Ukraine's air force announced on Wednesday that nine Russian jets were destroyed in a series of devastating explosions at an air base in Crimea, amid speculation that the explosions were the result of an attack by Ukraine, which would signal a dramatic escalation in the conflict.
Russia denied that any planes were destroyed in Tuesday's explosions and any strike.
Officials from Ukraine refrained from openly claiming blame for the blasts, mocking Russia's theory that a careless smoker may have caused the artillery at the Saki air base to catch fire and explode. According to analysts, this explanation is illogical as the Ukrainians might have attacked the base with anti-ship missiles.
If Ukrainian forces were responsible for the explosions, it would be the first known big attack on a Russian military installation on the Crimean Peninsula, which the Kremlin seized from Ukraine in 2014. Using Saki, Russian jets have attacked southern Ukrainian regions.
Crimea is of enormous strategic and symbolic importance to both sides. Ukraine's demand to recognize Crimea as part of Russia has been one of the Kremlin's primary requirements for halting the conflict. In contrast, Ukraine has vowed to expel the Russians from the peninsula and all other occupied regions.
Hours after the explosions, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, vowed to do that.
"This Russian war against Ukraine and all of free Europe must conclude with the liberation of Crimea," he stated in his nightly speech.
The explosions, which resulted in one fatality and 14 injuries, caused tourists to flee in fright as smoke billowed over the neighboring beach. Some structures were captured on video with smashed glass and holes in the brickwork.
Natalia Lipovaya, a visitor, stated that after the strong explosions, "the ground disappeared from beneath my feet." "I was so terrified," she declared.
Resident Sergey Milochinsky recounted hearing a roar and observing a mushroom cloud from his window. "Everything began to crumble and fall apart," he stated.
Sergei Aksyonov, the regional leader of Crimea, stated that approximately 250 residents were relocated to temporary lodging after dozens of apartment complexes were damaged.
On Wednesday, however, Russian authorities attempted to downplay the explosions by asserting that all hotels and beaches on the peninsula, a famous Russian tourist destination, were undamaged.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, stated cryptically that the explosions were either generated by Ukrainian-made long-range weapons or by Ukrainian insurgents operating in Crimea.
Oleksandr Zavitnevich, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, stated that the airstrip was made useless. He claimed on Facebook that the facility held fighter jets, tactical reconnaissance aircraft, and military transport aircraft.
"Official Kyiv has remained silent on the matter, but the military acknowledges informally that it was a Ukrainian strike," said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.
At least 200 kilometers (approximately 125 miles) separate the base from the nearest Ukrainian position. Zhdanov indicated that Ukrainian forces may have struck it with anti-ship missiles supplied by Ukraine or the West with the required range.
The Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., stated that it could not determine independently what caused the explosions but added that simultaneous explosions in two locations at the facility likely rule out an accidental fire but not sabotage or a missile attack.
However, the report stated, "The Kremlin has little incentive to accuse Ukraine of conducting the attacks that caused the damage, as such attacks would demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems."
During the conflict, the Kremlin recorded many fires and explosions on Russian territory close to the Ukrainian border, attributing some of them to Ukrainian attacks. The Ukrainian government has largely remained mum about the episodes, preferring to keep the international community wondering.
According to the territory's governor, Valentyn Reznichenko, thirteen persons were murdered in the central region of Dnipropetrovsk due to shelling by Russian forces on Tuesday night and Wednesday.
Reznichenko stated that Russian forces shot upon the city of Marganets and a nearby settlement. Several residential structures, two schools, and administrative structures were damaged.
Reznichenko stated, "It was an awful night." "It is quite difficult to remove bodies from behind rubble. We're up against a vicious foe who terrorizes our cities and towns on a regular basis."
According to police, two people of the village of Staryi Saltiv in the northeastern province of Kharkiv were killed by Russian shelling on Wednesday.
In the country's southeast, Moscow's soldiers kept bombing the city of Nikopol across the Dnieper River from the most significant nuclear reactor in Europe, the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia power station. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of bombarding their territory, heightening global concerns of a disaster.
The foreign ministers of the Group of Seven industrialized democracies demanded that Russia promptly return complete control of the plant to Ukraine on Wednesday. They expressed "profound concern" about the possibility of a nuclear disaster with severe repercussions.