A Ukrainian drone hit the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Crimea this weekend, the latest assault on a region Moscow once considered an impregnable fortress.
Plumes of smoke were seen rising from the Sevastopol military base on Saturday morning, and city residents were urged to stay at home immediately after the strike, the latest in a string of high-profile attacks on sensitive targets there and inside Russia.
The governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhaev, said there were no casualties, and initially claimed the drone flew into the airbase’s roof after troops stationed there were not able to shoot it down. He later said soldiers had been able to target the drone, and that it had fallen onto the airbase roof after being hit. “Clarification: the drone was hit...right above the fleet headquarters. It fell on the roof and caught fire. The attack failed. Well done boys,” he wrote.
Previous attacks in Crimea, including one earlier this month on the Saky airbase that sent fireballs into the sky and destroyed nine or more warplanes, prompted many residents to flee the peninsula.
Worried locals responded to Razvozhaev by asking how a drone had slipped through air defences that at the start of the war were considered among the most sophisticated in the world. “Was our air defence system on a lunch break?” asked one. “When will you finally close the city?” asked another, suggesting the attacks were the work of pro-Ukraine partisans in the peninsula. “We fought harder against the coronavirus! There were checkposts everywhere then, now anyone and everyone enters!!!!”
Another wondered if more attacks were coming. Wednesday 24 August is Ukraine’s independence day, and will also mark six months since Russia’s invasion.
Many in the country are worried that Moscow may be preparing some kind of major attack that day, but residents in Crimea are also apparently concerned that Ukraine wants to mark its successful resistance.
“They have Independence Day on the 24th, maybe they are preparing something? And the [drone] is just to divert attention from the main thing.”
The attacks came a day after the US announced a $775m arms package for Ukraine including drones, armoured vehicles and artillery.
Government officials have repeatedly said that while western weapons allowed the country to save Kyiv, and hold off Russia in other areas, they are still woefully short of the arms needed to decisively defeat Russia.
Promised supplies are also arriving slowly. Last week a senior source estimated only 10% of arms promised by the west had reached Ukraine. And on Saturday presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak warned Moscow was trying to create a “reputation crisis” for Ukraine that would slow the flow of western arms.
Ukrainian troops are being pounded by weapons in the south and in the east, where Russian forces are still slowly advancing through a wasteland of cities shelled into ruin before they are captured.
On Saturday they stepped up fighting to seize Bakhmut, one of the last major towns in the Donetsk region still held by Ukrainian forces, and which would clear the way for Russia to move on two other strategic targets, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
Russia last month took over all of the Luhansk region, which together with Donetsk makes up the industrial Donbas heartland. Russia-backed separatists self-declared a pair of independent republics there.
After Russia’s failure to seize Kyiv, and setbacks in parts of the south including around the city of Kherson, capturing territory here has become a key military objective for Moscow.
Shelling in the Mykolaiv region also seriously injured four children and five adults, with one girl losing an eye, said governor Vitaliy Kim. Shells landed in the town of Voznesensk, just 30km from the country’s second-largest nuclear power plant.
There is growing global concern about Russia’s occupation of the nearby Zaporizhzhia plant, the largest in Europe, and suspicion that Russian authorities could try to disconnect it from the Ukrainian grid, which would raise the risk of a nuclear accident.
Additional reporting: Artem Mazhulin