports of explosions at an airbase close to the Ukrainian border that opposition activists say has been used by Russia’s military during the invasion. An equipment fire broke out at the Zyabrovka base late Wednesday and was extinguished, the state-run Belta news service reported, citing a Belarus Defense Ministry statement.
Satellite imagery of the Crimea base showed apparently extensive damage to buildings and aircraft. Russian losses include at least four Su-30SM multirole aircraft and six Su-24M/MR strike and tactical reconnaissance aircraft, according to analysis of the images by Oryxspioenkop, a Dutch open-source intelligence defense analysis website.
The Crimea explosions most likely point to sabotage operations either by Ukrainian special forces or partisans, according to Ben Barry, a senior fellow for land warfare at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“If Russia wants to guard their airbases, that can only come at the expense of troops for the attack on Ukraine,” he said. “It potentially should reduce the number of Russian forces on the front line - whether that will be decisive or not, we cannot tell.”
Ukrainian officials haven’t directly claimed responsibility while suggesting in social media posts that their forces were behind the explosions. A top Zelenskyy aide warned the blasts were “just the beginning” of efforts to reclaim Crimea after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Black Sea peninsula in 2014.
That makes the issue potentially even more sensitive for Putin, who has repeatedly declared Crimea to be an inalienable part of Russia, a claim rejected by the international community which regards it as Ukrainian territory.
U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace dismissed Russia’s explanations for the blasts in an interview with the BBC, saying it was clear the explosions weren’t caused by someone dropping a cigarette. It would be legitimate to target Russian forces in Crimea because “Ukraine, under United Nations articles, is perfectly entitled to defend its territory and take what action it needs to against an invading force,” he said.