ODESSA, Ukraine — To reach targets deep behind enemy lines, the Ukrainian military is believed to be turning to residents of Russian-occupied territories loyal to Ukraine.
The shadowy fighters, also known as partisans, have been credited with a series of mysterious attacks recently: the assault on the Kremlin-installed mayor of the city of Kherson who had to be evacuated to Moscow over the weekend; the fatal shooting of the deputy chief of another major city in the region less than 24 hours later; and a series of explosions at a Russian airbase in the Kremlin-occupied Crimean peninsula on Tuesday.
As Russian and occupation officials struggled to determine the cause of Tuesday’s attack, which killed one person, a senior Ukrainian military official with knowledge of the situation said Ukrainian forces were behind the explosion at the Saki airbase on Crimea’s western coast.
“This was an air base from which aircraft regularly took off for attacks against our forces in the southern theater,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters. The official would not disclose the type of weapon used in the attack, saying only that “an exclusively Ukrainian-made device was used.”
A Ukrainian attack on Russian forces in the Crimean Peninsula would represent a significant expansion of Ukraine’s offensive efforts, which have so far been largely limited to pushing back Russian troops from territories occupied after February 24, when the invasion began.
It would also be embarrassing for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who often speaks of Crimea, which he illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, as if it were hallowed ground.
Ukraine has few weapons capable of reaching the peninsula, except for aircraft that would be at risk of being immediately shot down by Russia’s heavy air defenses in the region. The airbase, located near the town of Novofederivka, is almost 200 miles from the nearest Ukrainian military position.
Videos verified and reviewed by The New York Times show a plume of smoke rising from the air base shortly before at least three explosions: two in quick succession and a third moments later. It is unclear from the videos what caused the explosions. Additionally, a video uploaded to social media shows at least one fighter jet, a Su-24M, destroyed on the tarmac at the base.
The senior Ukrainian official said the attack involved partisan resistance forces loyal to the government in Kyiv, but he declined to reveal whether those forces carried out the attack or helped regular Ukrainian military units target the base, as has sometimes happened in other Russian-occupied areas. areas.
To reach targets deep behind enemy lines, Ukraine has increasingly turned to guerrillas in Russian-occupied territories, officials said. For example, guerrillas have helped Ukrainian forces target Russian bases and ammunition depots in the Kherson region, Ukrainian officials say.
Publicly, Ukrainian officials on Tuesday would not confirm the involvement of Ukraine’s military. Ukraine’s defense minister said in a statement that it could not “determine the cause of the explosion” and suggested that staff at the base follow rules on smoking.
Other officials did not exactly deny that Ukraine was behind the explosion.
“The future of Crimea is to be a pearl of the Black Sea, a national park with unique nature and a world resort, not a military base for terrorists,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. a tweet. “It’s just the beginning.”
In his nightly speech, Zelensky did not address whether Ukraine was behind the attack in Crimea, but he said: “Crimea is Ukrainian, and we will never give it up,” adding as he signed off that the world should “support Ukraine’s armed forces, our intelligence services and all those fighting to liberate our country and beat back the Russian colonial invasion.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that the explosion was caused by the detonation of stored ammunition for fighter jets at the base. While the ministry offered no speculation on whether Ukrainian forces may have been involved, the decision by Crimea’s Kremlin-installed leader, Sergei Aksyonov, to raise the terror threat level to yellow suggested officials were worried about security on the peninsula.
“This measure is exclusively prophylactic, as the situation in the region is under full control,” Aksyonov said in a statement on Telegram.
Christian Triebert contributed reporting.