Will the Crimea explosions escalate the Ukraine war?

If an increasingly confident Kyiv is indeed responsible for the blasts, it will mark a huge setback for Moscow

People rest on a beach as smoke and flames rise after explosions at a Russian military air base in Novofedorivka, Crimea, on Tuesday. Reuters
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By any standard, the series of blasts that struck a key Russian air base in the Crimean peninsula on Tuesday represents a significant escalation in the Ukraine conflict, one that raises questions about Mosow’s ability to defend key bases.

At a time when many Russians remain oblivious to the deadly carnage being wrought by the six-month-long conflict, the image of thick plumes of smoke rising from Russia’s Novofedorivka air base near the Black Sea resort of Saky was witnessed by crowds of holiday makers sunning themselves on the nearby beaches.

While the precise cause of the blasts has still to be confirmed, there is mounting speculation that the base was subjected to a skillfully executed Ukrainian attack, while the Kremlin insists that it was the result of a munitions dump exploding.

Either way, once the dust had settled, satellite images showed that the base had been severely hit, with large areas of the airfield suffering extensive damage and a significant number of Russian warplanes knocked out of action.

The fact that a major Russian air base, used to provide vital air cover for its forces, has suffered such extensive damage inevitably raises suspicions that the attack was the work of the Ukrainian military.

An infrared overview of Saki air base in Novofedorivka, Crimea, on Wednesday. Reuters
A Ukrainian attack inside Crimea demonstrates a growing sense of confidence among Ukrainian commanders

Kyiv was not slow to exploit the propaganda benefits of the incident, with its air force claiming that at least nine warplanes had been destroyed. "Saky! Minus nine aircraft of the invaders," the Air Force Command wrote on Facebook. Crimea’s Health Department said that one person was killed and six others injured in the explosions.

And while Ukrainian officials have been reluctant to claim responsibility, fearing that it might provoke a significant Russian response, Kyiv has made it abundantly clear that it regards Russian bases in Crimea, which Moscow occupied and annexed in 2014, as being legitimate targets.

In his nightly address just hours after the explosions, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy insisted his country’s ultimate ambition was to retake the peninsula. “This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea – its liberation,” he said. "We will never give it up … the Black Sea region cannot be safe while Crimea is occupied."

While Kyiv might be reluctant to confirm its role in the devastation, all the indications suggest it was the result of a carefully executed operation by its military. Initial reports claimed the damage had been caused by a series of long-range missile strikes carried out after Kyiv had taken delivery of its latest batch of sophisticated western weaponry.

An anonymous government official also told The Washington Post that the attack had been carried out by an elite team of special forces operating deep behind enemy lines. The official declined to share details on how the raid was conducted.

Moscow’s insistence that the explosions at the base were the result of an accident was quickly dismissed by western leaders. “That air force base has been used by [the] Russian air force to bomb Ukrainian targets,” British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said. “It’s absolutely legitimate for Ukraine to take lethal force, if necessary, but take force in order to regain not only its territory, but also to push back its invader.”

Mr Wallace was speaking as Britain announced it was increasing its military aid to Ukraine by sending it more of its M270 multiple-launch rocket systems. This month, the US announced it was sending an extra $1 billion worth of military equipment, including America’s High Mobility Rocket System (Himars), which have a longer range than Russian missile systems, and have enabled the Ukrainians to thwart Russia’s attempts to seize control of territory to the south and east of the country.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during the donor conference for Ukraine at Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen on Thursday. AP Photo

With the help of this sophisticated weaponry, the Ukrainian military has not only frustrated the Russian advance in the Donbas region, but also put itself in a position to launch an offensive to recapture the strategically important city of Kherson on the Dnipro River.

Moreover, if it transpires that Ukraine did carry out the Saky attack, it would represent a significant intensification in Kyiv's war-fighting capabilities.

To date, it has confined its efforts primarily to defending Ukrainian territory, hitting Russian positions close to its border with the aim of disrupting Moscow's war effort. By contrast, the Russians have regularly launched cruise missiles deep inside Ukraine – including on Kyiv – in a bid to disrupt its military operations and weaken its morale.

An Ukrainian attack inside Crimea, however, is an entirely different proposition. It demonstrates both a growing sense of confidence among Ukrainian commanders, as well as a willingness to extend the fighting deep into Russian-controlled territory.

The extensive damage to Saky could have an impact on Moscow’s ability to defend Kherson, widely seen as the gateway to the Crimea, which was captured by Russian forces in the early days of the war, and whose recapture now appears to be one of Kyiv’s main priorities.

But while the Ukrainians believe the tide of the conflict is beginning to turn in their favour, Moscow seems in no mood to give up on its quest to defeat Ukraine, especially on the sensitive issue of Crimea.

Only weeks ago, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now serving as deputy national security adviser, promised to unleash “judgment day” if Ukraine ever attacked Crimea. So if Kyiv really did carry out the Saky attack, it should prepare itself for a significant Russian response.

Published: August 11, 2022, 2:30 PM