ODESA, Ukraine — After explosions ripped through a Russian airbase in Crimea on Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry quickly downplayed the extent of the damage and said an ammunition explosion had left no casualties and no equipment had been destroyed.
Videos from the scene and an assessment by local officials, who declared a state of emergencyThey told a different storywith at least a dead personmore than a dozen wounded and hundreds moved to shelters.
More of 60 apartment buildings were damaged, along with 20 stores and other buildings, authorities said. And on the base grounds, after they were cleared the huge columns of smokethe remains of a fighter plane could be seen apparently melted on the track. Satellite images showed craters, burn marks and at least eight fighter jets destroyed.
Satellite images showed craters, burn marks and at least eight fighter jets destroyed. Photo: Reuters
The images and the report by local officials contradicted the Kremlin’s earlier account of what had happened in Crimea, a strategic peninsula in southern Ukraine that Russia illegally annexed in 2014, and suggested that the destruction there was much greater than acknowledged.
Shame on Putin
If Ukraine’s armed forces and partisans were responsible for the explosions, as a senior Ukrainian official said, it would represent not only a shame for President Vladimir Putin, who often celebrates the annexation, but also a challenge to the ability of its armed forces to defend occupied territory that it has heavily fortified for years.
It is not yet clear whether the blasts will hamper Russia’s ability to defend against a developing counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces in the south. But the extensive damage to areas near the blast, along with satellite imagery and video of the plane’s wreckage, suggest significant destruction of military assets that will be crucial as Russia tries to hold on to occupied territories in the early days of the war. war.
The base houses fighter jets and helicopters that Ukrainian authorities say have been used to lethal effect in the battle for Ukraine’s Black Sea coastal region. Ukraine’s military intelligence service named several dozen pilots from the base whom it accused of carrying out attacks on civilian areas.
The damage to the air base itself was difficult to assess on Wednesday. A video that emerged later, verified by The New York Times, showed the charred nose cone of a fighter jet, its fuselage a black, shapeless mass.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the episode was caused by the explosion of ammunition stored for aircraft base combat. The statement did not mention Ukraine or its military.
The satellite images, compiled by the company Planet Labs and reviewed by the Times, questioned the Russian version of the damage. The images, one taken hours before the blasts and one taken a day after, showed not random debris from a single explosion, but what appeared to be three large detonation craters.
The footage showed at least eight destroyed fighter jets, Su-30 and Su-24 fighter jets, all parked on the tarmac of the airbase. Two buildings near the aircraft were also completely destroyed, with damage and large burn marks visible in other parts of the military base.
Other parts of the airbase They seemed intact including several helicopters and a large ammunition depot.
Before the explosion. Photo: AFP/ Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies
After. Photo: AFP PHOTO / Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies
Local officials, struggling to explain and cope with the destruction, offered more details about what had happened at the base on Crimea’s western coast. The Kremlin-installed leader of the peninsula, Sergei Aksyonovsaid on Wednesday that 252 people had been moved to shelters due to damage to homes.
At least 62 apartment buildings and 20 commercial structures were damaged in the blast, he said on Telegram, and authorities were still cataloging damage to private homes.
Ukraine has not officially taken responsibility for the explosions, which surprised bathers in a nearby Black Sea resort. But a senior Ukrainian military official said Wednesday that the ukrainian special forcesalong with local resistance fighters loyal to the Kyiv government, They were behind the explosion.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters, the senior official did not disclose the type of weapon used in the attack, saying only that “a device was used exclusively Ukrainian-made”.
Combination of images show the before and after of the explosions. Photo: AFP / Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies
it was not clear what Ukraine would have worn to cause the explosions. Ukraine has few weapons that can reach the peninsula, aside from planes that would be at risk of being shot down immediately by Russia’s heavy air defenses. The airbase, near the town of Novofedorivka, is about 200 miles from the nearest Ukrainian military position, which reduces the probability of a missile attack be responsible.
An attack on a target in Crimea, which Russia has transformed during eight years of occupation into a bristling military center, would also represent an expansion of Ukraine’s military reach since the invasion began in February.
Although fighting has raged for weeks in southern Ukraine, including near Europe’s largest nuclear plant, Crimea’s distance and defenses have kept her away of the Ukrainian attacks.
Videos reviewed and verified by the Times showed that a column of smoke was rising from the air base just before at least three explosions: two in quick succession and a third a few moments later. It is not clear from the videos what caused the explosions.
The senior Ukrainian official did not reveal whether the local resistance forces, known as partisanscarried out the attack or helped Ukrainian military units attack the base, as has happened on occasion in other Russian-occupied territories.
To hit targets deep behind enemy lines, Ukraine has increasingly resorted to guerrillas in those territories, officials said. Partisans, for example, have helped Ukrainian forces attack Russian bases and ammunition depots in the Kherson region, Ukrainian officials say.
The Ukrainian military and its allies, often acting in coordination, have succeeded in attacking Russian targets on occupied territory. far from the front. Russia has also suffered attacks within its own borders, including a helicopter raid on a fuel depot and fires at another fuel depot, both relatively close to Ukrainian territory.
Ukrainian officials have insinuated their involvement in these attacks, but they have not publicly admitted their responsibility. On Tuesday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said that could not “determine the cause of the explosion” in Crimea and suggested that base personnel adhere to no smoking rules.
Russia has tried to crush the resistance in the occupied areas, using fear and indoctrination to force the Ukrainians to adopt Russian documents, currency and television.
In towns and cities of Kherson, Russian-backed authorities arrested hundreds of people and set the stage for referendums on unification with Russialike the one held in Crimea in 2014, denounced as illegitimate by Ukraine and the West.
Ukraine has pushed to recapture territory in the south in recent weeks, but as the fighting has intensified, so have fears about the nuclear facility in the region, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe.
A Russian soldier stands guard at the Zaporizhzhia power plant. Photo: AP
Russian forces have used the facility for weeks as base to launch attacksknowing that it is difficult for Ukraine return fire without threatening the plant’s reactors, according to Ukrainian authorities and independent analysts.
However, fighting seems to be increasing around the facility. Overnight, Russian forces fired Grad missiles at the nearby city of Nikopol from across the Dnieper River, killing at least 13 civilians and wounding 11 others, a Ukrainian military officer in the region, Valentyn, said on Telegram on Wednesday. Reznichenko.
It was not clear if the overnight attack came from the nuclear plant grounds. On Saturday, the rocket launch hit a fuel storage facility spent dry in the plant itself. Ukraine and Russia blamed each other for the episode, leading the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, Rafael Mariano Grossi, to express “serious concern” about the fighting.
According to information provided by Ukraine, Grossi said Tuesday that there was no immediate threat to nuclear security as a result of Saturday’s incident. He again called for a team of UN nuclear experts to be allowed go to the plant as soon as possible to help stabilize the situation.
c.2022 The New York Times Company