Powerful explosions rocked a Russian airport in Crimea and sent vast clouds of smoke over the landscape on Tuesday, which could mark the escalation of the war in Ukraine. At least one person died, and several others were injured.
Russia’s defence ministry denied that the Saki base on the Black Sea was shelled and said warships were shot down instead. But Ukraine’s social network was full of speculation that it was attacked by long-range missiles fired from Ukraine.
Videos on social networks showed people sunbathing on nearby beaches as huge flames and pillars of smoke rose from several points on the horizon, accompanied by a sharp surge. Crimea Today News said on Telegram that eyewitnesses reported a fire on a runway and damage to nearby homes in what it said were dozens of explosions.
Russia’s state news agency Tass quoted an unnamed ministry source saying the primary cause of the explosions appeared to be a “violation of fire safety requirements”. The ministry said no warplane was damaged.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said sarcastically on Facebook: “The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine cannot establish the cause of the fire, but once again recalls the rules of fire safety and the prohibition of smoking in unspecified places.”
A presidential adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, said cryptically in his regular online interview that the blasts were caused either by a Ukrainian-made long-range weapon or were the work of partisans operating in Crimea.
During the war, Russia has reported numerous fires and explosions at munitions storage sites near the Ukrainian border, blaming some of them on Ukrainian strikes. Ukrainian authorities have mostly remained mum about the incidents.
If Ukrainian forces were, in fact, responsible for the blasts at the air base, it would be the first known major attack on a Russian military site on the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014. A smaller explosion last month at Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol was blamed on Ukrainian saboteurs using a makeshift drone.
On short notice, Russian warplanes have used the Saki base to strike areas in Ukraine’s south.
One person was killed, said Crimea’s regional leader, Sergei Aksyonov. Crimean health authorities said nine people were wounded, one of whom remained hospitalized. Others were treated for cuts from shards of glass and released.
Officials in Moscow have long warned Ukraine that any attack on Crimea would trigger massive retaliation, including strikes on “decision-making centres” in Kyiv.
For his part, Ukraine’s president vowed to retake Crimea from Russia.
“This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea — its liberation,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday in his nightly video address. “Today, it is impossible to say when this will happen. But we are constantly adding the necessary components to the formula for the liberation of Crimea.”
Earlier Tuesday, Ukrainian officials reported at least three Ukrainian civilians were killed and 23 wounded by Russian shelling in 24 hours, including an attack not far from the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
The Russians fired over 120 rockets at the town of Nikopol, across the Dnieper River from the plant, Dnipropetrovsk Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko said. Several apartment buildings and industrial sites were damaged, he said.
Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of shelling the power station, Europe’s giant nuclear plant, stoking international fears of a catastrophe.
The governor of the region where the plant is situated, Oleksandr Starukh, said Tuesday that radiation levels were normal. But he warned that an accident could spread radiation whichever way the wind blows, carrying it to Moscow and other Russian cities.
A Russian-installed official in the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia region said an air defence system at the plant would be reinforced in the aftermath of last week’s shelling. Evgeny Balitsky, head of the Kremlin-backed administration, told Russian state TV that power lines and other damaged portions of the plant were restored.
The Ukrainians, in recent weeks, have been mounting counterattacks in Russian-occupied areas of southern Ukraine while trying to hold off the Kremlin’s forces in the industrial Donbas region in the east.
Also Tuesday, a U.S. official said Iran has agreed to supply Russia with drones for the war in Ukraine. The official, speaking anonymously to discuss sensitive information, said, “during the last several weeks, Russian officials conducted training in Iran as part of the agreement for UAV transfers from Iran to Russia.”
In mid-July, the White House released satellite images indicating that Russians had visited an Iranian airbase to see weapons-capable drones. But U.S. officials said later that month that they had seen no evidence of Iran supplying Russia with the drones.
This month, Ukrainian officials said Iran had transferred drones to Russia; some have been used in combat.