Did Ukraine attack Crimea?

This feels like the Doolittle Raid, a stunning blow to an enemy that thought it was out of range of attack.

The difference is that the Doolittle Raid was a one-off whereas there are almost certainly more Ukrainian attacks on Crimea to come in the near term.

In fact, this wasn’t the only surprise that was sprung deep behind Russian lines today.

Here’s what the explosion at Saki air base, near Novofedorovka on the Crimean coast, looked like from the ground:

That photo doesn’t do it justice. It was a big’un. Or maybe several big’uns.

Novofedorovka is on the Black Sea, some 50 miles or so south of the tip of the Crimean peninsula. That peninsula is itself many miles behind the front lines of the war in southern Ukraine around Kherson. How on earth did the Ukrainians reach it?

The official Russian explanation is that there was some sort of mishap near the ammunition depot on the base, but if it’s true that there were two separate explosions then the Russians were either reeeeeally careless or they’re lying. Based on the gloating from Ukraine’s defense ministry following the attack, all signs point to the Russians lying:

Ukrainian sources confirmed to the NYT that the explosions were indeed their handiwork. “This was an air base from which planes regularly took off for attacks against our forces in the southern theater,” he told the paper. When asked what sort of weapon was used, he refused to say — except that it was “a device exclusively of Ukrainian manufacture.” Do we believe him?

I don’t believe him. If Ukraine had had that type of long-range capacity from the start of the war, presumably we would have seen it in action already. Instead, we’re suddenly seeing it now — in multiple locations. As I alluded to above, there was another explosion deep in Russian-held territory today:

The target in Genichesk, or Henichesk, was reportedly on the railway and came several hours before the attack on the airfield. All of which makes sense in the context of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in Kherson, the southern province that’s been under Russian occupation from the start of the war and where Putin is hoping to hold an annexation referendum next month. The Ukrainians have spent the last few weeks attempting to cut Russian supply lines so that enemy troops dug in around Kherson can’t be rearmed or reinforced. Presumably the targets at the airfield and on the railway were ammunition depots/shipments whose destruction will deprive the Russians from being able to halt the Ukrainian advance in the south. It’s all part of the plan to liberate Kherson.

But again, how’d they reach the targets from so far away?

Expert opinion is split. Some suspect the Ukrainians are now deploying long-range surface-to-surface missiles, a.k.a. ATACMS:

Coincidentally, the HIMARS systems that the U.S. has already given to Ukraine are capable of firing ATACMS, which have a range of 190 miles or so compared to standard HIMARS munitions of 50 miles. As of a few weeks ago, the U.S. had withheld ATACMS from Ukraine for fear that Zelensky’s troops would fire them into Russia itself, a provocation that would risk widening the war and dragging NATO in. Maybe the White House has since changed its mind. That would explain why the Times’s Ukrainian source was keen to say on the record that the weapon used was Ukrainian-made. That’s unlikely, but the lie creates a bit of plausible deniability for the White House.

The other possibility is an air-to-surface missile, a.k.a. the AGM-88:

The U.S. recently confirmed that it had supplied AGM-88s to Ukraine. Those are anti-radiation missiles, which means they “home in on enemy radio frequency emissions, primarily from radar arrays belonging to enemy air defense systems, and destroy or disable them.” They’re high-speed and can be fired from around 90 miles away, which would help explain how Ukrainian jets got close enough to an airbase in Crimea to deliver this payload.

The strategic implications of this weapon are obvious. If Ukraine now has ATACMS and/or the AGM-88, no Russian supply line inside Ukraine is safe.

I’m not sure offhand what they could do to “protect” weapons depots in Crimea from this sort of attack, except to remove those depots to areas inside Russia and stretch their supply lines even further. The locals in Novofedorovka don’t seem confident about Russia’s ability to protect them either:

The one catch to this otherwise encouraging development is that, uh, Crimea may be a red line for Russia. That seems strange since there have already been several mysterious attacks on Russian ammo and fuel depots inside Russia proper near the Ukrainian border since the war began and Moscow hasn’t widened the war in response, but the AP notes that “Officials in Moscow have long warned Ukraine that any attack on Crimea would trigger massive retaliation, including strikes on ‘decision-making centers’ in Kyiv.” Presumably the Pentagon signed off on the attack on Saki airfield, believing for whatever reason that Russian won’t retaliate against NATO for it. If they didn’t, hoo boy.

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David Strom 8:31 AM on October 02, 2022