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KYIV – Explosions that rocked a Russian military airfield in forcibly annexed Crimea signal the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south and a critical new phase in the war that could shape its ultimate outcome, two officials said Ukrainian officials at POLITICO.
Tuesday’s series of explosions sent huge balls of fire and mushrooms of black smoke into the sky, scattering terrified Russian holidaymakers who were seen in videos shared on social media scrambling for safety on a beach and fleeing by car over the Crimean Bridge to Russia.
Moscow played down the explosions, saying they were caused by ordnance that accidentally exploded at the airfield, where satellite images showed several military planes were stationed.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry coyly denied responsibility while warning of the dangers of smoking around explosives, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “this Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe has begun with Crimea and must end with Crimea – with its liberation. … I know that we will return to Ukrainian Crimea.
But two Ukrainian officials who spoke to POLITICO suggested more directly that Kyiv was behind the blasts. While Ukrainian forces have pushed in recent weeks to reclaim land towards the southern city of Kherson – which fell to the Russians at the start of the invasion – the two officials said explosions at the airfield indicated that this counterattack was now beginning in earnest.
A successful strike against a military target far behind Russian lines, and in particular on the Crimean peninsula, a place of great importance to the Kremlin which has largely avoided the intense fighting taking place on the Ukrainian mainland, would be deeply embarrassing. for President Vladimir Putin who probably see it as a dramatic escalation and a blow to the morale of his troops.
“The Kremlin has little interest in accusing Ukraine of having carried out strikes that caused damage, because such strikes would demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems, that the Ukrainian sinking of the [Russian flagship] Moskva had already disclosed,” wrote the Institute for the Study of War, an American think tank that tracks the conflict.
Asked by POLITICO if the blasts can be seen as the start of Ukraine’s counterattack in the south of the country, a Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak officially to reporters, answered in the affirmative.
“You can tell that’s it,” the official said.
A second Ukrainian official, who also spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told POLITICO that August and September would be “very important” months from a point of view. military, which would likely shape the ultimate outcome of the war.
The official warned that the intensity of fighting in August and September could “similar to February”, but declined to elaborate on that assessment, citing military secrecy.
The official said the airfield explosions were a message to Russia that they “are not safe anywhere”.
“Let them know how you feel,” the official added, referring to the fear and uncertainty that has spread across Ukraine, where Russia has fired more than 3,000 missiles since February 24. .
The Washington Post, citing a Ukrainian government official, reported that the attack was carried out by special forces.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat said in an interview with Ukrainian state television that the Saki airfield in the city of Novofedorivka, as well as other military airfields in Crimea , housed Russian planes that carried out airstrikes on Ukraine, the Interfax-Ukrainian News Agency reported.
“That’s why decommissioning any airfield is a very good thing,” he said, without explicitly confirming that Ukraine was responsible.
The Air Force reported on its Facebook page that nine Russian planes were destroyed.
The extent of the damage caused by the explosions at the airfield in Crimea remains uncertain. But any number of destroyed military aircraft would put a dent in Russian air forces that attacked targets in Ukraine.
Satellite imagery taken by Planet Lab four hours before the explosions and published by the Ukrainian Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Schemes investigative office showed more than 20 military aircraft parked at the airfield.
One second video published on social media which could not be independently verified by POLITICO appeared to show at least one completely destroyed Russian aircraft and a firefighter spraying down an area of the damaged airfield.
Tweet another video This seemed to show the consequences of the explosion, Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior, wrote: “It seems that there is no chance that a single plane remained intact.”
“The impact of yesterday’s explosion is nothing less than the destruction of the cruiser Moskva,” he added, referring to the Russian cruiser which was the flagship of his Black Sea Fleet until to be destroyed by two Ukrainian Neptune missiles in April. “Dozens of warplanes will no longer be able to drop bombs and missiles on us.”
Since May, Ukraine has been methodically preparing its southern counter-offensive in the regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
Ukraine is increasingly targeting critical infrastructure in and around Kherson, which Russia relies on to bolster and resupply its military. The Ukrainians are being aided by Western weapons, in particular the US-supplied HIMARS, or High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, which Kyiv forces have used to destroy the important Antonivskyi Bridge, forcing Russian troops to transport supplies across the wide Dnipro River.
Ukraine also trained new brigades and deployed them to the south where they slowly recaptured dozens of small towns and villages.
The Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions were overrun and captured by Russian forces early in the invasion largely due to internal security failures, local collaborators, and weak defenses. Regions are economically significant and of strategic importance due to their location. Together with the southern region of Donetsk, the three regions form a land bridge linking Russia with occupied Crimea and cutting off Ukraine from vital access to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea.
Ukraine’s focus on Kherson and Zaporizhzhia now stems largely from concern over Kremlin plans to cement control of the regions and thus the land bridge linking Russia with Crimea.
Russia also distributed passports to Ukrainians in Kherson and introduced the ruble as a currency.
The two Ukrainian officials, along with a third close to Zelenskyy with knowledge of the counteroffensive, told POLITICO they were certain that Russia would use its hand-picked proxies and local collaborators to organize illegal referendums in Ukrainian territories occupied on or about September 11.
What is unclear, one of the officials said, is whether the referendums will be held “Crimea style” or “Donbass style”.
The Russian-orchestrated vote in Crimea in April 2014 asked residents of the peninsula whether they wanted to join Russia, while votes in Moscow-controlled areas in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in May of the same year sought to legitimize the “independence” of these regions and “people’s republics”. Both referendums were condemned by the international community and largely went unrecognized except by Russia and various breakaway states.
Explaining the urgency for the military to counterattack now, the official close to Zelenskyy said he believed the momentum was in favor of Ukraine. Russian forces have not made much progress in the eastern Donbas region since the battles of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, from which Ukraine made tactical retreats in June and July, respectively. And Russian morale is low, the official said.
Moreover, reclaiming the south, the official said, would allow Ukraine to negotiate from a stronger position if or when talks between Kyiv and Moscow resume.
In addition, the official added, Ukrainians trapped in Russian-occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are waiting to see if Kyiv will be able to “liberate” them or if they will remain stuck under Kremlin control.
“The longer our people are stuck under Russian occupation, the more we risk losing them,” the official said.