The explosions at an air base in Russia-annexed Crimea this week have been explained by Moscow as an accident but experts say satellite imagery points to a likely attack by Ukrainian forces.
Here is a summary of what we know:
Accident or attack?
Russia said the air base was not targeted by an attack, but new satellite images from Wednesday appear to contradict that. The images show the base was “hit with something” and at least nine planes were destroyed, according to analyst Oliver Alexander.
“If it was an accident, it would have required 4-5 people throwing cigarettes on the same spot or hitting bombs with a hammer — incredibly unlikely,” Alexander told AFP.
The exact cause of the explosions — special forces sabotage or missile strike — is still unclear, he said.
Eliot Higgins, a founder of the investigative journalism group Bellingcat, said the images showed three craters and evidence of “a massive fire across the base”. “One way to interpret those craters is precise strikes from a long range munition,” he wrote on Twitter.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 in the wake of massive nationwide street demonstrations that led to the ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president. Those protests precipitated fighting between the army and Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, which would lay the groundwork for Moscow’s full-scale assault on February 24 this year.
Russia has used the peninsula as a major base to attack Ukraine. But Crimea has rarely been targeted, and this would represent an escalation in the war.
“I can’t think of a time Russia has lost this many air assets in one day in recent memory, and they have to be deeply concerned about Ukraine’s ability to do similar strikes elsewhere, especially the Kerch Strait Bridge,” Higgins said.
Holidaymakers forced to flee
The Kerch Strait Bridge, linking Crimea to Russia, was full of traffic jams on Tuesday, video on social media showed. Hundreds of holidaymakers were also seen fleeing a local beach in the popular tourist destination — with large plumes of smoke rising over the horizon.
Crimea’s Moscow-appointed governor Sergei Aksyonov attempted to reassure holidaymakers in a video statement saying, “All necessary measures have been tightened to ensure the safety of infrastructure facilities and the population.”
Ukraine behind the attack?
Ukrainian officials cited anonymously by the New York Times and Washington Post have said Ukraine was behind the blasts but there has been no public acknowledgement by Kyiv’s forces. Ukraine’s military has sarcastically commented on Russia’s “technical difficulties”, saying they may have been caused by smokers in unauthorised areas.
On Wednesday morning, Mykhaylo Podolyak, adviser to the Head of the Ukranian Presidency, tweeted that “the epidemic of technical accidents at military airfields in Crimea and Belarus should be considered by Russian military as a warning”. “Forget about Ukraine, take off the uniform and leave…. Karma finds you anywhere,” he continued.
In his nightly address following the attack, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not directly mention the blasts but said “Crimea is Ukrainian” and the “Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe started with Crimea and should end with Crimea, by its liberation.”