Fires and explosions have been reported at military targets inside Russia and Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, in the latest of a string of apparent sabotage missions deep inside Russian-held territory as western officials suggested the conflict had reached deadlock.
Two Russian villages were evacuated after a blaze at a munitions depot near the Ukrainian border in Belgorod province. “An ammunition depot caught fire near the village of Timonovo”, less than 30 miles (50km) from the border, the regional governor, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said in a statement, adding that no casualties had been reported.
At least four explosions were reported near the major Belbek airbase, north of Sevastopol in the occupied Crimean peninsula. The pro-Russia governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev, said: “There is no damage. No one was hurt.”
The overnight incidents on Thursday came days after devastating explosions at a major airbase and a munitions depot in Crimea. After those attacks, many Russians raced to leave the peninsula, with a record 38,000 cars crossing on Tuesday.
Closer to the southern frontline, Kyiv also announced a number of overnight strikes behind Russian lines in Ukraine’s southern Kherson province, including at a bridge at the Kakhovska Dam, one of the last routes for Russia to supply thousands of troops on the west bank of the Dnipro River.
Ukraine hopes its apparent newfound ability to hit Russian targets behind the frontline can turn the tide in the conflict, disrupting the supply lines that Moscow needs to support its occupation.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said on Wednesday that panicking Russians have realised that Crimea is “not a place for them” and hinted that more attacks could lie ahead.
He urged Ukrainians to stay away from enemy command posts and logistics bases. “Do not approach the military objects of the Russian army,” he said.
Crimea is a key hub for the Russian invasion and the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) said Russia’s military leaders were likely to be “increasingly concerned” about the setbacks there, even if Moscow has dismissed them as local “sabotage”.
Six alleged Islamist extremists were detained on Wednesday, according to Crimea’s Moscow-appointed head, Sergey Aksyonov. It was not clear what relation – if any – those arrested had to the recent attacks.
According to a briefing by western officials on Friday, the recent explosions in Crimea have had a major psychological effect on Moscow’s leadership, with its invasion now at “near operational standstill”.
More than half of the combat jets in the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet were put out of action in blasts last week at the Saky military airfield in western Crimea – an area that Moscow previously considered secure, according to the MoD.
Russia has denied that any aircraft were damaged in what it called an accident at the base, although commercial satellite pictures showed at least eight warplanes completely burnt out and several huge impact craters. Moscow sacked the head of the Black Sea fleet this week.
“The incidents have been having a material effect on Russia’s logistics support, but as importantly, there’s a significant psychological effect on the Russian leadership,” one western official said, adding that the attacks had forced the Black Sea fleet into a defensive posture and stymied Russia’s ability to launch a successful amphibious assault on Odesa, on Ukraine’s south-western coast.
The strikes have come as the war has entered a phase of “near operational standstill”, with neither side’s ground forces having enough concentrated combat power to launch effective offensive actions.