By PAUL BYRNE – Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A series of explosions and fires have transformed Russian-occupied Crimea from a secure rear base into a new battleground in the war, demonstrating both Russian vulnerability and the ability of the Ukrainians to strike far behind enemy lines.
Nine Russian warplanes were reportedly destroyed at an airbase in Crimea last week, and an ammunition depot on the peninsula exploded on Tuesday.
Ukrainian authorities have stopped publicly claiming responsibility, preferring to keep the world guessing, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has hinted at Ukrainian attacks behind enemy lines after the latest explosions, which Russia has blamed on “sabotage”.
Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and used it as a staging ground for attacks on the country in the war that began on February 24.
The blasts represent the latest setback for Moscow, which began its invasion hoping to take Kyiv in a lightning offensive but quickly bogged down in the face of stiff resistance. As the war approaches six months, both sides are engaged in a bitter war of attrition, fighting from village to village, mainly in the east of the country.
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Attacks in Crimea could open a new front that would represent a significant escalation of the war and further stretch Russia’s resources.
“Russian commanders will most likely be increasingly concerned about the apparent deterioration of security in Crimea, which serves as a rear base for the occupation,” the UK Ministry of Defense wrote on Twitter.
Tuesday’s explosions destroyed an ammunition site near the town of Dzhankoi, forcing the evacuation of around 3,000 people. Ordnance continued to explode on Wednesday and authorities fought the fires with a helicopter, Crimean regional chief Sergei Aksyonov said. He said a search for the perpetrators was underway.
The economic newspaper Kommersant also reported explosions on Tuesday at a Crimean base in Gvardeyskoye. There was no confirmation from the Russians.
The British intelligence report indicates that Gvardeyskoye and Dzhankoi host two of the most important Russian military airfields in Crimea.
Just over a week ago, explosions rocked Russia’s Saki air base in Crimea and destroyed planes on the ground. Moscow suggested the blasts were accidental, possibly caused by a careless smoker, but Ukrainian authorities scoffed at that explanation and hinted at their involvement.
Last month, a small explosive device carried by a makeshift drone detonated in a courtyard of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, injuring six people and prompting the cancellation of ceremonies honoring the Russian Navy.
In other developments on Wednesday, two civilians were reportedly killed and seven injured by Russian shelling of several towns and villages in the eastern Donetsk region which is currently the focus of the Kremlin offensive.
In the south, Russian warplanes fired cruise missiles at the Odessa region overnight, injuring four people, according to regional administration spokesman Oleh Bratchuk. In Mykolaiv, also in the south, two Russian missiles damaged a university building but did not injure anyone.
Russian forces also shelled Kharkiv and the surrounding region in the northeast overnight, damaging residential buildings and civilian infrastructure but causing no casualties, authorities said.
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