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11 August 2022updated 12 Oct 2023 11:10am

What the Crimea airbase attack means for the war in Ukraine

Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to recover the Russian-annexed peninsula as Ukrainian forces ready their counteroffensive.

By Katie Stallard

On 9 August, a series of explosions ripped through the Saky airbase in Crimea – the Black Sea peninsula Russia seized and illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Videos posted on social media showed thick black smoke rising from the Russian military facility and tourists running for cover on beaches in the nearby resort town of Novofedorivka, a popular Russian holiday destination. At least one person was killed. Satellite images analysed by the open-source investigative group Bellingcat appeared to show substantial damage to the airbase, with multiple warplanes destroyed.

Russia’s defence ministry acknowledged that there had been an incident at the airbase and that several ammunition stores had exploded, but officials denied that this was the result of an attack or that any military equipment had been damaged. Instead, they suggested that it had been caused by a breach of fire safety regulations. However, the Russian-backed administration in Crimea immediately raised the region’s security alert level, undermining the official line that the explosion was an accident, with no further cause for concern. Moscow also has form for attempting to cover up significant military losses. When Russia’s flagship Black Sea missile cruiser, the Moskva, sank in April, officials claimed that it had capsized in “choppy seas” after being damaged by a fire, rather than admitting that it had been hit by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles.

Ukraine’s government has been careful to avoid openly claiming the Saky airbase attack. Kyiv understands that admitting to a strike on what the Kremlin considers Russian territory (although the United Nations and most of the international community does not) would be seen as a serious escalation. Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev warned in July that any attack on Crimea would provoke a “Judgement Day” response, clearly threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

Yet behind the scenes, senior Ukrainian officials have been briefing Western media outlets that their forces did carry out the attack, which they stressed involved only Ukrainian-made weapons. US officials, also speaking to journalists on condition of anonymity, have similarly been keen to note that the strike did not involve any US-supplied weapons, as they seek to prevent the conflict from widening beyond Ukraine

Ukraine’s ministry of defence has also been dropping less than subtle hints about its involvement. Shortly after the incident, the ministry posted a photograph to its official Twitter account that showed the mushroom cloud from one of the explosions above a nearby beach resort. The caption said, “The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine would like to remind everyone that the presence of occupying troops on the territory of Ukrainian Crimea is not compatible with the high tourist season.” Later, it added a video, set to the soundtrack of Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer”, urging Russian tourists to leave Crimea. While he avoided directly confirming Ukraine’s responsibility for the strike, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the country’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on Twitter afterwards that this was “just the beginning”.

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A video posted to Twitter on 11 August by Ukraine’s ministry of defence

In his nightly television address on 9 August, Zelensky did not speak about the incident directly, but noted drily that Crimea was receiving “a lot of attention” and vowed to recover the territory. Russia’s war against Ukraine “began with Crimea and must end with Crimea – with its liberation”, Zelensky said, adding: “There will be no stable and lasting peace in many countries on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea as long as Russia is able to use our peninsula as its military base.”

[See also: Volodomyr Zelensky is wrong to ask the West to ban Russian tourists]

This does not mean that Ukraine will now launch a sustained bombardment of Crimea, or that any attempt to recapture the peninsula is imminent, but the focus of this conflict is shifting southwards. Buoyed by recent deliveries of long-range weapons systems from the West, such as the US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars), Ukrainian forces are readying a counter-offensive to try to retake the Russian-held region of Kherson, immediately north of Crimea. Both sides are massing their forces for battle, with the British ministry of defence reporting long convoys of Russian tanks and artillery moving south-west from the Donbas to reinforce positions in Kherson.

The Ukrainian military is under pressure to begin its counterattack before Russia moves to permanently annex the territory it currently holds in Ukraine, including Kherson, with referendums reportedly planned for as soon as 15 September. The Kremlin’s proxy administration has already introduced Russian passports, currency and school textbooks in these regions. Zelensky will also want to show that Western military aid is working and that Ukraine is still capable of victory ahead of a long and potentially difficult winter in Europe, where energy shortages could lead to increased pressure on Kyiv to concede territory and stop the fighting. As the war grinds towards the six-month mark, it may be entering its most critical phase.

[See also: In the grip of overlapping crises, Europe faces a leadership vacuum]

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