Ukraine has hinted it was behind a series of mysterious and devastating strikes in occupied Crimea that destroyed a key railway junction used for supplying Russian troops and a military airbase.
Smoke billowed into the sky near Dzhankoi, a significant railway hub in the north of the peninsula used by the Russian military to transport troops and equipment to occupied Melitopol, which Moscow seized early in its full-scale invasion.
Several explosions on Tuesday appeared to have destroyed a Russian ammunition depot and an electricity substation about 125 miles (200km) from the frontline with Ukrainian forces.
According to Russian media, a further blast took place at a military airfield in the village of Hvardeyskye, not far from Crimea’s regional capital, Simferopol. Residents reported hearing loud explosions, Kommersant reported.
Satellite images suggest the airbase housed a large number of Sukhoi warplanes, which were integrated with the Russian navy. The attack appears to have been carried out remotely using a drone.
Another spectacular strike last week wiped out Russia’s Saky aerodrome in the west of Crimea. At least eight fighter jets were incinerated. Tourists relaxing on the beach fled in panic, while long queues of traffic sought to escape via a bridge to the mainland.
It was unclear how Ukraine managed to reach the two military targets, and Kyiv has not formally confirmed responsibility. The US-supplied Himars system previously used by Ukrainian soldiers to destroy bridges across the Dnieper River has a range of about 50 miles.
Officials in Kyiv have suggested the Crimea strikes may be the work of partisans emboldened by Ukraine’s recent guided missile successes, or the product of disagreements within the Russian military. Either way, Russia’s southern bases and command posts look suddenly vulnerable.
One former senior Ukrainian official, speaking to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Ukraine had intelligence assets working deep behind enemy lines. Russia had previously assumed Crimea was beyond Kyiv’s operational reach.
A promised Ukrainian counteroffensive to recapture the occupied southern city of Kherson has yet to happen. Instead, Kyiv has hit Crimea three times in a week, in clinical and flamboyant style. Russia’s logistics and weapons dumps have been badly affected.
The ministry of defence in Moscow said a fire had broken out in Dzhankoi but offered no explanation as to what might have happened. “The necessary measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of sabotage,” the ministry said. So far, Russia appears to have responded with two missiles from Belarus which landed near the city of Zhytomyr.
The latest Ukrainian strikes appear to have further spooked Crimea’s population, which until recently had suffered few consequences from Vladimir Putin’s war. Queues were reported outside Simferopol train station of residents seeking to flee.
Senior Ukrainian government aides expressed their glee on social media. Mykailo Podolyak, an adviser to the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said the apparent attack was an example of “demilitarisation in action”. He posted on Twitter: “A reminder … Crimea occupied by Russians is about warehouse explosions and high risk of death for invaders and thieves.”
Air forces spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat joked that Russia “does not comply with fire safety”.
Another presidential aide, Oleksiy Arestovych, tweeted a Photoshopped picture of himself relaxing on a sun lounger similar to the ones pictured last week in Ukraine’s apparent Saky attack. In the background is black smoke. “Morning near Dzhankoi,” Arestovych wrote.
Morning near Dzhankoi began with explosions. A reminder: Crimea of normal country is about the Black Sea, mountains, recreation and tourism, but Crimea occupied by Russians is about warehouses explosions and high risk of death for invaders and thieves. Demilitarization in action.
— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) August 16, 2022
- Утро в Джанкое.)
Масло, хлопок. pic.twitter.com/PINxsY7C6A
— Arestovych (@arestovych) August 16, 2022
Earlier, in his latest address, Zelenskiy again accused Moscow of “nuclear blackmail” and called on Russia to hand back the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which it is using as a military base from which it has been shelling the nearby Ukrainian-controlled towns of Nikopol and Marhanets.
Zelenskiy called for sanctions to be imposed on Russia’s nuclear agency Rosastom and on the “entire nuclear industry of the terrorist state”. Rosatom employees are at the complex, which Ukrainian technical staff continue to operate.
“All Russian troops must be immediately withdrawn from the plant and neighbouring areas without any conditions,” Zelenskiy said. More than 40 countries have urged Russia to pull out and to withdraw heavy weapons from the facility, Europe’s biggest nuclear plant.
One former senior employee, speaking anonymously, said the Russians had moved large numbers of armoured vehicles into the giant turbine hall of reactor No 1.
They said the Russians were shelling the plant from surrounding villages and roads. Their apparent goal was to raise the stakes in negotiations with Kyiv and to put pressure on the international community, which would force Ukrainian concessions, they suggested.
“The whole situation in the plant is dangerous but still not catastrophic,” the source said. “I still believe they [the Russians] are not crazy and they will not get to the point of disaster.”
Four of the reactors were no longer working and in a state of cold shutdown, they said. The other two were operational but functioning at half capacity. Rosatom staff were liaising with Russian soldiers and advising them which areas could be “safely” shelled, they alleged.
Asked if Ukraine was itself shelling the plant, as Russia had claimed, the source replied: “That is like believing the sun goes around the Earth. It’s absolutely impossible. It’s our plant, our territory and our people. The Russians are responsible for this.”
About 50,000 people live in Enerhodar, the city in the Zaporizhzhia region next to the nuclear complex. Russian troops keep a low profile and have hung Russian flags over its main buildings, including the former headquarters of the SBU, Ukraine’s intelligence service.
Many male residents had evacuated their wives and children to safer Ukrainian-controlled territory, the source said. Schools and kindergartens were closed. Shops that were empty during the early months of the invasion now had products, available to buy with Ukrainian hryvnias, they added.
Over the past 10 days, explosions have rocked Enerhodar nightly, the source continued. One man walking his dog was killed by shelling in the first district – thought to be the only local casualty in recent months.
“The Russians are actively using the territory around the town. I hear all these terrible sounds at night and during the day. Sometimes it sounds as if the explosions are so close they are in my neighbour’s yard,” they said.
There was every sign Russia plans to annex occupied Zaporizhzhia soon. An “election tent” had been set up in Enerhodar ahead of a so-called vote, they said. The front-page headline on a new Russian propaganda sheet, Zaporizhzhia Vesnik, reads: “Referendum will happen!”
The source said: “None of my friends wants a referendum. I don’t see people who will vote. Maybe there are a few who live in a parallel universe.”