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Why Russia Wants to Play Down a Strike on its Forces in Crimea

Su-24 Baltics

On August 9, a Russian airbase in Crimea was devastated by a massive explosion that sent outside observers scrambling to identify what might have been used to strike the base, and what the blasts might portend for the future of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Military infrastructure like the airbase Novofedorivka, which is located near the city of Saky on the Russian-controlled Crimean Peninsula, has so far almost entirely escaped strikes by Ukrainian forces, but it appears that this status quo could be quickly vanishing.

Crimea Strike: What Happened in the Attack?

Witnesses who were present in the area of the airbase at the time of the attack, which occurred at around 3:20 pm local time, reported a series of at least twelve explosions which occurred in quick succession, with the final blast occurring 30 minutes after the others and being more powerful than any that preceded it. At the time of writing, one person was reported dead and five injured by the blasts, according to Sergei Askyonov, the Russian governor of Crimea. Russian forces seized control of the airfield along with the rest of the peninsula in 2014, during which the base became a significant flashpoint between the remaining Ukrainian troops on one side and Russian troops, militias, and mobs on the other.

While both Ukraine and Russia have acknowledged that the explosions did indeed occur and officially deny Ukrainian involvement in the explosions, a careful reading of both leaves plenty of room for deeper interpretation. Ukrainian government figures such as President Volodymyr Zelensky or presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak have either remained mute on the subject or denied Ukrainian involvement altogether. On the other hand, Russian sources flatly denied any Ukrainian role in the strikes whatsoever, instead claiming that the explosions were the result of violations of “fire safety” standards. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense appeared to mock Russia’s claim in its denial of involvement in the strike by sarcastically “reminding” Russian forces of fire safety rules and against “smoking” in certain locations. Local- and national-level Russian government officials attempted to downplay the severity of the strike, claiming that no Russian equipment had been damaged by the explosions and that the peninsula’s tourism season would continue unaffected by recent events.

What Could Ukraine Have Used to Strike the Novofedorivka Airbase (if it did so)?

Despite Russian claims that its aircraft at the base were left undamaged, videos depicting a destroyed Su-24 Fencer and damaged cars nearby which allegedly depict the aftermath of the blasts have begun circulating on social media. While it is impossible to verify the images found in the video at this stage, it is difficult to believe that all Russian aircraft at the base were entirely unscathed. According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, Russian Su-24 bombers as well as Su-30 and Su-33 fighter aircraft were present at the airbase at the time of the attack, which were visible in civilian satellite imagery from four hours before the strike shared by the Ministry.

In contradiction of Kyiv’s official claims, an anonymous Ukrainian government official with knowledge of the blasts at the airbase said that Ukraine did in fact conduct a strike on the airport. When asked what weapon Ukraine had used in its attack, the official declined to name any particular weapon or system, but instead asserted that “a device exclusively of Ukrainian manufacture was used,” and that the attack involved “partisan resistance forces loyal to the government in Kyiv.” Others have hypothesized that Ukraine could have struck the base with its domestically-produced anti-ship Neptune missiles or experimental Grim-series short-range ballistic missiles. However, questions surrounding the effectiveness of the Neptune as a ground-strike weapon or the actual operationality of the Grim as a system raises serious questions about whether they accurately can explain what struck Novofedorivka on August 9. Unless Ukraine has secretly secured long-range ATACMS munitions for its HIMARS systems from the United States, it is unlikely that those artillery systems could have executed the attack either, as their 50-mile default range likely wouldn’t be able to reach the airbase from territories in southern Ukraine controlled by Kyiv.

Crimea Strike: Consequences for the Future of the Conflict

The massive explosions which took place on August 9 are possibly the biggest Ukrainian strike on the occupied peninsula to date, and far overshadowed the July 31 drone attack on the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol which Ukraine also cryptically denied participation in while leaving some room in its reaction for justification of the strike. However, a further escalation of attacks on Russian targets in Crimea isn’t guaranteed, as both Moscow and Kyiv seem to be wary of noting Ukraine’s involvement in the August 9 strike. Although Ukraine’s motives for concealing its involvement are less clear, Russia’s armed forces would conceivably be afraid of admitting that they had allowed an attack on Crimea to occur. As a result, Russia will likely seek to sweep the incident under the rug and continue waging its invasion as if nothing had happened.

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Written By

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Jacksonian Libertarian

    August 10, 2022 at 4:49 pm

    The Russian’s sure have a lot of problems with fires sinking their ships and blowing up their air bases.

    Maybe it’s just me, but if I was in a war zone and I was having many problems with fires, I might think it was enemy action./sarc

  2. Friend

    August 10, 2022 at 6:06 pm

    My random guess is that the base was bombed by a Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton. Those have just entered service. Twelve explosions seem to many for ATACMS

  3. AmericanAkitTeam7

    August 10, 2022 at 6:52 pm

    No the likely culprit was a coordinated local drone strike by special ops. Not likely to have been ICBMs, ASMs or M142 HIMARS – much more likely this was a local tactical op using low flying drones and not high end stealth drones.

  4. Fluffy Dog

    August 10, 2022 at 8:25 pm

    I would concur. It does not take much to get the local stores exploding and setting off a chain reaction. A Ukrainian manufactured drone could be PD-2, which can carry up to 19 kg of payload; Pilum is another one but max payload is 5 kg. The PD-2 drone has a range of 1100 km, enough to hit the airfield.

  5. Walker

    August 10, 2022 at 9:31 pm

    Does it really matter how it was done? I just hope Ukraine has a lot more of where that came from. Crimea has been one of the strongest points of embarkation for Russian troops. Deny them of this staging area will be a great asset in the return of Kherson. How long before Russia realizes it has lost the war?

  6. Old Desert Coyote

    August 10, 2022 at 9:32 pm

    I don’t know why the Partisan forces of Ukraine are not getting more consideration about their effectiveness. After all wasn’t it the NO-TECH partisan forces that drove the MIGHTY U.S. ARMY OUT OF VIETNAM AND AFGHANISTAN???

  7. CRS, DrPH

    August 10, 2022 at 9:46 pm

    Outstanding photos here! Ukrainians were going after the jets very precisely. Either spooks on the ground, or short-range conventional UAS. They did nice work!

    https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/widespread-destruction-seen-after-blasts-at-russian-base-in-crimea

  8. Steven

    August 10, 2022 at 10:02 pm

    lol, you guys mercenaries or something? How do you know this?

  9. jack johnson

    August 11, 2022 at 6:34 am

    It certainly wasn’t a missile strike, there are 5 ways to Sunday to determine that and it doesn’t pan out. The ground war is all but over for Ukraine, guerilla type strikes or sabotage is all the is left for them. Hopefully nothing stupid happens that escalates this ridiculous war.

  10. Alej Marcos

    August 11, 2022 at 9:15 am

    “I don’t know why the Partisan forces of Ukraine are not getting more consideration about their effectiveness. After all wasn’t it the NO-TECH partisan forces that drove the MIGHTY U.S. ARMY OUT OF VIETNAM AND AFGHANISTAN???”

    Coyote, you’re not very old at all, or you would have remembered that
    A) US forces drove the last NVA out of RVN in 1972, and
    B) the Democrat-controlled Congress pulled the logistical rug out from under RVN in 1975, resulting in 1.5 additional South Vietnamese deaths.

    BTW, a traitorous bastard named Biden “drove” the US Army out of Afghanistan.

  11. ICU

    August 11, 2022 at 11:56 am

    For eight years Ukraine has claimed they were waging a war in the Donbas against Russian forces and separatists. In that time, WITHOUT nato help they captured and occupied many cities including Mariupol. They’ve built extensive fortifications also.

    Since Feb 2022 and the beginning of the Russian Special Military Operation, they have been driven out of the LPR, Mariopol, Kherson, and almost completely from the DPR. So I have a serious question: How were they able to be victorious against the Russians for eight years WITHOUT any international help, but now with literally every western nation flooding them with weapons and money they are losing?

    The answer is obvious. They were never actually fighting the Russians previously. They were instead using military air-power and artillery against the CIVILIANS in the Donbas. They were committing genocide. Just like Putin claimed.

    If you think I’m wrong, explain how they were previously winning without NATO help, and are now losing with all of the NATO help.

  12. Joseph

    August 11, 2022 at 5:02 pm

    The article leaves us with just the following elaboration of the question posed in the title: “Russia’s armed forces would conceivably be afraid of admitting that they had allowed an attack on Crimea to occur.” Maybe there will be a follow-up?

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