KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The Ukrainian Air Force said Wednesday that nine Russian warplanes were destroyed in a series of deadly explosions at an air base in Crimea, amid speculation that the blasts were the result of a Ukrainian attack which would represent a significant escalation of war.
Russia has denied that a plane was damaged in Tuesday’s explosions – or that an attack has taken place.
Ukrainian officials have refrained from publicly claiming responsibility for the explosions, while mocking Russia’s explanation that a careless smoker could have caused the fire and explosion of munitions at Saki air base. Analysts also said that this explanation made no sense and that the Ukrainians could have used anti-ship missiles to hit the base.
If Ukrainian forces were, in fact, responsible for the explosions, it would be the first known major attack on a Russian military site in the Crimean peninsula, which was seized from Ukraine by the Kremlin in 2014. Russian fighters used Saki to hit areas. in southern Ukraine.
Crimea is of enormous strategic and symbolic importance for both sides. The Kremlin’s demand that Ukraine recognize Crimea as part of Russia was one of its main conditions for ending the fighting, while Ukraine pledged to drive the Russians out of the peninsula and all other occupied territories.
Hours after the explosions, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy again promised to do just that.
“This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea – its liberation,” he said in his evening speech.
The explosions, which killed one person and injured 14, sent panicking tourists fleeing as plumes of smoke rose above the nearby coast. The video showed broken windows and holes in the masonry of some buildings.
A tourist, Natalia Lipovaya, said “the earth disappeared under my feet” after the powerful explosions. “I was so scared,” she said.
Sergey Milochinsky, a local resident, recalled hearing a roar and seeing a mushroom cloud from his window. “Everything started to fall, to crumble,” he said.
Crimean regional head Sergei Aksyonov said some 250 residents had been moved to temporary accommodation after dozens of buildings were damaged.
But Russian authorities sought to downplay the blasts on Wednesday, saying not all hotels and beaches were affected on the peninsula, which is a popular tourist destination for many Russians.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, cryptically stated that the explosions were caused either by a Ukrainian-made long-range weapon or by the work of Ukrainian guerrillas operating in Crimea.
“Official Kyiv kept silent about it, but unofficially the army recognizes that it was a Ukrainian strike,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.
The base on the Black Sea peninsula, which hangs south of Ukraine, is at least 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) from the nearest Ukrainian position – beyond the range of US-supplied missiles. United for use in HIMARS launchers.
HIMARS can also fire longer-range rockets with a range of up to 300 kilometers (about 185 miles), and Ukraine has repeatedly advocated for such weapons despite US fears that their supply could provoke Russia and widen the conflict. The explosions raised speculation that Ukraine had finally obtained the weapons.
But Zhdanov suggested that Ukrainian forces could have struck the airbase with Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles which have a range of around 200 kilometers (125 miles), or with Western-supplied Harpoon anti-ship missiles which can reach about 300 kilometers (185 miles).
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of Warfare said it could not independently determine the cause of the explosions, but noted that simultaneous explosions at two locations on the base likely ruled out an accidental fire , but not sabotage or missile attack.
But he added: “The Kremlin has little interest in accusing Ukraine of carrying out strikes that caused damage, because such strikes would demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems.”
During the war, the Kremlin reported numerous fires and explosions on Russian territory near the Ukrainian border, blaming some of them on Ukrainian strikes. Ukrainian authorities have mostly kept quiet about the incidents, preferring to keep the world guessing.
In other developments, Russian forces shelled areas across Ukraine overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday, including the central Dnipropetrovsk region, where 13 people were killed, according to regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko. .
Reznichenko said the Russians fired on the town of Marganets and a nearby village. Dozens of residential buildings, two schools and several administrative buildings were damaged.
“It was a terrible night,” Reznichenko said. “It is very difficult to get bodies out from under the rubble. We face a cruel enemy who indulges in daily terror against our towns and villages.
Russian forces also continued to shell the town of Nikopol across the Dnieper from the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. It is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Ukraine and Russia accused each other of bombing itstoking international fears of catastrophe.
On Wednesday, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized democracies demanded that Russia immediately return full control of the plant to Ukraine. They say they are “deeply concerned” by the risk of a nuclear accident with serious consequences.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine