Update – Following are developments since our original fact check published on August 9:
- Citing a senior Ukrainian official, The New York Times reported on August 12 that Russian air forces may have suffered as many as 60 pilots and technicians dead and 100 wounded in the air base attack.
- The Russian occupational administration of Crimea reported 14 wounded and one killed in the blasts, claiming all of them are civilians.
- Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned his government officials from further publicizing details of Ukraine’s defense and tactics after the Western media quoted senior Ukrainian officials confirming that Kyiv was behind the Saki air base attack.
- The Russian Defense Ministry repeated its false claim that there was no attack on Saki air base but only an incidental detonation of munitions. The ministry has not mentioned any casualties.
[End of update]
On August 9, multiple explosions shook the Russian military airfield at Saki on the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.
A Russian defense official told Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency:
“As a main cause of the explosion of some munitions at the Saki airfield only a violation of fire safety requirements is considered. There are no signs, evidence, much less facts of intentional impacts on munitions with the aim of detonation.”
That is false.
The Ukrainian Air Force Command said in a statement that the attack at the Saki base destroyed nine Russian warplanes, the Kyiv Post reported on August 10. The next day, Reuters reported that satellite photos showed extensive damage that appeared to be deliberately targeted:
"Pictures released by independent satellite firm Planet Labs showed three near-identical craters where buildings at Russia's Saki air base had been struck with apparent precision. The base, on the southwest coast of Crimea, had suffered extensive fire damage, with burnt-out husks of at least eight destroyed warplanes clearly visible."
"Western military experts said the scale of the damage and the apparent precision of the strike suggested a powerful new capability with potentially important implications."
Ukraine officials have been guarded about responsibility for the destruction:
"Officially, we are not confirming or denying anything; there are numerous scenarios for what might have happened... bearing in mind that there were several epicentres of explosions at exactly the same time," Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters in a message."
“This was an air base from which planes regularly took off for attacks against our forces in the southern theater,” The New York Times quoted an unnamed Ukraine military official as saying earlier. That official described the explosions as an “attack.”
Russia has been using the Saki airfield as a base for its 43rd Naval Attack Aviation Regiment, according to The Drive’s War Zone, a website that follows military and intelligence matters. The Russian unit includes 12 Su-30SM, six Su-24M and six Su-24MR fighter planes, The War Zone said.
The Times said it verified videos some of which were widely shared on social media, showing huge plumes of smoke at the base. The Ukrainian official declined to say what caused the explosions, the Times said, except that “a device exclusively of Ukrainian manufacture was used.”
A strike in Crimea has special significance, the Times noted:
“A Ukrainian attack on Russian forces in the Crimean Peninsula would represent a significant expansion of Ukraine’s offensive efforts, which until now have been largely limited to pushing Russian troops back from territories occupied after Feb. 24, when the invasion began.
“It would also be an embarrassment for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who often speaks of Crimea, which he illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, as if it were hallowed ground.”
The Washington Post also quoted a Ukrainian government official saying that Ukraine’s special forces carried out an attack on a Russian air base in occupied Crimea. The Post said the unnamed official did not disclose the details of the operation but said there were “at least three explosions.”
“The attack marks a dramatic escalation in the nearly six-month-old war, demonstrating an ability by Ukrainian forces to strike farther behind Russian lines than previously believed,” The Post reported, also adding that no U.S. weapon was used in the attack.
In an analysis headlined, “The Ukrainians Hammered A Russian Air Base 120 Miles From The Front,” Forbes reported:
“It’s possible the damage is much more extensive that the initial evidence implies. But exactly how the Ukrainians hit this major Russian facility 120 miles from the front line remains unclear.”
The explosions at Saki “were likely caused by the Ukrainian forces either using domestically manufactured Hrim-2 short range ballistic missiles, an unidentified western system or modified un-crewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) with loitering munitions, possibly directed by a sabotage group of the special forces on the ground in occupied Crimea,” Alex Kokcharov, principal analyst at the S&P Global Market Intelligence group in London, U.K. told Polygraph.info.
Videos shared on social media, some of them verified by open-source intelligence sleuths, showed burned-out cars and planes.
"There is absolutely no doubt that the explosions were not caused by the incidental detonation, and that the Ukrainian forces or saboteurs were behind the attack," Gen. Ben Hodges, ex-commander of U.S. forces in Europe, said on the Mriya Report on Twitter.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pledged during a video address on the evening of August 9 to liberate Crimea from Russian occupation. The war “started with Crimea and will end with Crimea,” Zelenskyy said.
Russian authorities blamed a series of unexplained incidents inside Russia on “violations of fire safety requirements.” In May, Newsweek reported there had been 11 fires at strategic military industry warehouses, oil depots and defense research facilities in Russia – even in Moscow – since the Kremlin launched its full-fledged invasion of Ukraine in late February.
Western officials have said that Russian military facilities are legitimate targets for Ukraine.
Russia’s Defense Ministry initially said the “incident” at the Crimean airfield did not cause casualties. However, Russian occupation authorities later said that the explosions killed at least one person and injured more than a dozen others.
Russian authorities ordered Russian tourists vacationing at Crimean Black Sea resorts to return home. The exodus caused heavy traffic jams on the Crimean bridge and other roads that connect the peninsula to the Russian mainland.