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Scorched earth and destroyed jets Major damage at airbase in Crimea casts doubt on Russian Defense Ministry’s claims

Source: Meduza
Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

A series of explosions rocked the Saki airbase in Russia-controlled Crimea on August 9, killing one person and injuring 14 others. Officially, both Moscow and Kyiv denied that Ukraine had anything to do with the blasts, which caused major damage to the airfield and the nearby town of Novofedorivka. However, unnamed Ukrainian officials told Western journalists that Ukrainian forces were responsible for the attack — and that it was carried out using a Ukrainian-made weapon. Curiously, no official sources have suggested that the base was hit by a Ukrainian missile strike, even though the damage seems consistent with such an attack. At the same time, the Saki airbase is located outside of the range of nearly all the weapons that Ukraine is known to have. Meduza breaks down what we know about the explosions two days later.

Where did the explosions take place?

The explosions took place at the Saki airfield in Novofedorivka, a town on the western coast of Russia-controlled Crimea, where the Black Sea Fleet’s 43rd Independent Naval Attack Aviation Regiment is based. According to Ukrainian intelligence, 43rd Regiment’s aircraft regularly strike southern Ukraine, committing “war crimes against the civilian population.” This regiment is likely the core aviation group supporting Russian troops in the regions of Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Zaporizhzhia. 

The Ukrainian command has made no secret of the fact that it’s planning a counteroffensive in the south. In preparation, Ukrainian forces have launched strikes on bridges over the Dnipro River that are used to supply Russian troops near Kherson, as well as on Russian air defense systems. Attacks on one of Russia’s main air bases in the area would be logical continuation of these preparations. 

During his evening address on August 9, President Volodymyr Zelensky did not confirm or deny Ukraine’s role in the explosions. But he underscored that the war “began with Crimea and must end with Crimea.” The next day, Politico reported that according to two Ukrainian officials, the blasts in Novofedorivka signaled the start of Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive. 

What’s wrong with the Russian Defense Ministry’s story? 

The Russian Defense Ministry said that aviation munitions accidentally detonated at the Saki airbase due to a “fire safety violation” at a storage point. However, videos from the scene show that there were in fact several blasts. The author of what is perhaps the earliest video (based on the time it was recorded) was initially filming a Il-76 transport aircraft and then turned the camera to capture two mushroom clouds on the horizon nearby. Videos filmed from different angles around the same time seem to show two different parts of the airfield on fire, followed by more explosions. 

The two large explosions were estimated to be at least 750 meters (820 yards) apart. One took place near what appears to be a warehouse, while the other occurred near a tarmac where several aircraft had been parked. The two mushroom clouds appeared at the exact same time and had the same formation, indicating a similar cause. 

All of the videos also show a third plume of smoke rising from the airfield just before the two powerful explosions occurred. In all likelihood, this smoke also originated from a blast, the sound of which presumably prompted people in different parts of Novofedorivka to point their cameras towards the airfield. 

A satellite image of the Saki airfield taken shortly before the explosions. August 9, 2022.
Planet Labs PBC / AP / Scanpix / LETA
A satellite image of the Saki airfield taken on August 10, 2022, which shows the damage from the explosions the day before.
Planet Labs PBC / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Two days after the explosions, on August 11, the American company Planet Labs released satellite images of the Saki airfield that appear to show widespread damage. Journalists and experts analyzed both before and after images, and concluded that several Russian military aircraft were destroyed, contradicting the Russian Defense Ministry’s earlier claims that no aviation equipment had been damaged. 

According to CNN’s assessment, at least seven Russian warplanes were destroyed. In turn, the Russian BBC, The New York Times, and the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported that Russia lost at least eight aircraft. Schemes, an investigative project by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian service, counted nine — including both Su-30 fighter jets and Su-24 bombers. The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and President Zelensky also reported that Russia lost nine warplanes on August 9. 

In addition, journalists and experts pointed out that the satellite images show at least three large craters, as well as large swaths of scorched earths and what appear to be damaged storage sites. The airfield’s main runways seemed undamaged, as did several helicopters and a large ammunition depot. 

Taken together, these observations make the Russian Defense Ministry’s explanation highly unconvincing: a fire in an ammunition depot in one part of the airfield could hardly cause multiple, simultaneous detonations in three locations hundreds of meters apart. The more logical assumption is that all of the explosions were the result of an external attack using the same kind of ammunition (or that explosive devices planted at the airbase were detonated by saboteurs). 

What weapon could have been used? 

The Saki airbase is 207 kilometers (128 miles) away from the nearest territory controlled by the Ukrainian army in the Oleksandrivka district of the Kherson region. This rules out the use of most of the weapons that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are known to have at their disposal.

However, speaking to American media on condition of anonymity, Ukrainian officials said that Ukrainian forces were responsible for the blasts. And that “a device exclusively of Ukrainian manufacture was used” in the attack (that is, not a Western-supplied weapon). Theoretically, this weapon could have been one of the following:

  • A mass-produced or improvised attack drone. Ukrainian troops have already used a variety of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to carry out strikes on Russian territory and in Crimea. For example, on June 22, a Ukrainian UAV carrying explosives crashed into an oil refinery in the Rostov region. On July 31, a short-range drone launched from Crimean territory (likely by Ukrainian special forces or partisans) attacked the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol. Russian air defense systems failed to detect and destroy these relatively simple targets on both occasions. 
  • A Neptune anti-ship missile. A Ukrainian cruise missile based on the Soviet Kh-35, which is said to have a maximum range of 280 kilometers (174 miles). The Ukrainian command said it was a Neptune missile strike that sank the cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. However, whether the Neptune missile has been used or even tested for destroying ground targets is unknown. In addition, these low-flying missiles should be a relatively easy target for Russian air defense systems to intercept. 
  • Alternatively, Ukrainian special forces or partisans could have infiltrated the airfield and planted mines (theoretically speaking). 

That said, the explosions at the airbase were very powerful, which doesn’t point to a Neptune missile with a 150-kilogram (330-lbs) warhead, or a small UAV explosion. However, if any of the above-mentioned weapons were used successfully, this would constitute a failure on the part of the Russian military (namely, of Russia’s air defense systems or the Black Sea Fleet’s counterintelligence). Of course, the Russian command has little to gain from acknowledging such failures, which may explain why the defense ministry blamed a “fire safety violation” and denied that the Ukrainian side had anything to do with the blasts. 

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If, contrary to the claims of the anonymous Ukrainian officials, the strike was carried out using a Western-made weapon, we can point to a few more “suspects.” For example, Ukraine has officially received upgraded Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which have a 300-kilometer (186-mile) range and 220-kilogram (485-lbs) warheads, as well as the ability to pinpoint stationary targets using GPS. 

Officially, all other Western-made weapons delivered to Ukraine are not designed for a powerful strike over a distance of 200 kilometers (124 miles). For example, the HIMARS missile systems and GMLRS rockets that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been actively using in recent weeks to target ammunition depots, military headquarters, and bridges far behind Russian lines have a range of 85 kilometers (53 miles). 

But HIMARS systems can also be used to fire ATACMS missiles, which have a range of up to 300 kilometers (186 miles) and warheads weighing 225 kilograms (496 lbs). Officially, Ukraine has yet to receive ATACMS missiles, but discussions about supplying them have been going on for several months (and new types of weapons are often delivered to Ukraine before an official announcement is made). Ukrainian bloggers believe that ATACMS missiles were likely used in the attack on the airbase in Crimea. 

However, it’s unlikely that ATACMS missiles have already been delivered to Ukraine. Reportedly, the Biden administration is hesitant to supply Ukraine with longer-range munitions, for fear of goading Russia into further escalating the war. 

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