Ukrainian special forces blew up an ammunition depot in Russian-occupied Crimea on Tuesday and may have been responsible for contemporaneous attacks on an air base and transformer substation, Ukrainian officials told The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Ukraine's government has not claimed credit for Tuesday's massive explosions in Crimea or last week's blasts at a different Russian air base that destroyed several Russian warplanes. But Ukrainian officials have publicly suggested that these were Ukrainian attacks — a president adviser coyly referred to the blasts as "demilitarization in action" — and Russia's defense ministry called Tuesday's explosions near the Crimean village of Mayskoye an "act of sabotage," conceding that Moscow's war in Ukraine has spread to areas recently believed to be out of harm's way.
The attacks on Crimea, "transformed by eight years of occupation into a fortress," are a profound embarrassment to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose near-bloodless seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 was wildly popular in Russia and "cemented his image as a leader resurrecting Russia as a great power," the Times reports. "Until this month, Crimea appeared well protected from Ukrainian attacks," and Russians were flocking to its beaches.
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But war observers also say the strikes on Crimea are degrading Russia's ability to fend off Ukraine's telegraphed counteroffensive in Kherson, the strategically important coastal region north of the Crimean peninsula. "Russian supply lines from Crimea directly support Russian forces in mainland Ukraine including those in western Kherson Oblast," the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank assessed on Tuesday.
"Russia's possibilities on the battlefield are being limited" by Ukraine's strikes in Crimea, independent Russian military analyst Pavel Luzin tells the Times. "Crimea is the only way to support the grouping of troops in the Kherson and Zaporizka regions. Otherwise, this grouping of troops does not exist."
The "attacks on Russian positions in and around Crimea are likely part of a coherent Ukrainian counteroffensive to regain control" of Kherson city, ISW's analysts write. "Ukraine's targeting of Russian ground lines of communication and logistic and support assets in Crimea is consistent with the Ukrainian counteroffensive effort that has also targeted bridges over the Dnipro River and Russian logistical support elements in occupied Kherson Oblast."
"Ukraine lacks the heavy weaponry" to take Kherson by force right now, Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine's National Institute for Strategic Studies, tells Politico. But forcing Moscow to redeploy forces to Kherson, now vulnerable to supply line cutoffs and Ukrainian artillery strikes, is "quite an achievement."
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