Shortly before 3:20 p.m. on Aug. 9, Nikolay Abbasov, a resident of Saki, near Crimea’s western Black Sea coast, heard an explosion. Walking to his window, he filmed a cloud of smoke rising in the distance. At almost the same moment, a Russian influencer, Diana Andreeva, was enjoying the beach in nearby Novofedorivka when she turned her camera to capture the cloud, which was rising from Saki air base, home to the Russian Navy’s 43rd Independent Naval Attack Aviation Regiment.
Source: Aug. 10 control data via Institute for the
Study of War
THE WASHINGTON POST
About 50 minutes later, both would capture two massive explosions at the base, capping an alleged attack claimed by Ukraine that killed at least one person and injured 13 others, according to Russian officials. The blasts left at least eight military aircraft destroyed or significantly damaged and wrecked parts of the facility, according to defense sources, military analysts and a review of satellite imagery. If Ukraine was responsible, the attack would be one of its most audacious of the war, playing out in front of residents and tourists deep into Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014.
To better understand what happened in Saki, The Washington Post analyzed more than two dozen videos, spoke to eyewitnesses, and consulted eight military and geospatial experts, confirming that at least six explosions rocked the base over the course of nearly an hour.
Anonymous Ukrainian officials have said the attack was carried out by the country’s special forces or guerrilla fighters known as “partisans,” but have provided few details. Resistance fighters have been active in Kherson, which neighbors Crimea to the north, where they’ve been blamed for assassinations.
A senior Pentagon official on Friday told reporters that Ukraine had selected the target and that the Defense Department hadn’t determined what weapons were used. A news article on the Pentagon’s website does not attribute an attack to Ukraine.
Russia said the incident resulted from the accidental detonation of munitions at the site — a theory that The Post’s analysis does not rule out. Crimean leader Sergey Aksyonov raised the terrorist threat level to “yellow” but did not comment on Ukraine’s potential involvement.
Ukraine’s vague explanations have inspired various theories from analysts, including that special forces planted explosive charges at the base or used drones to fire or deliver bombs, or that the country’s military used a precision weapon with a range beyond systems it is known to operate.
Experts said The Post’s analysis raises questions about how any attack was conducted, and whether it benefited from secondary blasts caused by fires at the base.
“The question remains: How many of these explosions were caused by independent events, versus a chain effect of initial exploding ordnance or fuel that then caught other ordnance or fuel on fire?” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp.
‘The sky is pitch black’
The Post synchronized videos and images shared on social media confirming at least a half-dozen explosions at Saki air base. Witnesses told The Post that they heard more.
Shortly before 3:20 p.m., Abbasov filmed smoke from the first blast identified by The Post. “It just hit so hard — it made my bed shake,” he says in the video. The footage matches accounts of other witnesses, and a Russian Defense Ministry statement that said “several aircraft munitions detonated at an enclosed storage site” at “about 3.20 p.m.”
Andreeva, the influencer, filmed that initial explosion and posted an edited video showing several blasts, along with her reactions, on Instagram.
Another explosion was recorded minutes later. One video, taken north of the base, briefly captures a small flash. Less than a second later a fireball erupts, then turns into a mushroom cloud. The Post confirmed the order of the blasts by examining smoke and confirming the timing with multiple witnesses.
Residents and beachgoers in Novofedorivka filmed the same explosion.
Photographer Dmitry Filatov was at home in Novofedorivka when he started hearing booms. After the second, he left to check on his grandfather, who lives close to the air base. “On the way back, the third explosion happened as I was walking by the neighboring building,” Filatov told The Post. “The shock wave blew the windows out in the building and they flew towards us.”
At 3:44 p.m., Abbasov photographed a small cloud rising from a bed of smoke, which he described as the aftermath of another blast. Video taken from a nearby residential building caught the same cloud, as well as a separate blast.
At about 4:11 p.m., Abbasov recorded the aftermath of two huge explosions. A Post analysis of other footage shows the blasts occurred a fraction of a second apart, suggesting one may have triggered the other, known as a sympathetic explosion, according to Justin Bronk, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
Andreeva also filmed the dual blasts, and confirmed they took place about 4:11 p.m. “They keep getting louder and louder,” she says in her Instagram video. “The sky is pitch black.” Other videos showed the two fireballs turn into smoke and rise into the sky.
‘It’s a mystery’
Satellite imagery examined by The Post confirmed significant damage in at least four locations at the base that analysts said were probably used for storage. It also showed that fires had burned extensively at the base and crept toward Novofedorivka. Planes were damaged despite being parked within protective blast walls known as revetments. Despite the heavy toll, analysts said the airfield remains functional. Videos and photographs examined by The Post showed blown-out windows and damaged homes in the town.
Experts consulted by The Post agreed that no piece of evidence comprehensively explained what occurred Tuesday. But video and satellite analysis offer clues.
Massicot, who examined imagery captured in May, said she found that the base regularly stored ammunition or other supplies near or in aircraft parking areas, a vulnerability she says Ukraine may have spotted.
“By targeting storage safety problems, whatever caused this explosion was able to do significant damage to fixed-wing fighter aircraft,” she said.
In an assessment released Friday, the U.K. Defense Ministry said it hadn’t confirmed “the original cause of the blasts,” but that “the large mushroom clouds visible in eyewitness video were almost certainly from the detonation of up to four uncovered munition storage areas.”
Bronk said the delay between explosions at the base made it unlikely that missiles were responsible for all the damage. A more plausible scenario, he said, was that Ukrainian forces were close enough to fly drones, and were able to either drop small munitions or fly directly into targets, causing wider explosions. “You can almost picture the bad damage control,” he said.
Mark F. Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the damage to planes in revetments suggested they could have been targeted. An analysis conducted by the defense intelligence provider Janes also assessed that the air base was likely struck by “relatively large munitions.”
The base is over 140 miles from the closest front line, and Cancian acknowledged that nothing known to be used by Ukraine explained what happened at the airfield. No available videos show projectiles moving toward the base.
“All of the indicators don’t lead in a single direction,” Cancian told The Post. “It’s such a mystery.”
The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.