A mysterious explosion in Bryansk

Two mysterious explosions, actually, although only one is being formally acknowledged.

Bryansk is a city in Russia located northeast of Kiev, around 70 miles from the Ukrainian border. Unexplained explosions in Russian border cities have happened several times over the past month, although until now the prime target has been Belgorod. A weapons depot located there went up in flames in late March; a few days later, a fuel depot in the city ignited. Helicopters were seen leaving the scene immediately afterwards. To all appearances, these were Ukrainian strikes on Russian military logistics. Fuel trucks in particular had been a prime target for the Ukrainian army during the battles in the north around Kiev in March, slowing the Russian advance by choking off its sustenance.

Last night not one but two fuel depots in Bryansk reportedly blew sky high in spectacular fashion.

The fire is intense, as you might expect. Reports as of a few hours ago claimed it was spreading:

The Russian government concedes the explosion at a civilian fuel depot. It hasn’t said anything about the second explosion, which reportedly struck a military fuel depot, but Russian state TV has reportedly confirmed it. One would think Moscow wouldn’t want its house organs acknowledging a Ukrainian military success but maybe they’ve now reached the stage where wounding the Russian public’s national pride is worth more to them in mobilizing support for the war than pretending that Russia is invulnerable to Ukrainian attack.

How’d the Ukrainians do it, anyway? Audio of the attack suggests a possible missile strike:

Ukraine has a missile called the Tochka-U that should be just within range of Bryansk if it’s positioned near the Ukrainian border with Russia. That’s the likeliest possibility.

But don’t rule out sabotage from within by Ukrainian spooks or Russian sympathizers with the Ukrainian cause:

Other mysterious mishaps at military and industrial facilities have been reported lately inside Russia, some far removed from the Ukrainian border. Quote: “On Friday, 17 people were killed after a huge fire broke out at a key Russian defence research institute in Tver, north-west of Moscow. On the same day, a major chemical plant not far from Moscow caught fire.” Those might well have been genuine accidents due to the sorry state of Russian infrastructure but then again maybe not, as Ukraine has friends all over the region. Including inside one of Russia’s few remaining allies, Belarus:

Starting in the earliest days of the invasion in February, a clandestine network of railway workers, hackers and dissident security forces went into action to disable or disrupt the railway links connecting Russia to Ukraine through Belarus, wreaking havoc on Russian supply lines…

The attacks were simple but effective, targeting the signal control cabinets essential to the functioning of the railways, members of the activist network said. For days on end, the movement of trains was paralyzed, forcing the Russians to attempt to resupply their troops by road and contributing to the snarl-up that stalled the infamous 40-mile military convoy north of Kyiv…

The saboteurs drew inspiration from an earlier episode in Belarusian history, during World War II, when Belarusians opposed to the Nazi occupation blew up railway lines and train stations to disrupt German supply lines. The Rail War, as it is known, is venerated as a moment of triumph for Belarus, taught in schools as the most successful of the tactics deployed by resistance fighters that eased the way for Soviet troops to drive the Germans out.

The Bryansk infernos could be the product of a Ukrainian missile or Ukrainian infiltrators or Russian sympathizers. The one possibility that can be safely ruled out is that it was a Russian false flag. If the Kremlin wants to pin something on Zelensky to inflame Russian opinion (further) against him, it’s not going to waste precious fuel doing so at a moment when the two sides are wrestling for advantage in the Donbas. It’ll target Russian civilians.

An idle thought: Russia’s Victory Day celebration commemorating the end of World War II will happen two weeks from today. Putin will point to whatever triumphs he’s had in Ukraine, likely starting with Mariupol, to claim that the “special military operation” is succeeding. Ukraine would obviously like to spoil that narrative for him. Which makes me wonder if they’re planning another, even bigger attack somewhere inside Russian territory in the days before May 9 to leave egg on Putin’s face before he takes his “victory” lap. Ukraine’s operations are constrained to some degree by its western allies, who won’t want to see dramatic escalation. But it may be that both sides will be more willing to gamble over the next 14 days to assert themselves as Victory Day approaches.