Explosions were reported overnight near military bases deep within Russian-held areas of Ukraine and inside Russia’s territory itself, as Ukrainian forces appear to be demonstrating their ability to wreak havoc on Moscow’s logistics far from front lines.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said in televised remarks on Friday that statements from Ukrainian officials about striking facilities in Russian-occupied Crimea mark “an escalation of the conflict openly encouraged by the United States and its NATO allies”.
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“Deep and open US involvement” in the war in Ukraine “effectively puts the US on the brink of becoming a party to the conflict,” Ryabkov said.
“We don’t want an escalation, we would like to avoid a situation where the US becomes a party to the conflict, but so far we haven’t seen their readiness to deeply and seriously consider those warnings,” he said.
In Crimea – the peninsula Russia seized and annexed in 2014 – explosions were reported overnight near an air base in Belbek, on the southwest coast near Sevastopol, headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
On the opposite end of the peninsula, the sky was also lit up at Kerch near a huge bridge to Russia, with what Russia said was fire from its air own defences.
Within Russia, two villages were evacuated after explosions at an ammunition dump in Belgorod province, near the Ukrainian border but more than 100 km (60 miles) from territory controlled by Ukrainian forces.
Residents were evacuated after a fire at a munitions depot near the village of Timonovo, the Belgorod region’s governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said on Friday.
Roughly 1,100 people live in the villages of Timonovo and Soloti, but there were no casualties in the blaze that broke out late on Thursday night, the governor said.
Kyiv has cultivated an atmosphere of ambiguity around such incidents by withholding official comment on explosions and fires in Crimea or inside Russia, yet also hinting that Ukrainian forces were responsible, using long-range weapons or sabotage.
Last week, nine Russian warplanes were reportedly destroyed at an airbase in Crimea, demonstrating both the Russians’ vulnerability and the Ukrainians’ capacity to strike deep behind enemy lines.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alluded to Ukrainian forces mounting attacks behind enemy lines after the blasts in Crimea, which Russia has blamed on “sabotage”.
Stefan Wolff, professor of international security at the University of Birmingham, told Al Jazeera that Ukrainian attacks inside Russian-controlled territory demonstrate Kyiv’s growing military capabilities and the frustrating of Moscow’s war efforts.
“I think this indicates that Ukraine is now increasingly striking into Russia’s strategic depth as far as its supply lines are concerned. And this is very important given that Russian is still trying to mount offensives, in particular, around Kharkiv right now and in the Donbas area, and also trying to counter the offensive that Ukraine has been mounting in the Kherson region in the south,” Wolff said.
“So, disrupting Russian supplies will make the Russian efforts on all three front lines much more difficult, and that is obviously a very important development from a Ukrainian perspective.
“I think it’s certainly a new trend that we have seen there,” he added.
“But, I think in general, it goes along a trajectory where we have seen Ukraine using both more sophisticated Western-supplied weapons but also extending its reach into Russian-controlled territories through what you might call guerrilla warfare or partisan warfare. And that is obviously something very worrying for Russia, not only in the sense that they might lose control over these territories but also that it will undermine their general war effort,” Wolff continued.
“It also potentially puts a dent in Russian hopes to be able to hold referenda, as they have announced in the Kherson region, in order to, sort of, go again on the offensive there and claim these territories as either independent states or as part of Russia.”
‘It certainly looks bad’
Russian officials reported no one was hurt in the latest incidents in Crimea or Belgorod. They also said they had shot down Ukrainian drones in Belbek and Kerch.
“It certainly looks bad – or good – dependent on the perspective,” tweeted former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, with video showing huge flames and smoke in the night sky, purportedly at the Russian base in Belbek. Reuters could not confirm the authenticity of the video.
This is reported to be from the large 🇷🇺 airbase Belbek outside Sevastopol in occupied Crimea 🇺🇦. It certainly looks bad – or good – dependent on the perspective. pic.twitter.com/uXeKsDNL0R
— Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) August 18, 2022
Closer to the front, Kyiv also announced several strikes overnight behind Russian lines in southern Kherson province, including at a bridge at the Kakhovka dam, one of the last routes for Russia to supply thousands of troops on the west bank of the Dnieper river.
“The Ukrainian armed forces treated the Russians to a magical evening,” Seriy Khlan, a member of Kherson’s regional council disbanded by Russian occupation forces, wrote on Facebook.
Ukraine hopes its apparent new-found ability to hit Russian targets behind the front line can turn the tide in the conflict, disrupting supply lines Moscow needs to support its occupation.
In recent days, it has been issuing warnings to Russians, for whom Crimea has become a popular summer holiday destination, that nowhere on the peninsula is safe as long as it is occupied.
Meanwhile, Russian forces have stepped up their shelling of civilian areas of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, in recent days, in what British intelligence described as an apparent attempt to force Ukraine to keep troops in the area.
Seventeen people were killed and 42 wounded in two separate Russian attacks there in the past two days, the regional governor said on Thursday. Five more rockets hit the city early on Friday, killing at least one person, he said. Moscow denies targeting civilians.
Thousands of people have been killed and millions forced to flee since Russia launched its invasion on February 24, saying it aimed to demilitarise Ukraine and protect Russian speakers on what President Vladimir Putin called historical Russian land.