DNIPRO, Ukraine — Pro-Ukrainian saboteurs were involved in the recent spate of explosions at Russian military sites in Crimea, a Ukrainian government official told NBC News.
The series of blasts hit military depots and airbases in the annexed peninsula over the past week, hinting at a growing ability by Ukraine's military or its backers to strike deep behind enemy lines, a development that could shift the dynamics of the war.
Kyiv has stopped short of publicly claiming responsibility for the explosions. The government official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to disclose information about the Crimea strikes to journalists.
Experts have speculated that guerrilla fighters, known colloquially as “partisans,” may have played a role, given the nature of the blasts.
The official declined to say whether the Ukrainian military or special forces were also involved in the attacks. But he added, “Only thanks to the people who oppose Putin in the occupied territories and in Russia today, resistance is possible.”
Explosions were reported near an airbase Thursday night in Crimea, on the southwest coast near the port city of Sevastopol, the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. On the opposite end of the peninsula, the sky was also lit up at Kerch near a huge bridge to Russia, in what Russia said was fire from its air defenses.
On Tuesday, large blasts and fires were reported at a military depot in Russian-annexed Crimea, forcing more than 3,000 people to flee the region.
Russia called the blasts at an ammunition storage facility in Mayskoye an “act of sabotage,” without naming suspects. Moscow has warned in the past that such attacks would be crossing a red line. But, as with last week’s explosions, speculation fell on Ukrainian forces as having staged the attacks on the region, which Russia has controlled since 2014.
A U.S. official with knowledge of the matter has told NBC News that the Biden administration has placed no restrictions on Ukraine launching strikes in Crimea using U.S.-supplied long-range weapons like HIMARS.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had previously said that Ukraine had committed to not using such weapons to target sites inside Russia.
The official insisted the U.S. is neither encouraging nor discouraging Ukraine to launch attacks in Crimea, but said, “simply put, the targeting decisions of where the Ukrainians strike is up to Ukraine.”
Despite Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014, the U.S. and the international community still consider Crimea to be Ukrainian territory. The peninsula holds huge strategic and symbolic significance for Russia and Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s demand that Kyiv recognize it as part of Russia has been one of its key conditions for ending the fighting. Ukraine, meanwhile, has vowed to drive the Russians from the peninsula and all other occupied territories.
Crimea has been a major strategic hub for Russia’s invasion of mainland Ukraine, providing important supply routes for its forces occupying the south and military bases to support its war operations. It’s also home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Josh Lederman reported from Dnipro, and Hyder Abbasi from London.