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Who was behind the explosions in Crimea? Ukraine and Russia aren't saying

Smoke rises after explosions were heard from the direction of a Russian military airbase near Novofedorivka, Crimea, in this still image obtained by Reuters Tuesday.
Obtained by Reuters
/
via Reuters
Smoke rises after explosions were heard from the direction of a Russian military airbase near Novofedorivka, Crimea, in this still image obtained by Reuters Tuesday.

Updated August 13, 2022 at 10:34 AM ET

KYIV, Ukraine — Days after explosions at a Russian air base on the Crimean coast, no side has officially taken responsibility for what many Ukrainian and international commentators believe to be an attack.

On Friday, the Pentagon said a senior Defense Department official asserted that Ukraine had bombarded Russia's Saki air base.

"The bombardment significantly impacted Russian airpower and personnel," its news release said.

But later, the webpage had been edited and included a correction note claiming that the earlier comments were an "inaccurate description" about the explosions at the Russian air base.

In the hours following Tuesday's blasts, Russian officials claimed workers at the Saki air base weren't following safety protocols, which led to a serious accident and fire. But as social media images appeared of large columns of smoke rising above a nearby beach and ambulances rushing to the scene, local Russian authorities acknowledged that one person was dead and several injured. And a bigger picture of the damage came Wednesday when the officials vowed to repair more than 80 buildings damaged during the blasts.

Analysis of satellite images published by the company Planet suggests that multiple explosions took place hundreds of feet apart, damaging nine airplanes and scattering debris on the taxiway. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said nine Russian planes were destroyed.

Ukrainian officials claim that planes based at the Saki air base were providing tactical assistance to Russia's occupation of Ukraine's southern mainland, where authorities loyal to Moscow announced their intent to be annexed into the Russian Federation.

Many people in Ukraine celebrated the blasts, believing that Ukraine's efforts to take back Russian-occupied territory finally reached Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Ukrainian officials, including Zelenskyy and his top adviser, publicly denied that Ukraine was behind attacks at the base, but the contested peninsula has dominated speeches and media coverage of the war this week.

A combination photo shows satellite images of Saki air base in Crimea, Aug. 9 and after an attack on Aug. 10.
Planet Labs PBC / Handout via Reuters
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Handout via Reuters
A combination photo shows satellite images of Saki air base in Crimea, Aug. 9 and after an attack on Aug. 10.

"The war with Russia began and will end in Crimea," Zelenskyy said, vowing "we will return to the Ukrainian Crimea."

Unnamed Ukrainian military sources cited by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Politico said Ukrainian special forces and local partisans were responsible for the attack. NPR reached out to two high-ranking Ukrainian military sources, who refused to corroborate the claims.

President Zelenskyy has launched a probe into the leak. Calling it "irresponsible" to divulge specifics to the media, he said, "The fewer concrete details you give, the better it will be for the implementation of our defense plans."

American officials say they have restricted the use of U.S.-supplied weapons against Russian territory, but military experts have argued that Crimea is fair game for Ukraine since most countries consider it illegally occupied by Russia. The Pentagon initially confirmed that American weapons weren't used in the attack, but later removed references to Crimea from its news release.

Even so, Ukrainian forces aren't thought to be capable of firing projectiles over the 120 miles needed to reach from Ukrainian-held territory to the Saki air base, analysts say. But the explosions have fueled speculation Ukraine has accelerated a homegrown, long-range weapons program. An analysis from The War Zone, a military news and analysis site, suggests that Ukraine may have adapted older Soviet-era weapons to reach farther into Russian-held territory. Ukraine used domestic Neptune rockets to sink one of Russia's biggest warships, the Moskva, in April, a move that was also thought to be beyond Ukraine's ability.

Even though Russians are chalking the blasts up to an accident, they have ramped up security levels on the peninsula. Sergei Aksyonov, a local official loyal to Russia, said that Crimea will be under a high "yellow" terrorist threat level through Ukraine's independence day on Aug. 24. A Ukrainian civil rights group has said that Crimea's Indigenous Muslim minority, the Tatars, are being searched and arrested in the wake of the blasts. Tatars are largely seen with suspicion in Crimea over their overwhelming pro-Ukrainian stance since the 2014 annexation, leading many to be exiled.

It's unlikely these blasts will change much about Russia's presence in Crimea. Russia still maintains five other air bases on the peninsula.

The blasts come at the height of Crimea's tourist season, with Russians flocking to the area for its subtropical weather and beaches. Videos on social media showed traffic jams of people attempting to leave the peninsula after the explosions.

Speculation of Ukrainian responsibility has also fueled suspicion that Ukraine might target the Kerch bridge next, a nearly 12-mile stretch of road opened in 2018 to connect Crimea with mainland Russia. Russia's Tourism Ministry says there has not been a decline of visits to Crimea since the incident, though.

Also drawing much attention this week is another crisis, involving apparent attacks at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, in Russian-occupied southern Ukraine. Ukraine's power utility, Energoatom, claims that Russia is working to disconnect the plant from the rest of Ukraine and integrate it with Russia's power grid via Crimea, thus formalizing the annexation of both Crimea and the Zaporizhzhia region. In July, Russian officials said they were busy reconnecting the Ukrainian power lines to Crimea that had been destroyed in 2015.

An analysis from the Institute for the Study of War suggests the Zaporizhzhia crisis may be Russia's way of forcing negotiations with Ukraine, even though 84% of Ukrainians polled by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology are against conceding territory like Crimea to end the war sooner.

Ukraine's envoy for Crimean Tatars, Tamila Tasheva, argued on Wednesday that the two issues are related. She said Ukrainian attempts to "retake Crimea are underway," without providing details.

Tasheva also accused Russia of coercing Tatars from Crimea to visit Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine and lobbying residents to extol the virtues of Russian occupation ahead of a potential annexation vote.

"The Russian occupations of Crimea and southern Ukraine are inherently tied together, both in terms of military strategy and civilian propaganda," said Tasheva during a press briefing in Kyiv.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Julian Hayda