ODESA, Ukraine — A series of explosions rocked a key Russian airbase in the Kremlin-occupied Crimean peninsula on Tuesday, sending huge plumes of smoke, killing at least one person and confusing local officials over what what exactly happened.
As Russian and occupation officials worked to determine the cause, raising the level of terrorist threat in the region, a senior Ukrainian military official with knowledge of the situation said Ukrainian forces were behind the explosion. at Saki air base on the west coast of Crimea.
“This was an air base from which aircraft regularly took off for attacks against our forces in the southern theater,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters. The official did not reveal the type of weapon used in the attack, saying only that “an exclusively Ukrainian-made device was used”.
A Ukrainian attack on Russian forces in the Crimean Peninsula would represent a significant expansion of Ukraine’s offensive efforts, which so far have largely been limited to pushing Russian troops back from territories occupied after February 24, when the invasion began.
It would also be embarrassing for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who often speaks of Crimea, which he illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, as if it were holy ground.
Ukraine has few weapons that can reach the peninsula, apart from planes that would risk being shot down immediately by the heavy Russian air defenses in the area. The air base, which is near the town of Novofederivka, is nearly 200 miles from the nearest Ukrainian military position.
The senior Ukrainian official said the attack involved partisan resistance forces loyal to the Kyiv government, but he did not reveal whether those forces carried out the attack or helped regular Ukrainian military units target the base, as this sometimes happened in other Russian-occupied territories. territories.
To hit targets far behind enemy lines, Ukraine has increasingly turned to guerrilla warfare in Russian-occupied territories, officials said. Supporters, for example, helped the Ukrainian forces target Russian bases and ammunition depots in the Kherson region, say Ukrainian officials.
Publicly, Ukrainian officials have not confirmed Ukrainian military involvement. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said in a statement it could not “determine the cause of the explosion” and suggested base personnel adhere to no-smoking rules.
Other officials have not exactly denied that Ukraine was behind the explosion.
“Crimea’s future must be a pearl of the Black Sea, a national park with unique nature and a global resort, not a military base for terrorists,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. . a tweet. “This is just the beginning.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the explosion was caused by the detonation of ammunition stored for fighter jets at the base. While the ministry made no speculation about the possible involvement of Ukrainian forces, Crimean Kremlin-based leader Sergei Aksyonov’s decision to raise the terror threat level to yellow suggested officials were concerned about security on the peninsula.
“This measure is exclusively prophylactic, as the situation in the region is under full control,” Aksyonov said in a statement on Telegram.
During the eight years of Crimea’s occupation by Russia, the peninsula has transformed from a quiet seaside destination in southern Ukraine into a major base for military operations. It was from there that Russian forces rushed into southern Ukraine in a post-February 24 whirlwind operation that engulfed a huge swath of territory, including the neighboring region of Kherson, that the Russian forces are almost entirely in control.
Saki Air Base is home to Russia’s 43rd Separate Naval Attack Regiment, part of the Black Sea Fleet. Ukrainian military intelligence accused pilots of the regiment of committing war crimes by bombing civilian areas during the war.
Shortly after the explosion, Mr. Aksyonov arrived at the scene. Standing in front of a large plume of black smoke, he said a three-mile perimeter had been erected around the base site to protect residents.
“Unfortunately one person has passed away,” he said. “I offer my deepest condolences to family and friends.” The Crimean Health Ministry said at least nine people were injured.