The airbase in Crimea that was rocked by explosions is a “legitimate target” for Ukraine, the UK’s defence secretary has said, despite Kyiv maintaining its silence.
Ben Wallace disregarded Russia’s explanations for the blasts, which killed one and injured more than a dozen, saying the fireballs could not have been caused by “someone dropping a cigarette”.
The Ukrainian air force said nine Russian warplanes were destroyed in a series of blasts at the Saky airfield this week, but Kyiv has not claimed responsibility for the incident.
Moscow denied that the site had come under attack by the Ukrainians, with a defence official telling the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency that the main cause of the explosions was “a violation of fire safety requirements”.
The source said there were “no signs, evidence, much less facts of intentional impacts on munitions with the aim of detonation”.
Ukrainian officials have suggested their forces were involved and a senior presidential aide said the blasts were “just the beginning” of efforts to reclaim Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov suggested ― to the amusement of many on social media ― that discarded cigarette butts sparked the blasts.
Mr Wallace said it was clear that the explosions at the base were not caused by “someone dropping a cigarette” and dismissed Russia’s excuses.
“We’ve pretty much dismissed most of the Russian, I think, excuses ― everything from a cigarette butt, I think was one of them, that might have set off two simultaneous large explosions,” he told the BBC.
“I think when you just look at the footage of two simultaneous explosions not quite next to each other, and some of the reported damage even by the Russian authorities, I think it’s clear that that’s not something that happens by someone dropping a cigarette.”
Mr Wallace said he believed anyone’s “manual of war” would consider the site on the Crimean Peninsula to be a “legitimate target” for Ukraine to hit.
Mr Wallace said it was “very early days” and the UK would “see what information comes out” about the incident at Saky.
Asked if the base was a legitimate target for the Ukrainians to strike, Mr Wallace said: “First and foremost, Russia has illegally invaded, not just in 2014, but now Ukrainian territory.
“Ukraine, under United Nations articles, is perfectly entitled to defend its territory and take what action it needs to against an invading force.
“So, is it legitimate? 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.
“And that air force base has been used by Russian air forces to bomb Ukrainian targets. So I think in anybody’s sort of manual of war, it would be a legitimate target.”
If confirmed, a Ukrainian strike on the airbase, located about 200 kilometres from the nearest front lines, would be a significant show of strength by Kyiv in the conflict.
Satellite imagery also shows aircraft individually destroyed in their open-air revetments. The pictures are unclear on whether there are craters from potential missile strikes.
There has been speculation that the explosions deep behind Russian lines could have been the work of Ukrainian special forces.
An anonymous Ukrainian government official told The Washington Post that special forces had carried out the attack.
It is possible that members of the elite unit were able to penetrate Saky airbase and place explosives on individual aircraft before withdrawing.
The munitions were most probably on a timer to give the troops time to leave the scene. The explosions occurred during the day, with beachgoers nearby witnessing the aftermath.
It is unclear whether any incoming missiles were heard before the strike.
As yet, Ukraine also does not have the capability for long-range strikes, with its US-supplied Himars missiles currently having a range of 85km.
It is also possible a killer drone could have been used, similar to those used by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in an attack on the UAE in January.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy repeated the air force’s statement that nine Russian planes had been destroyed at Saky.
“In just one day, the occupiers lost 10 combat aircraft, nine in Crimea and one more in the direction of Zaporizhzhia,” he said in his nightly video address to the nation.
More Russian armoured vehicles, ammunition warehouses and logistics routes were also destroyed, he said.
People living in occupied territories should do all they can to aid Ukraine’s security services and military in expelling Russian forces, Mr Zelenskyy said.
“Only by ensuring Russia’s defeat on the battlefield, only by Russian losses ― military, political, economic ― can the return of security for Ukraine and the whole of Europe be brought closer,” the president added.
Defence ministers from nations supporting Kyiv met during the Copenhagen Conference for Northern European Defence Allies of Ukraine on Thursday to discuss the provision of more weapons, training and funding.
Mr Wallace on Thursday announced that the UK would send more multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) to Ukraine as part of an enduring commitment to help the country defend itself against Russia’s invasion.
Britain will also give a significant number of precision-guided M31A1 missiles, which can strike targets up to 80km away, enabling Ukraine to continue to defend itself against Moscow’s heavy artillery.
“This latest tranche of military support will enable the armed forces of Ukraine to continue to defend against Russian aggression and the indiscriminate use of long-range artillery,” Mr Wallace said.
Ukrainian troops have been trained in the UK on how to use the launchers, and the UK has also committed to training 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers in infantry battlefield skills over the coming months. Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands have all announced they will be supporting the programme.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Berlin “is shipping arms — a great, great many, sweeping and very effective. And we will continue to do so in the coming time”.
Germany, seen early in the war as an ally offering only sluggish support, has already approved military exports of at least $710 million. Mr Scholz said Germany’s commitment to such exports was a “massive” break with its past. He added that Berlin would also provide further financial aid to Ukraine.
Denmark said a new contribution of $113m would push the total amount of funding from the small Scandinavian nation of 5.8 million to more than $500m.
“We will not let you down,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said as she opened a donors' conference.
Meanwhile, Russia's defence industry is suffering significant setbacks because of the war in Ukraine, the British Army said, and is “highly unlikely to be capable of fulfilling some export orders for armoured fighting vehicles”.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence said the effects of the West’s sanctions on the Russian economy, coupled with the high demand for army vehicles by Moscow’s forces fighting in Ukraine, mean output is low.
“Russia has long considered the defence industry to be one of its most important export successes,” the ministry said in an update on Twitter.
“However, its military industrial capacity is now under significant strain, and the credibility of many of its weapon systems has been undermined by their association with Russian forces’ poor performance in the Ukraine war.”