New satellite images reveal the extensive damage to a Russian base in Crimea after it was targeted in a mysterious attack, appearing to be considerably worse than the Kremlin has publicly admitted.
The photographs, captured by US-based satellite imaging company Planet and shared online by open-source investigators, appeared to show at least three large craters near jet ammunition storage buildings and severe damage from a fire which ripped through Russia’s Saki Airbase on Tuesday.
“One way to interpret those craters is precise strikes from a long-range munition,” speculated Elliot Higgins of Bellingcat, which analyses Russian losses in Ukraine.
However, another suggested the ammunition storage buildings may not have been hit in a long-range attack, but it was instead possible they were rigged and detonated remotely by Ukrainian special forces.
Mr Higgins went on to note that there were “no impacts visible that look like they could be misses, so either they used very accurate weapons or they got very lucky.”
Ukraine's air force said on Wednesday that nine Russian warplanes were destroyed in a deadly string of explosions at an air base in Crimea, amid speculation the blasts were the result of a Ukrainian attack that would represent a significant escalation in the war.
The newly released images, however, suggested as many as 20 aircraft, including sophisticated SU-24s and SU-30s, were destroyed. Russia denied any aircraft were damaged in Tuesday's blasts - or that any attack took place.
Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, estimated at as much as $1billion worth of damage had been caused.
The base is at least 125 miles from the closest Ukrainian position. Ukraine possesses few weapons that can reach the peninsula on the western side of Crimea, aside from aircraft that would risk being shot down immediately by Russia’s heavy air defences in the region.
Some suggested that Ukrainian forces could have struck it with Ukrainian or Western-supplied anti-ship missiles.
A presidential adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, said cryptically in his regular online interview that the blasts were caused either by a Ukrainian-made long-range weapon or were the work of pro-Ukraine guerillas operating in Crimea.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said it could not independently determine what caused the explosions but noted that simultaneous blasts in two places at the base probably rule out an accidental fire but not sabotage or a missile attack.
But it added: "The Kremlin has little incentive to accuse Ukraine of conducting strikes that caused the damage since such strikes would demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defence systems."
Ukrainian officials stopped short of publicly claiming responsibility for the explosions, while mocking Russia's explanation that a careless smoker might have caused ammunition at the Saki air base to catch fire and blow up. Analysts also said that explanation does not make sense and that the Ukrainians could have used anti-ship missiles to strike the base.
If Ukrainian forces were, in fact, responsible for the blasts, it would be the first known major attack on a Russian military site on the Crimean Peninsula, which was seized from Ukraine by the Kremlin in 2014. Russian warplanes have used Saki to strike areas in Ukraine's south.
Crimea holds huge strategic and symbolic significance for both sides. The Kremlin's demand that Ukraine recognise Crimea as part of Russia has been one of its key conditions for ending the fighting, while Ukraine has vowed to drive the Russians from the peninsula and all other occupied territories.
Hours after the blasts, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky promised again to do just that.
"This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea - its liberation," he said in his nightly address.
The explosions, which killed one person and wounded 14, sent tourists fleeing in panic as plumes of smoke rose over the coastline nearby. Video showed shattered windows and holes in the brickwork of some buildings.
One tourist, Natalia Lipovaya, said that "the earth was gone from under my feet" after the powerful blasts. "I was so scared," she said.
Sergey Milochinsky, a local resident, recalled hearing a roar and seeing a mushroom cloud from his window. "Everything began to fall around, collapse," he said.
Crimea's regional leader, Sergei Aksyonov, said some 250 residents were moved to temporary housing after dozens of apartment buildings were damaged.
But Russian authorities sought to downplay the explosions on Wednesday, saying all hotels and beaches were unaffected on the peninsula, which is a popular tourist destination for many Russians.