Blasts that rocked a Russian military airfield in forcibly annexed Crimea signal the start of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south and a critical new phase of the war that could shape its ultimate outcome, two Ukrainian officials told POLITICO.
The series of explosions Tuesday sent huge fireballs and mushroom clouds of black smoke into the sky, scattering terrified Russian vacationers who were seen in videos shared on social media scrambling for safety on a beach and fleeing by car over the Crimea bridge to Russia.
Moscow downplayed the blasts, saying they were caused by ammunition that had accidentally detonated at the airfield, where satellite images showed several military planes had been parked.
Ukraine’s defense ministry coyly denied responsibility while warning about the dangers of smoking around explosives, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said “this Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea — with its liberation. … I know that we will return to the Ukrainian Crimea.”
But two Ukrainian officials who spoke to POLITICO suggested more directly that Kyiv was behind the explosions. While Ukrainian forces have in recent weeks been pushing to claw back ground toward the southern city of Kherson — which fell to the Russians in the early days of the invasion — the two officials said the explosions at the airfield indicated that this counterattack was now beginning in earnest.
A successful strike against a military target far behind Russian lines, and especially on the Crimean Peninsula, a place of great significance to the Kremlin that has largely avoided the intense fighting taking place on Ukraine’s mainland, would be deeply embarrassing for President Vladimir Putin who would likely view it as a dramatic escalation and a blow to his troops’ morale. [Continue reading…]