Russian-controlled officials installed in occupied Crimea, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, said Wednesday that a massive fire at a military base in Kirovske forced thousands of people to evacuate and shut down a major highway nearby.
The exact cause of the fire has not been independently confirmed, but some Russian officials claimed the Ukrainians started it somehow, possibly with an airstrike.
The fire reportedly broke out in what officials in Crimea described as a military training area. Residents described a heavy column of black smoke rising from the area, and some claimed they heard “detonations” before the smoke became visible.
The Moscow Times quoted channels linked to Russian security services on the messaging platform Telegram claiming that the military training ground has a missile depot, and the fire was concentrated in that area. Crimea is a conduit for supplies and weapons used by Russia’s invasion force in the rest of Ukraine.
“Temporary evacuation of residents from four populated areas is planned. The number is around 2,000 people in total,” the Moscow-installed chief of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, said on his own Telegram channel.
Aksyonov also ordered the Tavrida Highway to be partially closed without explanation. The highway runs close to the Kirovske base, so smoke from the fire could be a danger to drivers.
“We know that there was a fire there. Emergency measures are being taken, the situation is being clarified,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated, adding that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been briefed on the fire.
Several Russian media outlets carried a purported statement from Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence service, claiming credit for an attack on the military camp in Crimea. Pro-Russian military bloggers speculated the base could have been hit by Ukrainian Grim-2 or British Storm Shadow long-range missiles.
“Kyiv is doing everything to shake up the situation inside Crimea. But they cannot understand that it all works in the opposite direction. Since 2014, we have been withstanding their provocations,” said Vladimir Konstantiov, head of Crimea’s state council, clearly suggesting Ukraine was behind the fire.
A spokesman for the GUR said reports that the explosion and fire were “the work of the armed forces and the GUR” are “fake.” Another spokesman was less firm Wednesday, saying, “We can neither confirm nor deny” that Ukrainian forces attacked the Crimean base.
Ukraine did belatedly claim responsibility for Monday’s attack on the strategically vital Kerch Bridge, which links annexed Crimea to Russia. Ukrainian officials said the attack, which significantly damaged the 12-mile-long bridge and killed at least two civilians, according to the Russians, was carried out with naval drones.
Russia, meanwhile, showered Ukrainian port cities with missiles on Wednesday. The Ukrainian air force said Russia launched 30 cruise missiles and 32 Iranian-built suicide drones overnight, plus at least one air-to-ground missile.
The Ukrainians claim to have shot down about half of these weapons, but substantial damage was still inflicted, including a strike on the port of Chornomorsk in the Odesa region that destroyed some 60,000 tons of much-needed grain. The Russians withdrew Monday from a year-old deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey to allow Ukraine to ship grain from its Black Sea ports, alleviating a global food crisis.
“Russian terrorists absolutely deliberately targeted the infrastructure of the grain deal,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in response to the Odesa attacks.
“Every Russian missile – is a strike not only on Ukraine but on everyone in the world who wants a normal and safe life,” Zelensky said.
“It is clear that Russia continues to use food as a weapon of war. This time, the impact is not only on the people of Ukraine, but also on global food supply and prices,” the U.S. State Department agreed.