Aug 11, 2022 - World

Explosions at Russian base show Crimea now in play in Ukraine war

A satellite image captured on Aug. 10 shows the aftermath of explosions at Russia's Saki Air Base in southwest Crimea. Satellite photo: Planet Labs PBC

A series of explosions this week at a Russian military base on the Crimean coast carries major symbolic and strategic ramifications for both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Why it matters: Satellite images appear to confirm that the explosions — which sent frantic Russian tourists scrambling off a nearby beach — badly damaged several Russian warplanes.

  • The explosions will likely inject a new sense of vulnerability into Russia's use of Crimea as its transport and logistics hub while it braces for a Ukrainian offensive in Kherson, to the north of Crimea.
  • Russia has routed thousands of troops from the Donbas, via Crimea, to reinforce its positions in southern Ukraine.
  • The explosions also brought the war home to a small sliver of Russia's civilian population. Videos of traffic jams on the bridge connecting the peninsula to Russia — presumably as Russian tourists abandoned their vacations — were shared online.

State of play: Ukraine has not officially claimed or denied responsibility for the explosions, but an unnamed Ukrainian official told the Washington Post the attack was carried out by special forces operating behind the Russian lines.

  • Meanwhile, Reuters speculates that these were long-range strikes, potentially indicating a new Ukrainian capability "with potential to change the course of the war." That's all unconfirmed.
  • Moscow, however, said this was all just a minor ammunition explosion — a claim belied by satellite images and mocked by Ukraine's Ministry of Defense, which released a video advising Russians to choose a vacation destination other than Crimea, which will be "unpleasantly hot."
  • Asked what he thought of the explosions, Ukrainian Cpl. Andrii Shadrin — who is from Crimea and has been corresponding with Axios while fighting in the Donbas — repurposed a recent quote from Putin: "I think, 'we have not even begun.'"
  • If Ukrainian forces were indeed behind the explosions, the strikes would be the first major attack inside Crimea, which Russia occupied in 2014, since the war began.

The most significant remark came from Zelensky, who proclaimed Tuesday that the war must end with the "liberation" of Crimea.

Between the lines: Zelensky previously acknowledged in an interview with Axios that attempting to take Crimea by force could result in "hundreds of thousands" of casualties, a price he implied would be too high.

  • While Ukraine is unlikely to launch a full-scale operation to retake the peninsula, some officials and analysts worry that such statements could set unrealistic expectations for any eventual peace deal.
  • While Crimea has major symbolic resonance for Ukrainians, it's also one of Putin's crowning achievements and not one he'd abandon easily.

What to watch: Both Ukraine and Russia are building up their forces near Kherson in expectation of a major new phase of fighting there. Russia's offensive in the east appears to have slowed as the focus shifts south.

  • In the meantime, Ukraine has been using U.S.-provided HIMARS rocket systems to destroy bridges and Russian supply depots.

Meanwhile: The UN and G7 are sounding the alarm over shelling near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, also in southern Ukraine.

  • UN Secretary-General António Guterres Thursday reiterated his call for an immediate cessation of fighting in the area, which he has called "suicidal." Russia and Ukraine blame one another.
  • Russian forces captured the plant in March and have reportedly forced its Ukrainian staff to keep it operating. The head of the UN's nuclear watchdog has warned that the plant is "out of control" and requested immediate access to inspect it.
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