Ukraine’s Crimea fightback and how saboteurs are exploiting enemy blunders

·7-min read
Russia's defence ministry said a fire that set off explosions at a munitions depot in Moscow-annexed Crimea was caused by an act of 'sabotage' - STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images
Russia's defence ministry said a fire that set off explosions at a munitions depot in Moscow-annexed Crimea was caused by an act of 'sabotage' - STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

The pig farm across the railway tracks from Svetlana’s home had been abandoned for years.

Nobody paid much attention to the decrepit, dusty building until Russian lorries began rolling through her Crimean village in June.

The window blinds on their cabins were drawn, so none of the locals in Azovske could peer too closely inside.

But Svetlana was not the only person to notice that soldiers had begun dumping crates of ammunition on the grounds of the farm.

The troops she spotted seemed nonchalant, far from the frontlines. One truck driver on her street corner even left the engine running as he popped to the shop for a beer.

That all changed at 6am on Monday morning.

A series of huge explosions woke up everyone in Azovske, shaking the windows of her home.

“For the first few minutes I couldn’t understand what it was: I thought someone was shelling us,” she told The Telegraph.

“Then we realised it was the ammunition dump.”

Crimea hit by number of mystery attacks

Crimea, once Russia’s most fortified outpost, has been hit by a series of mystery attacks in recent weeks and is now consumed with talk of special forces operating deep behind enemy lines.

On Friday, explosions were reported near an airbase in Belbek, on the peninsula’s southwest coast, while Moscow said its air defence systems had shot at targets over the Kerch bridge to Russia.

Locals described to The Telegraph how ill-disciplined Russian soldiers transiting between the mainland and the frontlines have been dumping powerful weaponry at makeshift storage sites.

Much of the movement witnessed by Svetlana - who asked to be identified under a false name for security reasons - began around the time Ukraine started hitting Russian ammunition dumps with long-range Himars missile launchers supplied by the US.

Some analysts say Russia has been moving its ammunition and equipment back into Crimea to protect it ahead of a possible counter-offensive from Ukraine.

Svetlana said Russian soldiers swarmed the countryside about two months ago, bringing the ammunition to the pig farm in both trains and trucks.

“This is when the whole village felt the war got so close to us.”

The military settled in at the farm in Mayske on the other side of the railway tracks from Azovske, transporting long-range missiles in front of the whole village.

“The way they handled it - it all appeared so careless. They did everything in the open and didn’t bother to make any secret of it,” Svetlana said.

She saw a lorry filled with ammunition for the Grad multiple grenade launcher parked near the village shop.

“The guy went into the shop to get beer, and no one was guarding it.”

A video released by the Ukrainian armed forces and shot from a train window purportedly at the edge of Mayske’s depot before the attack showed crates of ammunition dumped on the dry ground with missile rocket launchers parked nearby.

When the dump finally blew up on Monday, Svetlana’s father, wearing only shorts, jumped into the car and drove the family a dozen kilometres away. Behind them, ammunition kept detonating for the next three hours.

Kremlin officials used to warn that attacking Vladimir Putin’s prized conquest would cross a red line, provoking a “doomsday” response.

Yet Russia played down the first massive explosion that rocked Crimea on August 8.

The military blamed “violations of fire safety” for the blast on an airbase that destroyed a dozen Russian aircraft and sent plumes of smoke over a local beach full of tourists from the mainland.

Ukraine, for its part, suggested that special forces carried out the strike with the help of local partisans - although the account has yet to be verified.

“The goal is to show the occupiers that they are not at home, that they should not settle in, that they should not sleep comfortably,” one partisan with the callsign Svarog, after a pagan Slavic god of fire, told the New York Times.

He said he joined a programme run by Ukrainian paramilitaries to train civilians in resistance. Ukrainian special forces, meanwhile, have been running parallel courses on sabotage.

On one mission, Svarog said he was directed to destroy a storage shed with crates of high explosives, detonators, Kalashnikov rifles, a grenade launcher and two pistols equipped with silencers.

Locals inside Crimea recounted stories of flagrant negligence by Russian soldiers that would make any such attack surprisingly easy to pull off.

“I often see drunk soldiers walking around,” Anna, who works at a holiday resort and asked her identity to be concealed for fear of repercussions, said.

“Do you think it’s difficult to trade a bottle of vodka for a grenade from them?”

Tourists have grown used to hearing fighter jets whizzing over the beach, and locals entertain themselves on long car rides by counting lorries with Russian soldiers.

When war broke out in February Crimea was splashed with billboards showing Putin alongside his slogans: “We were left with no other choice” and “Russia doesn’t start wars. It finishes them”.

Pro-Russians in Crimea have ‘gone quiet’

A few months ago, the mood changed dramatically, and the billboards gave way to sombre portraits of killed Russian soldiers with the words: “Glory to heroes of Russia!”

The initial expectation that the war would be over in a few months, if not weeks, has planted doubt in many pro-Kremlin Crimeans. Some grumble about mounting casualties. Others complain about not being able to see their families in Ukraine.

Now and then a stray missile, fired from Crimea against targets in mainland Ukraine, would land in somebody’s backyard but it was only after the recent series of explosions that Crimeans began to worry.

“Those who were pro-Russian have all gone quiet. They don’t argue anymore,” says Anna.

When her elderly neighbour, a Putin supporter who binge-watches Russian state TV, recently had a grandson to stay, they went through their options of which part of Russia to flee to in case of war.

Tourism supplies the main source of income for many Crimeans. But hotel owners have in recent weeks reported a 50 per cent drop in bookings and sales. Some of the most popular hotels were fully booked as recently as mid-July when hostilities in Ukraine seemed to have stalled.

“Tourists are scared of going to Crimea: they know hostilities might break out here, and what if the Crimean bridge blows up?” a hotel employee in Alushta on Crimea’s southern coast told The Telegraph.

The highly controversial bridge, built by Russia over the Strait of Kerch in 2018 to link Crimea with the Russian mainland, was once hailed as a symbol of the Kremlin’s iron grip on the annexed peninsula. It was through this bridge that Moscow managed to bring in large amounts of heavy weaponry that rolled into the Kherson region in February.

These days, the £3 billion bridge is the only way to escape Crimea to safety but many think it might be too late.

“A lot of people left after [the explosion] in Novofedorivka last week, saying ‘let’s get out of here while the bridge still stands’,” Svetlana said.

As well as the unexplained explosions in Crimea, the peninsula has fallen prey to psychological operations.

At the peak of the summer the phone began to ring at a major resort in Saky, near the site of the first explosion.

On the end of the line was an official issuing orders for immediate evacuation. Guests were notified and began moving to a safe place when the manager called the local ministry to double-check check provisions were in place. There was no order.

The incident was reported by Oleg Tsaryov, a former Ukrainian lawmaker turned separatist official, who said that the same resort and other places have also been targeted by bomb threats.

“[The Ukrainians’] task is not only to carry out terrorist attacks and sabotage but also sow panic among visitors and residents of Crimea,” he said.

Meanwhile, Crimeans are bracing themselves for the worst: the residents interviewed by The Telegraph interviewed said they have grab bags packed just in case.

Svetlana, whose family has lived in Crimea for generations, said her relatives do not want to leave the peninsula and are now busy stocking food in the basement of their house.

Pro-Ukrainian Crimeans, whose views could land them in jail if made public, whisper among themselves about a much-anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive.

“I’m not going anywhere. Who’s going to open the gate to greet our guys when they come back?” she said