The world's attention on Russia's war in Ukraine on Tuesday turned anew to the Russia-annexed occupied Crimean Peninsula, where a mysterious ammunition storage fire and explosions injuring two people was the second incident in a week to shake Moscow's sensitivities.
Around 2,000 people were evacuated from nearby areas, the local governor said. Videos of the fire and the blasts posted on social media showed think plumes of smoke rising over the raging flames, and a series of multiple explosions could be heard in the background.
“Crimea occupied by Russians is about warehouses explosions and high risk of death for invaders and thieves,” said a cryptic Twitter message from Ukraine presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, which stopped short of claiming any Ukraine responsibility for the incident.
The blaze and blasts rattled the village of Mayskoye in the Dzhankoi district of Crimea early Tuesday, Russian media also reported. It was a message reinforced in Kyiv.
“Morning near Dzhankoi began with explosions. A reminder: Crimea of normal country is about the Black Sea, mountains, recreation and tourism," Podolyak wrote, referring to the time before Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014.
The Russian Defense Ministry said a fire erupted at a “site for temporary storage of ammunition of one of the military units.”
“As a result of the fire, the stored ammunition detonated,” the ministry said, adding that it wasn’t immediately clear what caused the fire.
The Dzhankoi district of Crimea is in the north of the peninsula, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Russian-controlled region of Kherson in southern Ukraine. Kyiv has recently mounted a series of attacks on various sites in the region, targeting supply routes for the Russian military there and ammunition depots.
Crimea’s Russian-appointed governor Sergei Aksyonov said that two people sustained injuries in the most recent incident, and that local residents were being evacuated from the area, as explosions of ammunition continued.
Aksyonov said some residential buildings were damaged near the site of the fire, and about 2,000 people were evacuated from nearby areas. According to Russian media, railway lines going through Mayskoye were also damaged.
Aksyonov said all trains will be stopped at the town of Vladislavovka, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Mayskoye, and passengers will be able to continue their journeys on buses.
Last week, a series of explosions occurred at the Saki air base near the Novofyodorovka village in Crimea. The Russian military blamed the blasts on an accidental detonation of munitions there, but the incident appeared to be the result of a Ukrainian attack. Kyiv said the explosions destroyed nine Russian airplanes.
Ukrainian officials at the time 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 doesn’t make sense and that the Ukrainians could have used anti-ship missiles to strike the base.
The Crimean Peninsula holds huge strategic and symbolic significance for both sides. The Kremlin’s demand that Ukraine recognize 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.
And a British Defense Ministry intelligence update claimed that in the waters off Crimea Russia's Black Sea Fleet surface vessels “continue to pursue an extremely defensive posture,” with boats barely venturing out of sight of the coastline.
Russia already lost its flagship Moskva in the Black Sea and last month the Ukrainian military retook the strategic Snake Island outpost off Ukraine’s southwestern coast vital for guaranteeing sea lanes out of Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest port.
The Russian fleet's “limited effectiveness undermines Russia's overall invasion strategy,” the British statement said. “This means Ukraine can divert resources to press Russian ground forces elsewhere.”