Ukraine strikes again in Crimea, challenges Russia’s hold on the peninsula

ODESA, Ukraine – Russian warships patrol the coast of Crimea and Russian warplanes fly from its territory, turning into a fortress. President Vladimir V. Putin has Is called Crimea is Russia’s “holy land,” and one of his top advisers has warning that if the peninsula is attacked, Ukraine will face “Judgment Day”.

But recently, Ukraine has called the Kremlin a bluff. Huge explosions rocked Russia’s makeshift ammunition depot in Crimea on Tuesday, the latest in a series of clandestine Ukrainian attacks on the Black Sea peninsula that Putin illegally annexed. in 2014, and that is now being used as a key platform for the Russian invasion.

A senior Ukrainian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the operation, said that an elite Ukrainian military unit operating behind enemy lines was responsible for the explosions. The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the incident was an “act of sabotage,” a substantial acknowledgment that the war is spreading to what the Kremlin considers Russian territory.

Credit…Planetary Laboratory

Attacks in Crimea emphasize Ukraine Military tactics increasingly aggressive, as the government in Kyiv relied on Western long-range weapons and special forces to strike deep behind the front, disrupting Russian supply lines and countering Russia’s advantage in matériel. They also represent a growing challenge to Mr. Putin, the key to Crimea’s security to Russia’s military effort – and to Mr. Putin’s political standing at home.

No action Putin has taken during his 22 years in power has provoked more pro-Kremlin excitement among Russians than his bloodless annexation of Crimea, an act that cemented the image of the Kremlin. His image as a leader is reviving Russia as a great power.

And in preparation for a full-blown invasion last winter, Crimea was repeatedly cited by Putin as the center of what he called the existential security threat posed by Ukraine, warning that an attempt by Western-backed Ukraine to retake the peninsula by force could spark a direct war between Russia and NATO.

Until this month, Crimea appeared to be well protected from Ukrainian attacks. Even Ukraine’s most advanced weapons systems do not have the range to strike military targets there, and their planes are incapable of penetrating Russian air defenses on the peninsula.

But in recent weeks, explosions have repeatedly broken out on the peninsula. And on July 31, Russia canceled Navy Day celebrations in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol after a temporary drone strike injured six.

Last week, a series explosion at a military airport south of Crimea wiped out a large part of the air force and arsenal of the 43rd naval aviation regiment of the Black Sea fleet, and sent seafarers to hurry to find cover. That attack, according to a Ukrainian official, was carried out in part by special forces officers working with local partisan fighters.

In Tuesday’s attack, at least two civilians were injured, power lines, train tracks and homes damaged by multiple explosions, in the village of Mayskoye, Russian officials said. About 3,000 people have been evacuated from the area, and local residents in Crimea say authorities there have issued a “gold-level terrorist threat” warning, searching people as they enter parks and other areas. public buildings.

An analysis by The New York Times of several images and videos showed a large fire burning west of Mayskoye, on Tuesday, and a satellite image showed smoke rising from the same location. Video taken by passers-by before the explosion and verified by The Times shows military vehicles parked in a nearby village, including what appears to be multiple mobile missile launchers labeled The ‘Z’ that Russia uses to define its forces.

About 11 miles from the site of the explosion, a substation in the town of Dzhankoi also caught fire. The cause is not clear, but it is located near another location where hundreds of Russian military vehicles were filmed in the previous weeks.

Even before those explosions, there were signs that people on the peninsula, a popular vacation spot, were moving or feeling unsettled enough to leave. Monday’s record 38,000 cars drove in both directions 12 mile long bridge connecting Crimea and Russia, state news agency Tass report.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in his nightly address: “The queuing these days to leave Crimea for Russia across the bridge proves that the absolute majority of citizens of the terrorist state understood or at least felt it. that Crimea is not the place for them. .

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Ukraine’s leaders have not publicly claimed responsibility for any recent explosions an official vague policy about attacks behind the front lines. But Mr Zelensky and one of his advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, seem to hint at Ukraine’s involvement.

“A reminder: normal country Crimea is about the Black Sea, mountains, entertainment and tourism, but Russian-occupied Crimea is about warehouse explosions and high risk of death for invaders. comb and steal,” Mr. Podolyak wrote on Twitter. “De-militarization in action.”

Zelensky praised those helping Ukraine’s intelligence agencies and special forces, and warned civilians in Russian-held territory to stay away from Russian military installations. “The reasons for the explosions in the occupied territory can be different, very different, but they all lead to damage to the Russian military,” he said.

After Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russian forces advanced north from Crimea and quickly captured a large swath of southern Ukraine, including the Kherson area, where Russian forces are almost completely in control. Russia is currently using Crimea to dispatch troops and supplies, and provide air and logistical support to its forces in Kherson and the neighboring Zaporizka region, where Ukraine is attacking Russian supply lines. and threatened a major counterattack.

Pavel Luzin, an independent Russian military analyst, said that “Russia’s capabilities on the battlefield are being limited” by Ukraine’s attacks in Crimea.

“It can’t take the initiative because it doesn’t have enough resources,” he said of the Russian military. “Crimea is the only way to support the gathering of troops in the Kherson and Zaporizka regions. Otherwise, this group of troops would not exist.”

Now the question is how Russia reacts to the attacks. In April, the Russian Defense Ministry warned that it would retaliate against future Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory by targeting “decision centers” in the capital, Kyiv.

In July, Dmitri A. Medvedev, vice chairman of Putin’s security council and former president, said that in the event of an attack from Ukraine on Crimea, “Judgment Day will come for all they were all there at the same time. “

After Tuesday’s explosion, some pro-Kremlin commentators urged the military to handle those threats well. Andrei Klishas, ​​a senior lawmaker from Putin’s United Russia party, said in a social media post that “Russian retaliation must be very convincing”.

“This is about defending our sovereignty,” he wrote.

However, Mr. Putin, who spoke at a security conference in Moscow by video link on Tuesday hours after the early morning explosion in Crimea, did not mention the attack. He said Russia was prepared for a protracted war, even if more Ukrainians would die, echoing his frequent argument that Ukraine as a Western ally is an existential threat to Russia. He claimed in his speech that the West is using the Ukrainians as “cannon fodder” in the conflict with Russia.

“The situation in Ukraine shows that the United States is trying to resolve this conflict,” he said.

With little movement on the battlefield in the last month, the Kremlin has trying to consolidate its control over the occupied territories, trying to repeat the illegal annexation it carried out in Crimea in 2014, according to Western analysts. Russian forces and their proxies have arrested hundreds of people, stripped of Russian passports, replaced currency with rubles and rerouted the internet through Russian servers – putting pressure on Ukraine to do so interrupt that work.

Two explosions in the occupied city of Melitopol knocked out pro-Kremlin television programs on Tuesday, the city’s ousted Ukrainian mayor Ivan Federov said. Details of the explosions could not be independently confirmed and it is not clear who is responsible. But Mr. Federov said that the episode emphasized that opposition to the Russian-installed authorities would continue.

“The people of Melitopol are holding out and the resistance is neutralizing everything” that the Kremlin-backed regime has imposed, he said.

In addition to consolidating and defending their positions in southern Ukraine, Russian forces have continued to attack Ukrainian towns, cities and defensive positions for hundreds of miles in the north and east. Ukraine.

According to Ihor Terekhov, the city’s mayor, in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Russian artillery shells exploded on the roads, hitting infrastructure and destroying other buildings in five of the city’s nine districts. city.

He said it had been “a long time” since Russian forces attacked different parts of the city at the same time. The number of casualties is still being assessed.

Michael Schwirtz reported from Odesa, Ukraine, and Anton Troianovski from Berlin. Marc Santora Reporting contributions from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Cora Engelbrecht from London and Christiaan Triebert from New York.

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