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Russia Hunts Saboteurs in Crimea After Blasts

The Wall Street Journal. 8/17/2022 Isabel Coles
© bulent kilic/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

DNIPRO, Ukraine—Russia’s intelligence services were hunting for saboteurs in Crimea on Wednesday after an explosion at an ammunition depot rattled Moscow’s grip on the peninsula.

Tuesday’s blasts followed an explosion last week at an air base in Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014.

A Ukrainian official said saboteurs were behind Tuesday’s blasts, which prompted authorities to evacuate more than 3,000 people and suspend trains on a rail line. Russia also said it was sabotage in its first official acknowledgment of a strike on the peninsula.

In a show of action, Russia’s FSB intelligence agency on Wednesday said it had detained six Russian citizens in Crimea who belonged to a cell that spread what it called terrorist ideology with the support of Ukrainian “emissaries,” according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. It didn’t say the detained suspects were involved in either of the recent blasts.

The apparent deterioration in security across Crimea is likely to be of concern to Russian commanders, who rely on the peninsula as a rear base for their occupation of a swath of territory along Ukraine’s southern coast, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense said Wednesday.

Supporters of Ukraine have been active in other areas of the country more recently occupied by Russia, with both Russians and their Ukrainian collaborators a target. On Wednesday, Russian forces blocked the exit from the city of Melitopol following an explosion near the office of the city’s occupation administration, according to Melitopol’s exiled mayor, Ivan Fedorov. He provided no further details of the blast but told Ukrainian TV that Russian forces were undressing men who wanted to leave the city and checking their identity, a sign a hunt for suspects was under way.

The explosions in Crimea, however, represent a heavier blow to Russia, exposing vulnerabilities in an area over which Moscow’s hold hasn’t been materially contested for years.

Russian officials attributed last week’s blast at an air base on the peninsula to an accidental ammunition explosion and claimed no aircraft had been damaged. Satellite images, as well as Ukrainian and Western officials, however, indicated that several warplanes were destroyed in the blast, degrading the naval aviation capability of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which already lost its flagship, the cruiser Moskva, to a Ukrainian attack in April. RIA on Wednesday confirmed the fleet’s commander had been replaced with Vice Admiral Viktor Sokolov at the Fleet’s headquarters in Sevastopol, which was struck by a small drone-carried explosive device last month.

Ukrainian military intelligence said Wednesday that Russia had relocated some planes and helicopters following the blasts in Crimea, moving aircraft to airports deeper in the peninsula and the Russian mainland.

While Ukrainian officials stopped short of claiming responsibility for last week’s explosion at the air base, they pledged to retake the peninsula and hinted at involvement. President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday urged Ukrainians in occupied regions such as Crimea to keep clear of Russian military facilities and sites where ammunition and equipment were stored.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky, on Wednesday suggested the Kerch bridge connecting Crimea to mainland Russia would be a legitimate target: “As recorded in international law: Crimea [is Ukraine]. So this bridge is an illegal object, permission for the construction of which was not given by Ukraine,” he said on Twitter. “It harms the peninsula’s ecology and therefore must be dismantled.”

The attacks in and around Crimea are seen by analysts as part of a broader effort by Ukraine to dislodge Russian troops from the west bank of the Dnipro River. “Russian supply lines from Crimea directly support Russian forces in mainland Ukraine including those in western Kherson [region],” the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank, said Wednesday.

Ukraine has in recent weeks been laying the ground for a counteroffensive in Kherson, which Russian forces seized in the early days of the invasion. Military analysts question Kyiv’s ability to mount a full-on assault after six months of heavy fighting that have exacted a heavy toll. Instead, Ukraine is seeking to degrade Russian logistics and supply lines using high-precision long-range artillery supplied by the U.S. to knock out bridges across the Dnipro River.

“The net effects of this campaign will likely be to disrupt the ability of Russian forces to sustain mechanized forces on the west bank of the Dnipro River and to defend them with air and artillery assets on the east bank from Ukrainian counterattacks,” the Institute for the Study of War said.

While the threat of a counteroffensive in the south has compelled Moscow to shift resources from the east, Russian forces continue to push for gains in the eastern Donbas region. There was fighting in Bakhmut and other areas in the Donetsk region on Wednesday as Russian forces sought to strengthen their positions near Avdiivka and Kramatorsk, according to the general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces.

Russia also continues to lash out with missile strikes at Ukrainian cities far behind the front lines. Rockets landed in the port city of Odessa in the early hours of Wednesday, according to Serhiy Bratchuk, spokesman for the regional military administration. The missiles were fired from an aircraft, the Ukrainian military’s southern command said, damaging a recreation center and injuring four civilians.

Blasts were also heard in several districts of Mykolaiv, according to Mayor Oleksandr Sienkevych. Two missiles struck a university Mr. Sienkevych said he had visited days earlier.

Despite the hostilities, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said four more ships loaded with agricultural products sailed from Ukrainian ports on Wednesday under a deal Ankara helped broker with the United Nations to lift a Russian blockade that threatened global food security.

Corrections & Amplifications Serhiy Bratchuk is spokesman for Odessa’s military administration. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said he is the head of the Odessa regional military administration. (Corrected on Aug. 17.)

Write to Isabel Coles at

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