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Long-Range Missiles? Special Op? Regardless, Crimean Air Base Blasts Are A 'Real Quandary' For Russia

A satellite image of the Saky Air Base shows destroyed fighter jets after the attack. It’s unclear exactly who and what caused the explosions. What is clear: Russian positions on the Black Sea peninsula are now vulnerable.

New or modified Ukrainian-designed missiles? Shipborne, U.S.-made HIMARS? Armed drones? Ukrainian special forces? Sabotage?

While the preponderance of evidence points to a Ukrainian operation, there is still no clarity on exactly what caused a series of blasts that sent plumes of black smoke rising from a Russian naval air base on the occupied Crimean Peninsula.

The explosions at the Saky Air Base on August 9 destroyed at least nine military aircraft, including Su-30SM fighters and Su-24M bombers, as well as a few buildings that may have contained ammunition and fuel, an analysis of satellite imagery by Schemes, an investigative unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, indicated.

Officially, Ukraine has been silent about the cause of the blasts, but anonymous Ukrainian military sources told media outlets, including The New York Times, that Kyiv was behind it. And whatever sparked the conflagration, Ukraine is making the most of it with gloating, trolling social media posts -- such as one from a Defense Ministry account mocking Russian vacationers in Crimea to the tune of the 1980s pop hit Cruel Summer.

As it did when the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet was sunk by what are widely believed to have been Ukrainian missiles, Russia has denied an attack even occurred, saying fire-safety violations caused ammunition to explode -- a version that has been rejected abroad.

At least one thing is clear, however: It’s a blow to Russia in its war against Ukraine, particularly as both sides gear up for what may be a major counteroffensive by Kyiv in areas north of Crimea, aimed in part to retake the city of Kherson from Russian forces.

“It’s bad news for Russia regardless of who struck and how they did it. It expands a dangerous front in the war,” said Robert Person, a professor of international relations at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“The fact that Ukraine can and will destroy key targets in Crimea will make it more difficult for Russia to use the peninsula to support its occupation forces in southern Ukraine,” Person, who does not speak for the U.S. military, told RFE/RL in an e-mail.

“This could make a significant difference in Ukraine’s efforts to retake Kherson if Ukraine can wreak logistical havoc for Russia in Crimea,” he said.

'Tough Choices'

In 2014, Russia seized control of Crimea, which belongs to Ukraine but is the home of the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and quickly moved to militarize the peninsula, known for its beach resorts. It has been using air bases there, including Saky, to strike Ukrainian positions in the south ever since President Vladimir Putin launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

In the run-up to the invasion, Russia deployed tens of thousands of more combat-ready troops to Crimea, along with heavy equipment. Those troops poured north from the peninsula as the invasion began and quickly captured parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions.

The importance of the blasts at the Saky base goes beyond the destruction of a handful of planes, analysts said.

“The Russians are rushing everybody into Kherson to defend it against a possible Ukrainian offensive, so opening up another front in Crimea makes perfect military sense, and it’s long, long overdue,” Glen Howard, a military analyst and president of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, told RFE/RL.

Since the invasion, the Ukrainian military has been able to slow the advance of Russian forces in the south and east by bogging them down along front lines that run hundreds of kilometers, pressuring their supply routes. If the blasts at Saky were a Ukrainian attack, it amplifies those problems and vulnerabilities, analysts said.

“This places the Russians in a real quandary,” Mick Ryan, a retired major general in the Australian Army and a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote on Twitter.

“The Ukrainians clearly can now hold large parts of Crimea at risk. And not just airbases. The Black Sea Fleet, its fuel, munitions, repair yards and infrastructure are now vulnerable,” he wrote.

“It will force the Russians to make tough choices about the deployment of their focus across the south and east of Ukraine,” Ryan remarked, adding that the loss of ammunition and fuel at Saky is much more serious for the Russians than the loss of the planes.

“It will have a longer-term impact on aviation operations,” he wrote.

Special Op?

Saky is located on Crimea’s western shore, more than 225 kilometers from the current front line in Kherson, a distance believed to be beyond the range of missiles in Ukraine’s possession.

The United States and its NATO allies have declined to give Ukraine weapons that can travel such a distance because Kyiv could potentially use them to strike targets inside Russia, possibly leading to an escalation of the war.

WATCH: Massive explosions hit a military airfield in Russian-occupied Crimea.

Speculation Swirls Around Explosions At Russian Military Base In Occupied Crimea
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The United States, NATO, and the vast majority of the world’s nations reject Russia’s claim to Crimea.

In its daily update on the conflict on August 10, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said it could not determine what caused the explosions at the base.

The craters and scorch marks visible in satellite images taken the day after the blasts “could have been caused by many things – special forces, partisans, or missiles, on-site or from a distance,” ISW said.

While Ukraine claims to have been behind a recent strike in a part of Kherson that is about 170 kilometers from the front, its armed forces have not demonstrated they have the capability necessary to reach Saky, ISW said.

Person said he is leaning toward the theory that the blasts were the result of a special operation, in part because of the limited range of its weapons.

“I’m quite confident that if [Ukraine] did have those weapons, the world would know about it already,” he said. “Ukraine’s information strategy all along has been to give the appearance of strength in their David versus Goliath struggle against Russia.”

Howard said that if it was a special operation, this would imply that Ukrainian forces had infiltrated the air base, likely at night, placed explosives at key locations, and then detonated them remotely.

'Morale Disaster'

He said the Ukrainian special forces may have chosen to detonate the explosives during the middle of the day, when thousands of Russian vacationers were relaxing on Crimean beaches, to maximize the propaganda effect.

The explosions, which sent huge fireballs and mushroom clouds of smoke skyward, blew out windows and could be heard miles away.

Analysts said that for Ukraine, the incident represents a major propaganda victory comparable to or surpassing the April sinking of the Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva. As the explosions that crippled the Moskva occurred out at sea, there are few videos of its sinking, enabling the Kremlin to obfuscate.

That is not the case with the Saky blasts, which occurred before the eyes of Russian vacationers and Crimea residents and were captured in videos that quickly started circulating on social media.

“Russia can’t cover it up,” Howard said.

Ryan called it “a morale disaster for Russia,” making the military “look incompetent at defending bases” far from the front and denting the morale of both Russian troops and civilians at home “who have rarely seen such disasters in their media.”

But we should not overestimate this, given public opinion held up even after the sinking of [the] Moskva,” he added.

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.