Ukraine conflict: Large explosions rock Russian air base in Crimea as Kremlin likely turn to ‘volunteer’ battalions

Powerful explosions have rocked a Russian air base in Crimea and sent towering clouds of smoke over the landscape in what may mark an escalation of the war in Ukraine.

At least one person was killed and several others were wounded at the Saki base on the Black Sea, authorities said.

Russia’s Defence Ministry denied the base had been shelled and said munitions had blown up, but Ukrainian social networks were abuzz with speculation that it was hit by Ukrainian-fired long-range missiles.

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Videos posted on social networks showed sunbathers on nearby beaches fleeing as huge flames and pillars of smoke rose over the horizon from multiple points, accompanied by loud booms.

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Crimea Today News said witnesses reported fire on a runway and damage to nearby homes as a result of what it said were dozens of blasts.

Russia’s state news agency Tass quoted an unidentified ministry source as saying the explosions’ primary cause appeared to be a “violation of fire safety requirements”. The ministry said no warplanes were damaged.

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Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said sarcastically on Facebook: “The Ministry of Defence of Ukraine cannot establish the cause of the fire, but once again recalls the rules of fire safety and the prohibition of smoking in unspecified places.”

A presidential adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, said in his regular online interview that the blasts were caused either by a Ukrainian-made long-range weapon or were the work of partisans operating in Crimea.

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Rising smoke can be seen from the beach at Saky after explosions were heard from the direction of a Russian military airbase near Novofedorivka, Crimea, Tuesday Aug. 9, 2022. The explosion of munitions caused a fire at a military air base in Russian-annexed Crimea Tuesday but no casualties or damage to stationed warplanes, Russia's Defense Ministry said. (UGC via AP)

During the war, Russia has reported numerous fires and explosions at munitions storage sites in its territory near the Ukrainian border, blaming some of them on Ukrainian strikes.

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If Ukrainian forces were responsible for the blasts at the air base, it would be the first known major attack on a Russian military site on the Crimean peninsula, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014.

A smaller explosion last month at the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol was blamed on Ukrainian saboteurs using a makeshift drone.

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Officials in Moscow have long warned Ukraine that any attack on Crimea would trigger massive retaliation, including strikes on “decision-making centres” in Kyiv.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday in his nightly video address: “This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea — its liberation.

“Today it is impossible to say when this will happen. But we are constantly adding the necessary components to the formula for the liberation of Crimea.”

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In an update, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that Russian forces would struggle to balance operational priorities, and that volunteer battalions were being formed.

In an update, the MoD said: “Russian commanders highly likely continue to be faced with the competing operational priorities of reinforcing the Donbas offensive, and strengthening defences against anticipated Ukrainian counter attacks in the south.

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"To support the Ukraine operation, Russia has almost certainly established a major new ground forces formation, 3rd Army Corps (3 AC), based out of Mulino, in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast east of Moscow.

"Russia likely plans to resource a large proportion of 3 AC from newly formed ‘volunteer’ battalions, which are being raised across the country, and which group together recruits from the same areas.

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"Russian regional politicians have confirmed that potential 3 AC recruits are being offered lucrative cash bonuses once they deploy to Ukraine”

It added: “Recruitment is open to men up to 50 years old and with only middle-school education.

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"A Russian army corps typically consists of 15-20,000 troops, but it will probably be difficult for Russia to bring 3 AC up to this strength, given very limited levels of popular enthusiasm for volunteering for combat in Ukraine.

"3 AC’s effect is unlikely to be decisive to the campaign.”