ODESA, Ukraine — Russian warships patrol the coasts of Crimea and Russian warplanes fly off its territory, which has been turned into a fortress by eight years of occupation. President Vladimir V. Putin has called Crimea a “holy place”, Russia’s “holy land”, and one of his top advisers has warned that if the peninsula were attacked, Ukraine would receive “Judgment Day”.
But lately, Ukraine has been calling out the Kremlin’s bluff. Massive explosions shook a temporary Russian munitions depot in Crimea on Tuesday, in the latest in a series of clandestine Ukrainian attacks on the Black Sea peninsula that Putin illegally annexed in 2014 and is now being used as an essential staging area for the Russian invasion. .
A senior Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the operation, said an elite Ukrainian military unit operating behind enemy lines was responsible for the blast. Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement that the episode was an “act of sabotage,” a major acknowledgment that the war is expanding into what the Kremlin considers Russian territory.
The attacks in Crimea underscore Ukraine’s increasingly aggressive military tactics, as the Kiev government relies on Western long-range weapons and special forces to strike deep behind the front, disrupting Russian supply lines and countering Russia’s material advantages. to go. They also pose a growing challenge to Mr Putin, holding Crimea’s security key to Russia’s military efforts – and to Mr Putin’s political standing at home.
No action Mr Putin has taken in his 22-year rule caused so much pro-Kremlin euphoria among Russians as his largely bloodless annexation of Crimea, an action that cemented his image as a leader who resurrected Russia as a great power.
And in the run-up to last winter’s large-scale invasion, it was Crimea that Mr Putin repeatedly cited as the site of what he termed an existential security threat to Ukraine, warning that a Western-backed Ukrainian attempt to attack the peninsula with violence could lead to direct war between Russia and NATO.
Until this month, Crimea seemed well protected from Ukrainian attacks. Even Ukraine’s most advanced weapons systems do not have the range to hit military targets there, and its planes are unable to penetrate Russian air defenses on the peninsula.
But in recent weeks there have been repeated explosions on the peninsula. And on July 31, Russia canceled its Naval Day celebrations in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol after an attack by a makeshift drone injured six.
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Last week, a series of blasts at a military airfield in southern Crimea destroyed much of the air and ammunition stocks of the Black Sea Fleet’s 43rd Naval Aviation Regiment, and beachgoers rushed to take cover. That attack was carried out in part by special forces officers working with local partisans, according to a Ukrainian official.
In Tuesday’s attack, at least two civilians were injured and power lines, railway lines and houses were damaged in multiple blasts in the village of Mayskoye, Russian officials said. As many as 3,000 people were evacuated from the area, and local residents in Crimea said authorities there had put in place a yellow-level terrorist threat warning, with people being searched as they entered parks and public buildings.
An analysis by DailyExpertNews of several photos and videos shows a large fire west of Mayske on Tuesday, and a satellite image shows smoke rising from the same spot. Videos taken by passers-by before the explosions and verified by The Times show military vehicles parked in the nearby village, including what appear to be mobile multiple rocket launchers bearing the ‘Z’ that Russia uses to identify its troops.
About 18 miles from the site of the explosions, a transformer substation in the city of Dzhankoi was also on fire. The cause was not clear, but it is near another site where hundreds of Russian military vehicles were filmed in the weeks before.
Even before those explosions, there were signs that people in the peninsula, a popular vacation spot, were either being displaced or feeling restless enough to leave. A record 38,000 cars crossed the 12-mile bridge connecting Crimea and Russia in both directions on Monday, state news agency Tass reported.
“The queue today to leave Crimea to Russia across the bridge proves that the absolute majority of the citizens of the terrorist state already understand or at least feel that Crimea is not a place for them,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said. in his late night speech. .
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Ukraine’s leaders have not publicly claimed responsibility for any of the recent explosions, and are maintaining a policy of official ambiguity over attacks far behind the front lines. But Mr Zelensky and one of his advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, seemed to hint at Ukrainian involvement.
“A reminder: A normal country’s Crimea is about Black Sea, mountains, recreation and tourism, but Russian-occupied Crimea is about warehouse explosions and high risk of death for intruders and thieves,” Mr Podolyak said. wrote on Twitter. “Demilitarization in Action.”
Mr Zelensky praised those who help Ukrainian intelligence and special forces, and warned civilians in Russian-occupied territory to stay away from Russian military installations. “The reasons for the explosions in the occupied territory can be different, very different,” he said, but they all lead to damage to the Russian army.
After Mr Putin launched his large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russian forces attacked from Crimea to the north and quickly captured much of the territory in southern Ukraine, including the Kherson region, which Russian forces have almost completely under control. . Russia now uses Crimea to channel troops and supplies and provide air and logistical support to its forces in Kherson and the neighboring Zaporizka region, where Ukraine has attacked Russian supply lines and threatened a major counteroffensive.
Pavel Luzin, an independent Russian military analyst, said that “Russia’s capabilities on the battlefield are limited” by Ukraine’s attacks on Crimea.
“It cannot seize the initiative because there are not enough resources,” he said of the Russian military. “The Crimea is the only way to support the grouping of troops in the Kherson and Zaporizka regions. Otherwise this grouping of troops does not exist.”
Now the question is how Russia reacts to the attacks. In April, the Russian Defense Ministry warned it would retaliate against future Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory by targeting “decision-making centers” in the capital Kiev.
In July, Dmitri A. Medvedev, Putin’s deputy chairman and former president, said that in the event of an attack by Ukraine in Crimea, “Judgment Day will come to all there at the same time. ”
After Tuesday’s blast, some pro-Kremlin commentators called on the military to live up to those threats. Andrei Klishas, a senior lawmaker from Mr Putin’s United Russia party, said in a social media post that “Russia’s retaliatory strikes must be very convincing.”
“This is about protecting our sovereignty,” he wrote.
But Mr Putin, addressing a security conference in Moscow via video link on Tuesday a few hours after the early morning explosions in Crimea, made no mention of the attack. He said Russia was prepared for a protracted war, even if many more Ukrainians died, and repeated his frequent argument that a Western-allied Ukraine would pose an existential threat to Russia. The West, he claimed in his speech, used Ukrainians as “cannon fodder” in its conflict with Russia.
“The situation in Ukraine shows that the United States is trying to provoke this conflict,” he said.
With little movement on the battlefield in the past month, the Kremlin has sought to strengthen its control over the occupied territories, trying to replicate the illegal annexation process it conducted in Crimea in 2014, according to Western analysts. Russian troops and their proxies have arrested hundreds, handed out Russian passports, replaced the currency with rubles, and rerouted the internet through Russian servers — pressuring Ukraine to disrupt that work.
Two explosions in the occupied city of Melitopol on Tuesday disabled pro-Kremlin television broadcasts, according to ousted Ukrainian mayor Ivan Federov. Details about the blast could not be independently confirmed and it was not immediately clear who was responsible. But Federov said the episode emphasized that opposition to the Russian-installed authorities would continue.
“The people of Melitopol hold their ground and the resistance forces neutralize everything” imposed by the Kremlin-backed regime, he said.
In addition to fortifying and defending their positions in southern Ukraine, Russian forces have continued to storm Ukrainian cities and defensive positions spanning hundreds of miles in northern and eastern Ukraine.
In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Russian shells exploded on roads, hitting infrastructure and destroying other buildings in five of the city’s nine districts, according to the city’s mayor Ihor Terekhov.
He said it had been “a long time” since Russian troops had hit so many different parts of the city at once. The number of victims was still being assessed.
Michael Schwirtz reported from Odessa, Ukraine, and Anton Trojanovskic from Berlin. Marc Santora contributed reporting from Kiev, Ukraine, and Cora Engelbrecht from London and Christian Triebert From New York.