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Russia blames ‘sabotage’ as Ukraine special forces strike again in Crimea

A senior Ukrainian government official said the explosions on Aug. 16 in Russian-occupied Crimea were the work of Ukrainian special forces. (Video: Reuters)

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian special forces struck deep inside the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula for the second time in less than a week on Tuesday, blowing up an ammunition depot and also possibly an air force base, according to Russian media and Ukrainian government officials.

The Russian Defense Ministry and local media reported a huge explosion at an ammunition storage warehouse in the Dzhankoi area of the Crimean Peninsula, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014 and had been considered safe from Ukrainian attack because it is too far from the front lines to be hit by Ukraine’s most advanced conventional weapons.

The Defense Ministry blamed “an act of sabotage” for the blast.

A senior Ukrainian government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, said the explosion was the work of Ukrainian special forces — the same force believed responsible for a powerful attack against a Russian air base in western Crimea last week that signaled a growing role for covert operations in Ukraine’s efforts to battle the Russian invasion.

Videos posted on social media showed a huge fire raging at the storage depot amid multiple secondary explosions as the ammunition ignited, sending rockets and shells shooting into the sky. At least two people were injured and 3,000 residents living nearby were evacuated, local media said.

Later Tuesday, Russian media reported that the Crimean authorities were investigating the possibility of a second attack against a different air base in southern Crimea. Several explosions were heard at a military air base in the village of Hvardiiske, not far from Simferopol, the Russian news outlet Kommersant said.

Around midday local time Tuesday, Oleksiy Arestovych, a military adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote in a Telegram post: “New explosions — at the military air base in Gvardeisky,” referring to the apparent second attack in southern Crimea.

Zelensky, in his nightly address, also mentioned Crimea on Tuesday. He urged Ukrainians there and in other hot spots to avoid Russian military installations and equipment.

“Please do not approach the military objects of the Russian army and all those places where they store ammunition and equipment, where they keep their headquarters,” he said.

He added that the recent scenes showing Russian tourists fleeing the peninsula were proof that they understood “Crimea is not a place for them.”

Crimea airfield blast was work of Ukrainian special forces, official says

The Crimea attacks mark a major strategic setback for Russia, which relies on the peninsula as a staging point to support its military operations across the stretch of southern Ukraine captured from Ukrainian forces in the first days of the war. The Kerch bridge connecting Crimea to mainland Russia serves as a hub for supplies of everything from food to military vehicles and ammunition for Russian troops fighting on the front lines — and now those supply lines can’t be considered safe.

Crimea is also a major Russian tourist destination, more so now that sanctions have made it harder for Russians to visit vacation spots further afield. Explosions rocking the peninsula Russia declared as its territory in 2014 are an embarrassment to the Kremlin’s efforts to portray the invasion of Ukraine as a success. Videos posted online have shown a fresh exodus of cars and rail passengers out of the peninsula, following mass departures in the wake of last week’s explosion at the air base.

The attacks also signal a new phase in Ukraine’s efforts to battle the Russian invasion, in which covert forces led by the Ukrainian special forces are carrying out acts of sabotage behind Russian lines, disrupting Russia’s ability to keep its front-line troops supplied and reinforced. Ukrainian officials have described how operatives with the special forces are infiltrating Russian-held territory and linking up with local loyalists to stage acts of sabotage.

Some are small in scale and barely reported, such as a spate of assassinations against Russian officials and Ukrainians who have collaborated with Russians, mostly in southern Ukraine. These large-scale recent attacks against key military installations appear to herald a bolder attempt to disrupt Russia’s capacity to sustain military operations in Ukraine, experts say.

“Hitting depots and breaking the logistics chain means Moscow won’t be able to bomb us constantly with missile strikes that keep the country in fear,” said Liubov Tsybulska, an adviser to the government in Ukraine and founder of the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security. “It’s crucial we not allow them to do this.”

She cited the example of the air base attacked last week that was also used by Russian warplanes launching cruise missile attacks against cities across Ukraine. The frequency of those has fallen since the attack and could fall further.

Apart from confirming that special forces were involved, Ukrainian officials have not revealed how the attacks were carried out. One possibility is that undercover operatives were able to penetrate the facilities and plant explosives, detonating them from somewhere nearby. Another is that operatives launched exploding drones from sites in the vicinity, military experts say.

Regardless, the attacks demonstrate the strides that Ukraine has made in developing its relatively new special forces capabilities, Tsybulska said.

“The development of our special forces is very recent and has resulted from assistance from Western countries,” she said. The special forces are “highly motivated” and unburdened by the country’s legacy of Soviet institutions, she added.

Although Kyiv has not officially claimed any of the attacks, Ukrainian officials took to social media on Tuesday to celebrate the latest explosions and hint that they form part of an operation called “demilitarization.”

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, described the explosions as “demilitarization in action” on his Twitter account. He added that Crimea poses a “high risk of death for invaders and thieves.”

“Operation ‘demilitarization’ in the high-precision style of Ukrainian Armed Forces will continue until the complete de-occupation of Ukrainian territories,” Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, said on Twitter. “Our soldiers are the best sponsors of a good mood,” he added. “Crimea is Ukraine.”

Timsit reported from France. Adela Suliman in London and Reis Thebault in Washington contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

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