Kyiv, Ukraine — Mass explosions and fires hit a military depot in Russia-annexed Crimea on Tuesday, forcing more than 3,000 people to be evacuated, the second time in recent days that the focus of the war in Ukraine has turned to the peninsula.
Russia blames the explosions at an ammunition depot in Mayskoye on an “act of sabotage” without naming the perpetrators. As with last week’s explosions, they sparked speculation that Ukraine may be behind the attack on the peninsula, which Russia has controlled since 2014.
Separately, the Russian business newspaper Kommersant quoted local residents as saying that plumes of black smoke also rose over an air base in Gvardeyskoye in Crimea.
Ukraine has failed to publicly claim responsibility for any of the fires or explosions, including last week’s at another air base that destroyed nine Russian planes. If Ukrainian troops were in fact responsible for any of the explosions, they would signify a significant escalation in the war.
Crimea has enormous strategic and symbolic significance for Russia and Ukraine. The Kremlin’s demand that Kiev recognize the peninsula as part of Russia has been one of the key preconditions for ending the fighting, while Ukraine has vowed to drive the Russians off the peninsula and all other occupied territories.
Videos posted to social media showed thick plumes of smoke rising over the raging flames in Mayskoye, and a series of explosions could be heard in the background. The Russian Defense Ministry said the fires in the depot have damaged a power plant, power lines, railway lines and some apartment buildings. It said in a statement there were no serious injuries.
Earlier, Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti reported a fire at a transformer substation after “a loud thumping noise” in what appeared to be a result of the explosion at the depot.
The Dzhankoi district, where the explosions took place, is located in the north of the peninsula, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Russian-controlled Kherson region of southern Ukraine. Kiev has recently carried out a series of attacks in various locations in the region, targeting supply routes for the Russian army there and ammunition depots.
Last week’s explosions at Saki Air Force Base in Crimea caused sunbathers on nearby beaches to flee as huge flames and columns of smoke rose above the horizon. Ukrainian officials stressed on Tuesday that Crimea — a popular destination for Russian tourists — would not be spared the ravages of war experienced across Ukraine.
Rather than a travel destination, “Russian-occupied Crimea is about explosions in warehouses and a high risk of death for intruders and thieves,” Ukraine’s presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter, though he claimed Ukraine was not responsible for the blast.
Crimea regional leader Sergei Aksyonov said two people were injured and more than 3,000 people were evacuated from the villages of Mayskoye and Azovskoye near Dzhankoi after the explosions at the ammunition depot.
As the explosions damaged the tracks, some trains in northern Crimea were diverted to other lines.
The Russian military blames last week’s explosions at Saki Air Force Base on an accidental detonation of ammunition there, but it appeared to be the result of a Ukrainian attack.
Ukrainian officials at the time ceased to publicly claim responsibility for the explosions, while mocking Russia’s explanation that a careless smoker may have set the ammunition on fire. Analysts also said the explanation is incorrect and that the Ukrainians could have used anti-ship missiles to attack the base.
An update from the British Ministry of Defense intelligence said ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet “continue to pursue an extremely defensive stance” in the waters off Crimea, with the ships barely venturing out of sight of the shoreline.
Russia already lost its flagship Moskva in the Black Sea and last month the Ukrainian army recaptured the strategic outpost of Snake Island off the southwest coast of Ukraine. It is vital for guaranteeing shipping routes from Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port.
The “limited effectiveness of the Russian fleet undermines Russia’s overall invasion strategy,” the British statement said. “This means Ukraine can use resources to pressure Russian ground forces elsewhere.”
Meanwhile, in the Donbas, where fighting has been at the center of the fighting in recent months, a civilian has been killed in Russian shelling and two others injured, according to Ukrainian governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, a civilian was killed and nine others injured by Russian shelling, regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said. He added that the nighttime attack on the city was “one of the most massive shelling of Kharkiv in recent days”.
Officials in the central region of Dniprotpetrovsk also reported shelling in Nikopol and Kryvyi Rih districts.
Amid the explosions and shelling, some good news came from the region with a United Nations chartered ship loaded with 23,000 tons of Ukrainian grain bound for the Horn of Africa.
It is the first shipment of its kind and the United Nations World Food Program called it “another important milestone” in a plan to help countries facing famine. Ukraine and Russia reached an agreement with Turkey in July to restart grain deliveries to the Black Sea, addressing the major disruption to exports that has occurred since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
The worst drought in four decades in the Horn of Africa has left thousands of people dead across the region from hunger or disease this year.
That deal not only protects ships exporting Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea, but also assures Russia that its food and fertilizers will not be sanctioned, protecting one of the pillars of its economy and alleviating concerns from insurers and banks.
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