We previously detailed how Tuesday's large explosion at Russia's Saky air base deep within Crimea immediately set off speculation that Ukraine's military could have just launched its boldest attack yet of the six-month long war. Ukraine's government has been sending mixed signals. On an official level Kiev has denied being behind a possible missile strike or sabotage attack, but The New York Times cited an unnamed senior Ukraine defense official who took responsibility.
Widely circulated social media videos of the huge explosion appeared to show multiple 'impact' locations, leading to speculation of an external Ukrainian attack. However, as the BBC reports Wednesday:
Russia's defense ministry insisted the blasts were down to ammunition that had exploded in a store and that there was no "fire impact" from outside - although this has not been independently verified.
And Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak denied that Ukraine was behind the blasts, telling the Dozhd online television channel: "Of course not. What do we have to do with this?"
Despite this formal denial, speculation persists, especially following what appears to be leaked video clips purportedly from inside Saki air base surfaced, showing widespread destruction from the blast, including charred military aircraft.
Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky in his nightly address also sent mixed signals. While not directly mentioning Tuesday's blast, he said, "Crimea is Ukrainian and we will never give it up."
The Crimean air base explosion, which took place some 200km from the front lines of fighting in Ukraine, in addition to Zelensky now vowing to not negotiate until Crimea is "liberated" - suggests the six month long war is about to take an even darker turn and escalate:
"This Russian war against Ukraine and against the entire free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea - with its liberation," Zelensky said.
"Russia has turned our peninsula … one of the best places in Europe, into one of the most dangerous places in Europe."
Incredible amounts of damage at Novofedorivka airbase in Crimea. pic.twitter.com/ymFh7HUxDX— OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) August 9, 2022
Within hours after the 'mystery' explosion, Ukraine's Ministry of Defense issued the below provocative tweet, trolling the Russian side and even appearing to boast.
Some fresh reports - though unconfirmed - have also suggested it could be the result of a Ukrainian special forces sabotage operation targeting ammunition and fuel depots on the base. The question of US or Western long-range missile systems is also a factor being considered.
The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine would like to remind everyone that the presence of occupying troops on the territory of Ukrainian Crimea is not compatible with the high tourist season. pic.twitter.com/PFl6jBzKh4— Defense of Ukraine (@DefenceU) August 9, 2022
The BBC gives the following explanation as to why the location of the incident would be so alarming to Moscow:
Novofedorivka and Saky are about 50km (30 miles) north of the port of Sevastopol, home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which has been leading a blockade of the Ukrainian coastline. The airbase had been used by Russia to launch attacks on targets deep inside Ukraine.
Footage on social media showed beachgoers running as the explosions hit, with witnesses saying they had heard at least 12 blasts. Crimea's Russian-appointed health department said one civilian had been killed and another eight injured.
Any attack on Crimea by Ukraine would be considered deeply serious by Moscow. Russia sounded a warning last month when ex-President Dmitry Medvedev threatened last month that "Judgement Day will instantly await" if Ukraine targeted Crimea.
Thus when Zelensky says "This Russian war...began with Crimea and must end with Crimea - with its liberation" - it signals serious escalation.
#OSINT— H I Sutton (@CovertShores) August 9, 2022
The #Russian Navy Sukhoi Su-24 FENCER strike aircraft seen destroyed at Saki air base in Crimea, is likely the left-most one in the satelite image shared by @Topol_MSS27 earlier today (https://t.co/cd707UeTa9).
The sat image was just hours before the attack by #Ukraine pic.twitter.com/OYomhPJi6Q
It further marks a shift away from the statements of Ukrainian leadership within the opening months of the war, when Kiev's rhetoric seemed more open to making territorial concessions, especially Crimea which has been firmly under Russian control going back to 2014.
One question remains: if indeed it was a Ukrainian attack, why would the Kremlin downplay it, covering it up as an 'accident'? A number of pundits have pointed out this likely means Russia is unwilling to escalate at this time. Being forced to acknowledge a devastating and 'successful' Ukrainian operation so deep within Crimea would require a major, escalatory response from the Russian side. It could be that "cooler heads are prevailing" in the Kremlin for now - also given fears the conflict could easily spiral outside Ukraine's borders, becoming internationalized further.
"A Ukrainian government official told The Washington Post on Wednesday that an airfield explosion in occupied Crimea was the work of Ukrainian special forces." @ikhurshudyan pic.twitter.com/jEMkrilHK1— Rob Lee (@RALee85) August 10, 2022
In the meantime, two drastically contrary narratives have persisted into Wednesday. According to the latest AP reporting, "Ukraine’s air force said Wednesday that nine Russian warplanes were destroyed in massive explosions at an air base in Crimea amid speculation they were the result of a Ukrainian attack that would represent a significant escalation in the war."
However, "Russia denied any aircraft were damaged in Tuesday’s blasts — or that any attack took place."