Explosions at a Russian air force base on Crimea triggered an evacuation of local residents as Ukrainian officials vowed to liberate the peninsula, though Kyiv didn’t take responsibility for the blasts.
The Russian Defense Ministry said that the explosions, which came as Ukraine presses on with a counteroffensive aimed at liberating the south of the country from Russian control, were caused by exploding air-force ammunition and there was no shelling of any kind aimed at the base. Aircraft stationed there were undamaged and there had been no injuries, the ministry said.
The blasts bring the nearly six-month war closer to home for Russians who have largely experienced the war as an intervention on Ukrainian territory. An overwhelming majority of Russians supported the country’s seizure of the peninsula in 2014, and it became a popular tourist destination.
Ukrainians greeted the explosions, regardless of their cause, as a sign that Crimea, which Kyiv wants back, was in play after eight years in which they could do little about its loss.
“This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea—its liberation,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his Tuesday evening address.
The explosions took place shortly after 3 p.m. at the Novofedorivka air force base on the Black Sea coast, which borders a popular tourist resort, the ministry said.
Explosions could be heard around the area for around an hour on Tuesday afternoon, eyewitnesses told Russian state media.
Footage circulated on social media appeared to show explosions followed by thick columns of smoke billowing from the site, which also includes ammunition and fuel depots of what is one of the largest Russian military installations in the region. Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula—the longtime home of its Black Sea fleet—in 2014, when it also fomented a breakaway movement of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The location, long a source of Russian power, enables Moscow to control much of the Black Sea and access to the Ukrainian coast.
Scores of emergency services were dispatched to the affected area which was undergoing evacuation, Russian officials told the Tass and RIA state-run news agencies.
One civilian died because of an emergency near the village of Novofedorivka in the Saksky district of Crimea, Sergei Aksenov, the Russia-backed head of Crimea, said on social media. “I express my most sincere condolences to the family and friends. All necessary assistance will be provided,” he said.
Crimean healthcare authorities said nine people were injured by the explosions, according to Tass and RIA.
The association of Russian tour-operators said there were no casualties among tourists.
There was no clear indication that Ukraine was behind the explosions. Ukrainian lawmaker Rustem Umerov, a special envoy for Mr. Zelensky, tweeted shortly after the blast that “Crimea is Ukraine. We will de-occupy it soon.”
Another Ukrainian presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said on Twitter that “the future of the Crimea is to be a pearl of the Black Sea, a national park with unique nature and a world resort. Not a military base for terrorists.”
Ukraine has in the past declined to take responsibility for fires at fuel and ammunition depots in Russian regions along its border and the sinking of the Moskva cruiser in the Black Sea, even as some officials heavily hinted at involvement.
The explosions came as Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south began to build and Mr. Zelensky stressed the importance for Ukraine of total victory.
Moscow has transferred forces into Ukraine’s south in recent days to bolster its positions and counter an offensive that Ukrainian officials privately say is already under way, with both sides trading blows.
Yevhen Yevtushenko, the Ukrainian military administration head in Nikopol, along the Dnipro River south of Zaporizhzhia, said Russia shelled the city early Tuesday. The strategic city of Mykolaiv continues to bear the brunt of Russian bombardments, with its military administration saying Tuesday that more than 9,000 civilian facilities had been destroyed or damaged in the region since the start of the war.
Ukraine, meanwhile, struck the crucial Antonivsky bridge in the Russian-controlled Kherson region, frustrating Russia’s plans to reopen it after a series of attacks. Ukraine’s southern operations command reported killing two-dozen Russian soldiers and destroying antiaircraft batteries, tanks and artillery.
Ukraine’s ability to strike strategic targets with precision weapons is becoming an increasingly significant element in the war. Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of Melitopol, in the Ukrainian south, this week said Ukrainian forces had used U.S.-supplied Himars rocket systems to strike Russian troops and equipment at industrial facilities in the area. On Monday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl said the U.S. had previously sent antiradar missiles to Ukraine. Kyiv has recently reported destroying Russian S-300 and Pantsir-S1 antiaircraft missile systems in the south, underlining its continued reliance on Western military aid in its fight against Moscow.
Russia, meanwhile, has cut the flow of crude oil through a pipeline to countries in central and eastern Europe, adding to the economic pressures building from the war. Transneft PJSC, the government-owned oil-pipeline operator, said Tuesday it had stopped pumping crude through Ukrainian territory on Aug. 4. The move stops supplies through the southern branch of the Druzhba pipeline that carries oil to Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic—all highly dependent on Russian oil and natural gas before the war, and among the most exposed economies now that Moscow is throttling supplies.
Concern is also building over the safety of Europe’s largest nuclear plant.
Ukraine’s nuclear regulator Energoatom on Monday blamed Russia for bombing power lines to sever the Zaporizhzhia plant from the Ukrainian electrical grid and goading nearby Ukrainian forces into attacks. It said the plant’s staff were forced to close one of its six reactors over the weekend after an attack that severed a high-voltage power line, damaged three radiation monitors and shattered 800 square meters of window surfaces.
There has been no damage to the reactors and no radiological release, but the two sides are trading accusations over who is responsible, with the Kremlin blaming Ukraine for shelling the 5.7 gigawatt plant. Plant staff and Ukrainian officials and diplomats following the case said Russia appears to be trying to disconnect the plant from Ukraine’s national electrical grid with the goal of reconnecting it to Russia’s.
The Zaporizhzhia plant has been controlled by the Russians since the early days of the war, and has now been heavily fortified, but Ukrainian staff are still operating it. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday called for international nuclear inspectors to be given access to the site to assess its safety.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian law enforcement announced that it had foiled a Russian plot to assassinate the Ukrainian defense minister and military intelligence chief, arresting two men in western Ukraine to whom it said Russian handlers had promised $100,000 and more for each operation.
Russia launched Tuesday a surveillance satellite it produced for Iran, weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei agreed to form a united front against the West.
Some Western officials expressed concern that the satellite could be used by the Kremlin to enhance its monitoring of Ukraine, but Iran’s government denied that via the state-run IRNA news agency.
The Khayyam satellite was successfully put into orbit by a Soyuz rocket launched from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, according to Russia’s space agency.
The satellite, which was named after Omar Khayyam, a 11th Century Persian astronomer and polymath, has already started beaming data to Iran’s space agency, according to IRNA.
Tehran said that the new satellite will be used for scientific purposes, but western officials fear it could be used to spy on targets inside Israel and across the Middle East.
In the U.S., President Biden on Tuesday signed a measure that grants U.S. approval for adding Finland and Sweden as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Senate earlier this month overwhelmingly passed a resolution endorsing the move.
“In a moment where Putin’s Russia has shattered peace and security in Europe, when autocrats are challenging the very foundations of a rules-based order, the strength of the trans-Atlantic alliance and America’s commitment to NATO is more important than it’s ever been,” Mr. Biden said at the White House.
Finland and Sweden formally applied for NATO membership in May, breaking with a decadeslong defense doctrine under which they sought political and security partnerships with other Western nations while staying out of formal military alliances.
Corrections & Amplifications
Ukrainian civilian facilities in Slovyansk, in the eastern Donetsk region, have been destroyed or damaged in Russian rocket attacks. A photo caption in an earlier version of this article misspelled the city name as Slovansk. (Corrected on Aug. 9.)
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