World attention for Russia’s war in Ukraine once again turned to Russia-annexed Crimea on Tuesday, where two separate fires, including one involving massive explosions, injured at least two people and forced the evacuation of about 2,000 residents.
The second incident in a week in Crimea raised increasing questions about whether Ukrainian troops managed to hit the peninsula. Videos posted to social media showed thick plumes of smoke rising above the raging flames, and a series of multiple explosions could be heard in the background.
“Russian-occupied Crimea is about explosions in warehouses and a high risk of death for intruders and thieves,” said a cryptic Twitter post from Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, who has stopped claiming Ukraine’s responsibility for the incident.
The fire and explosion rocked the village of Mayskoye in Crimea’s Dzhankoi district on Tuesday, Russian media also reported.
Another morning incident was reported in Dzhankoi itself – according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, a transformer substation was on fire after “a loud thumping noise”. The Russian Ministry of Energy reported shortly afterwards that the fire in the substation was under control.
It was not immediately clear whether the fire in the substation and the fire at the ammunition store were related.
Kiev certainly reinforced a message of chaos.
“The morning near Dzhankoi started with explosions. As a reminder, the Crimea of a normal country is about the Black Sea, mountains, recreation and tourism,” Podolyak wrote, referring to the time before Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014.
The Russian Defense Ministry said a fire broke out at a “temporary storage place for ammunition of one of the military units”.
“As a result of the fire, the stored ammunition exploded,” the ministry said, adding that it was not immediately clear what caused the fire.
Crimea’s Dzhankoi district is located in the north of the peninsula, about 48 kilometers from the Russian-controlled Kherson region of southern Ukraine. Kiev has recently carried out a series of attacks in various locations in the region, targeting supply routes for the Russian army there and ammunition depots.
Russia-appointed governor of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, said two people were injured in the most recent incident and local residents were evacuated from the area as ammunition explosions continued.
Aksyonov said several residential buildings were damaged near the fire site, and about 2,000 people were evacuated from nearby areas. According to Russian media, railway lines that ran through Mayskoye were also damaged.
Aksyonov said all trains will be stopped in the town of Vladislavovka, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Mayskoye, and passengers can continue their journey on buses.
Last week, a series of explosions took place at the Saki Air Force Base near the village of Novofyodorovka in Crimea. The Russian military blamed the explosions on an accidental detonation of ammunition there, but the incident appeared to be the result of a Ukrainian attack. Kiev said the explosions destroyed nine Russian planes.
Ukrainian officials at the time stopped publicly claiming responsibility for the explosions, while mocking Russia’s explanation that a careless smoker set fire to and detonated ammunition at Saki Air Force Base. Analysts also said the statement is false and that the Ukrainians could have used anti-ship missiles to attack the base.
The Crimean peninsula has enormous strategic and symbolic significance for both sides. The Kremlin’s demand that Ukraine recognize Crimea as part of Russia has been one of the key preconditions for ending the fighting, while Ukraine has vowed to drive the Russians out of the peninsula and all other occupied territories.
And an update from British Ministry of Defense intelligence claimed that in the waters off Crimea, surface ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet “continue to pursue an extremely defensive stance,” with boats barely venturing out of sight of the shoreline.
Russia already lost its flagship Moskva in the Black Sea and last month the Ukrainian army recaptured the strategic outpost Snake Island off Ukraine’s southwest coast, which is vital for guaranteeing shipping routes from Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port.
The “limited effectiveness of the Russian fleet undermines Russia’s overall invasion strategy,” the British statement said. “This means Ukraine can use resources to pressure Russian ground forces elsewhere.”