On the afternoon of Aug. 9 news broke that many Ukrainians had been waiting for, consciously or subconsciously, for over five months of a full-scale war, and perhaps even since 2014: Several powerful blasts rocked the Saki airfield near the village of Novofedorivka. Columns of smoke from the blasts were seen both on land and in the sea.
Later, the so-called "Crimean governor" Sergey Aksyonov confirmed reports that the explosions had occurred at the Saki airfield. However, he did not reveal the cause of the blasts.
Russia's Defense Ministry in turn declared that "everything is going according to plan": "the detonation of several aviation munitions" allegedly took place at 3.20 p.m. at the Saki airfield. No one was allegedly injured, as well as the aircraft.
Read also: Russia not accusing Ukraine of strike on Crimea airfield so as not to admit shortcomings of air defenses - ISW
At the same time, the Crimean "authorities" immediately reported five casualties. Later on, Russian mass media reported that one person had been killed and another nine had been injured. Preparing the ground for future accusations against Ukraine, Russia began to say that all the wounded were civilians.
Journalists from Ukrainian television's Skhemy investigative program on Telegram messenger reiterated that the Saki airfield is one of the key ones for Russian aviation on the occupied peninsula. It is a permanent base for the 43rd Fighter Aviation Regiment of the Russian Air Force, which mainly includes Su-30SM, Su-33 and Su-24M strike aircraft. Russia uses the airfield for launching bombing attacks and air strikes on Ukrainian cities.
Planet Labs satellite images taken about four hours before the series of explosions in Novofedorivka show a large number of Russian military aircraft and warehouses.
After the blasts, the Russians announced the evacuation of houses located near the airfield, while Aksyonov announced a "yellow level of terrorist danger" until Aug. 24.
At the same time, experts said that the explosions at the military facility located more than 200 kilometers from the nearest positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine were likely the result of a missile attack.
Prior to that, Ukrainian forces have never struck the occupied peninsula. And if the missiles of the Armed Forces of Ukraine really got there, this would be the first example of an attack on enemy targets in the Crimea, which Moscow considers Russian land.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry ironically commented on the explosions at the airfield near Novofedorivka. They said that they could not establish the cause of the fire on the territory of the airfield, but noted "fire safety rules and the prohibition of smoking in unauthorized places."
Yuriy Ihnat, Ukrainian Air Forces command spokesperson, did not answer a question from NV pm whether Ukrainian forces had attacked the enemy's airfield in Crimea. A little later, Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the head of the President's Office, said on the exiled Russian opposition Dozhd television channel that the Ukrainian Army had nothing to do with the explosions at the airfield.
How it happened
Meanwhile, with reference to a senior Ukrainian military official with knowledge of the situation, the U.S.-based newspaper the New York Times reported that Ukrainian forces were behind the blast at the Saki airfield on the western coast of Crimea.
"This was an air base from which planes regularly took off for attacks against our forces in the southern theater," the official said.
The official would not disclose the type of weapon used in the attack, saying only that "a device exclusively of Ukrainian manufacture was used."
Military expert Viktor Kevliuk suggests that the strikes could have been delivered by Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles, using GPS coordinates to guide them to land targets.
It was probably a Neptune missile that destroyed the Moskva cruiser, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, in April.
Mykola Bielieskov, research fellow at the National Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Ukraine, suggests that the Armed Forces of Ukraine could have used U.S. AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles by launching them from MiG-29 or Su-27 fighter jets. The planes, however, had to be upgraded to use such weapons.
However, Kevliuk explains that it was not the AGM-88 HARM that the Armed Forces of Ukraine hit the military base with: the Ukrainian forces only "punched a hole" in the object's air defenses with them.
"And two U.S. long-range ATACMS missiles (went through this hole)," the expert said.
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The main launcher for ATACMS, whose flight range is up to 300 kilometers, is the already well-known HIMARS multiple launch rocket systems. However, the United States has officially said that they were supplying Ukraine with significantly shorter-range missiles for these launchers. At the same time, former Interior Ministry advisor Viktor Andrusiv said that ammunition with a range of 200-300 kilometers was already in service with the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Serhiy Zgurets, military expert and head of national security think-tank Defense Express, also favors the theory that ATACMS struck the Saki airfield. However, the video footage during the explosions did not record the flight of any missiles, and for now this is "only a theory." ATACMS is a ballistic missile that smashes into an object almost vertically at high speed. Therefore, it is difficult to spot at normal video frame rates.
"When the Russians hit Kyiv's Retroville mall with their Kinzhal ballistic missile, the footage also didn't record the missiles themselves," Zgurets said.
Experts also said that the explosions in Novofedorivka were not the result of a drone attack or the actions of a sabotage group.
A 'hole' in the sky
UK expert Timothy Ash in his blog commented on the attack near Novofedorivka.
"Notable that Russian air defences again failed," he said.
"Remember this is a high-end Russian target - as per the (sunken Black Sea Fleet flagship) Moskva - so the fact multiple Ukrainian missiles hit suggests an abject failure of Russian air defenses."
Previously, military journalist Yuriy Butusov wrote that according to Ukraine's General Staff, Ukrainian forces destroyed 14 Russian anti-aircraft missile systems and radars on August 5-7. In his opinion, this sudden "plague" could be the result of a powerful blow, probably caused by the already mentioned AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missiles.
In addition, it was not initially announced that these missiles had been supplied to Ukraine.
But just before the strike near Novofedorivka, the Pentagon confirmed that it had handed over anti-radar missiles to Ukraine.
Time for Russians to flee
Meanwhile, Refat Chubarov, the chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People and Ukrainian MP, addressed Russians in the Crimea in Russian.
"You've just received the first 'call' to encourage you to immediately leave the territory of the Russian-occupied Crimea," he said on Facebook.
"You should know that your stay in the occupied Crimea is illegal and criminal. Don't waste your time, leave Russian-occupied Crimea today. Remember, the winners will be the ones who cross the bridge across the Kerch Strait today!"
Read also: US reasserts support for Ukraine's efforts to defend its sovereignty, including in Crimea
Judging by the video released by Russian Telegram channels, many Russians heeded Chubarov, since a traffic jam was seen on the roads toward the city of Kerch and the bridge by late Aug. 9.