A series of apparent Ukrainian attacks and logistical disasters for Russian forces in the 25th week of the war may indicate that Ukraine’s promised southern counteroffensive is still viable, despite the absence so far of significant territorial gains for Kyiv.
Ukraine said an estimated nine Russian warplanes were destroyed on August 9 in explosions at the Saky airbase in Crimea, 225km (140 miles) behind the front line, in what would appear to be the first major Ukrainian attack on a Russian base on the peninsula.
Satellite imagery later showed seven destroyed planes at Saky, and others that were severely damaged.
Ukraine did not directly claim responsibility for the attack, but Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address: “In just one day, the occupiers lost 10 combat aircraft: nine in Crimea and one more in the direction of Zaporizhzhia.”
Russia’s defence ministry said aviation munitions had been detonated at the base through negligence.
The Institute for the Study of War said the targets “are well beyond the range of the US-provided systems”, as precision-guided rocket artillery used in US-supplied HIMARS systems has a range of 80-120km (50-75 miles], but that “Ukrainian forces have various systems that they could have used or modified”.
But Ukrainian sources told the New York Times that partisans behind enemy lines had carried out the attack.
Separately, on the same day, Ukrainian forces demonstrated their deep-strike capability by destroying ammunition warehouses in Novooleksiivka in Crimea, 150km (93.2 miles) south of the front line, and on the command post of the 217th Guards Airbourne Regiment at Maksyma Horkoho on the southwestern Kherson coast.
Ukrainian officials have said since July that Kyiv is preparing a counteroffensive to take back territories in Kherson oblast, and Ukrainian forces have often taken credit for destroying Russian ammunition warehouses and logistical choke points.
But in Kherson and in neighbouring Crimea in recent weeks there also seems to be a new Ukrainian tactic of intensifying unclaimed attacks. The first came on July 31, when a presumed Ukrainian drone attacked Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol on Russia’s Navy Day, wounding five people.
Ukraine again remained silent when a series of explosions shook the village of Mayskoye in Crimea on August 16, as a suspected Russian ammunition depot went up in flames, forcing the evacuation of 3,000 people. Ukraine’s armed forces posted spectacular video of explosions over a wide area. Russia called it “a result of sabotage”, without assigning blame.
The targeting of logistics hubs has gone hand-in-hand with hitting logistics routes. Ukraine has in recent weeks weakened bridges across the Dnieper river in Kherson oblast to prevent the Russian army from resupplying its forward positions on the west bank. On August 10, Ukraine’s southern command said it rendered the bridge across the Dnieper at the Kakhovska hydro-electric power station unfit for use by the Russian military. That, says Britain’s defence ministry, means Russian forces are now restricted to two pontoon ferries they have brought.
“Bringing ammunition, fuel, and heavy equipment sufficient for offensive or even large-scale defensive operations across pontoon ferries or by air is impractical if not impossible,” the Institute for the Study of War said in a statement.
“Russian forces on the west bank of the Dnieper will likely lose the ability to defend themselves against even limited Ukrainian counterattacks.”
However, counterattacks have yet to unfold at scale.
Fears grow over nuclear safety
Against these setbacks on the southern front, Russia appeared to hold Ukraine and Europe hostage to the growing risk of nuclear contamination.
Russian forces seized Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station – Europe’s biggest – early in the war. As fighting on the southern front intensified, Russia used the plant as an active base of operations.
On August 10, the Biden administration called on Russian forces to relocate.
“Fighting near a nuclear plant is dangerous, and we continue to call on Russia to cease all military operations at or near Ukrainian nuclear facilities and return full control to Ukraine,” said White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre.
The EU and G7 echoed this call, appealing to Russia “to return control of all nuclear facilities within Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders to ensure the safe operation of these facilities”.
A Ukrainian ministerial adviser said a nuclear accident at Zaporizhzhia could be nine or 10 times worse than the fallout from Chornobyl in 1986.
“There were 2,000 fuel assemblies at the 4th reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant,” wrote Lala Tarapakina in a statement. “At the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, six reactors and the storage of spent nuclear fuel contain up to 18,000 fuel assemblies.”
Despite the obvious dangers, fighting in and near the plant continued in the last week. Ukraine’s nuclear power company, Energoatom, said five Russian shells landed near a nuclear materials storage and five near the plant’s fire department on August 11.
On August 14, Dmytro Orlov, mayor of Enerhodar, a city neighbouring the plant, said Russian forces shelled the city from the direction of the yachting marina, causing casualties.
On August 15, Ukraine’s state nuclear energy company, Energoatom, said Russian forces had shelled the plant and its environs, damaging the local fire station and facilities within the plant, resulting in a risk of radioactive or hydrogen leaks. Zelenskyy called on Russian troops in the power plant to withdraw unconditionally.
However, Russia blamed Ukrainian forces for attacks on the plant. Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev, who co-ordinates what Russia calls its humanitarian response in Ukraine, said units of the Ukrainian 44th artillery brigade fired 152mm (6-inch) guns from Nikopol, across the Dnieper river from the plant on August 11.
The Russian head of the military-civilian administration of the Zaporizhia region, Yevhen Balytskyi, claimed that Ukraine had fired three shells at the nuclear waste storage facility to create a “dirty bomb” explosion and make the area uninhabitable.
Vladimir Rogov, a member of the Russian military administration of Zaporizhia, said Ukrainian forces shelled the power plant twice on August 11 using rocket artillery, according to Tass news agency.
Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote to Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, requesting a joint mission to assess the military threat Russian forces pose to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
“The Russians have actually turned Europe’s largest nuclear power plant into a military base and are endangering the security of the continent,” he said, accusing Russia of “nuclear terrorism”.
Russia in theory agreed to the mission but insisted on it approaching the plant from Russian-held territory, and appeared to issue veiled threats.
A Russian foreign ministry official said on August 16 that it would be dangerous for the IAEA mission to approach the plant across the line of contact from the Ukrainian side, warning that “anything could happen”, given that the “Ukrainian armed forces are a heterogenous formation. These people would be ready to commit any provocation”.