KYIV, Ukraine - A Ukrainian government official told The Washington Post on Wednesday that an attack on a Russian air base in occupied Crimea was the work of Ukrainian special forces, suggesting an increasingly important role for the covert forces known as partisans that are starting to play an expanding role in Ukraine’s efforts to expel Russian troops.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, did not disclose details of how Tuesday’s attack was carried out. The attack marks a significant escalation in the nearly six-month-old war, demonstrating a new ability by Ukrainian forces to carry out attacks against Russian forces deep in occupied territory.
At least three explosions rocked the Saki air base, in a coastal area presumed by the Russians to be so safe that videos showed startled beachgoers at a nearby resort scrambling for cover. The Crimean Peninsula was annexed by Moscow in 2014 and is a popular vacation destination for Russians.
The Ukrainian air force said in a statement that nine Russian military planes were destroyed at the base, which the authorities have said was used by Russia to launch missile strikes against Ukrainian-controlled territory.
If confirmed, the losses would be the biggest in a single day for the Russian air force since the start of the war, and could curtail Russia’s capacity to sustain missile strikes at least in the short term. They come at a time when Russia’s air force is struggling to sustain its airborne operations
Officially, Kyiv has refused to confirm or deny that Ukrainians were involved in the attack. But on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky focused his nightly address on Crimea, promising to win back the territory. “Crimea is Ukrainian, and we will never give it up,” he said, without mentioning the air base or the attack.
Ukraine’s special operations forces are engaged in a campaign to infiltrate Russian-held territory and coordinate with sympathetic locals on the ground to carry out attacks. Guerrilla activity has been especially prevalent in the occupied southern Kherson region, just north of Crimea.
In June, a Russian-installed official in Kherson was killed in a mysterious bomb blast on his way to work. Posters around the city made by Ukrainian resistance groups warned those working with the Russians that partisans would come for them, too, according to images posted on social media. One flier read: “If a HIMARS can’t reach, a partisan will help.”
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity, told The Post on Tuesday only that a U.S. weapon was not used in Tuesday’s attack in Crimea.
The American High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) recently given to Ukraine have enabled it to strike deep behind Russian lines, but the systems known to have been supplied to Ukraine have a maximum range of 50 miles. The Crimean air base is at least 140 miles from the nearest front line.
Russia said Tuesday’s blast was caused by an ammunition explosion, and officials reported that at least one person was killed and 13 were injured, including two children.
The Washington Post could not independently verify the claims from either side.
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