Photographs released by independent satellite company Planet Labs showed three nearly identical craters where buildings at the Russian Saki Air Base were struck with apparent precision. The base, located on the southwestern coast of Crimea, was badly damaged by the fire, the burnt hull of at least eight destroyed military aircraft is clearly visible.
Russia has denied damage to the planes and said the explosions seen at the base on Tuesday were accidental.
Ukraine has not publicly claimed responsibility for the attack and has not reported how exactly it was carried out.
“Officially, we do not confirm or deny anything; there are many scenarios of what could have happened… taking into account the fact that there were several epicenters of the explosions at the same time,” the advisor to the President of Ukraine, Mykhailo Padalyak, told Reuters.
Western military experts said the extent of the damage and the apparent accuracy of the strike indicated a powerful new capability with potentially important consequences.
Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014, uses the peninsula as a base for its Black Sea fleet and as a main supply route for its invasion force occupying southern Ukraine, where Kyiv is planning a counteroffensive in the coming weeks.
“I’m not an intelligence analyst, but it doesn’t look good,” Mark Hertling, the former commander of US ground forces in Europe, wrote on Twitter, referring to the image of the destruction at the Russian base.
“Yes. It’s very good,” replied his friend, retired four-star US general Michael Hayden, former head of the intelligence services of the CIA and the National Security Agency.
The Institute for the Study of War think tank said that Ukrainian officials see the strike in Crimea as “the beginning of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the south, indicating that the Ukrainian military is expecting intense fighting in August and September that could decide the outcome of the next phase of the war.” war”.
Exactly how the attack was carried out remains a mystery. Some Ukrainian officials are quoted as suggesting that it could have been sabotage by attackers. But the nearly identical impact craters and simultaneous explosions apparently indicate that it was hit by a salvo from a weapon capable of bypassing Russian defenses.
The base is well outside the range of advanced missiles that Western countries admit they have sent to Ukraine, but is within range of the more powerful versions that Kyiv has sought. Ukraine also has anti-ship missiles that can theoretically be used to defeat ground targets.
A NEW STAGE
Ukraine pushed back Russian troops from the capital Kyiv in March and from the suburbs of the second largest city Kharkiv in May. Russia then seized more territory in the east in huge fighting that left thousands of soldiers dead on both sides in June.
The front lines have been largely static since then, but Kyiv says it is preparing a major push to retake the southern Kherson and Zaporozhye regions, a major chunk of territory seized after the February 24 invasion that Moscow still holds.
Russia has fortified these regions, but its defenses depend on supply lines to supply its forces with the thousands of shells a day they are used to firing.
Kyiv is hoping that the arrival last month of US missile systems capable of hitting targets behind the front lines could tip the balance in its favour. But until now, the West has postponed the delivery of longer-range missiles that could strike deep into Russia itself or hit Moscow’s numerous bases in annexed Crimea.
Russia says its “special military operation” will be planned to protect Russian-speakers and separatists in the south and east. Ukraine and its Western allies say that after Moscow failed to overthrow the government in Kiev, it is now seeking to consolidate its power over as much territory as possible with the ultimate goal of destroying Ukraine as an independent state.
Tens of thousands of people died, millions fled, cities were destroyed.
On Thursday, Russia rejected Switzerland’s offer to represent Moscow’s diplomatic interests in Kyiv and vice versa. Historically neutral Switzerland has a long tradition of offering its embassies to host diplomatic missions of countries in conflict with each other, and already represents Russia in Georgia.
But Moscow has said Switzerland is no longer neutral because it has signed up to most EU sanctions against Russia.
Although there have been few significant advances on either side in recent weeks, intense fighting continues.
Ukraine reported Russian bombing along the entire front line, from the area around Kharkiv in the northeast, through the eastern part of the Donetsk region and on the banks of the wide Dnieper in Zaporozhye, Kherson and neighboring regions.
The Governor of Dnipropetrovsk Region, Valentin Reznichenko, said that three people were killed and seven were injured as a result of shelling in Nikopol on the right bank of the Dnieper, where 120 Grad rockets were fired.
Russian-backed separatists said they had captured Pisky, a frontline town on the outskirts of the separatist-held city of Donetsk, where fighting has raged in recent days.
“It’s hot in Pisk. The city is ours, but scattered pockets of resistance remain in its north and west,” the official representative of the separatists, Daniil Bezsonov, said in Telegram.
Ukrainian officials denied the fact that the city had fallen. Reuters was unable to verify any of the accounts.
Ukraine accused Russia on Wednesday of killing at least 13 people and injuring 10 with rockets fired from the vicinity of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.
“Cowardly Russians cannot do anything else, that’s why they are attacking the cities that are recklessly hiding at the Zaporozhye NPP,” Andrey Yermak, the head of the administration of President Uladzimir Zelensky, said on social media. Ukraine says that about 500 Russian soldiers are at the plant, where Ukrainian technicians continue to work.
Written by Tom Balmforth
(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Hugh Lawson)