Mystery Explosions Rock Russian Base — and Send the Propaganda War Into Overdrive

On Tuesday, videos began to spread of massive explosions at a Russian air base in the occupied territory of Crimea in southern Ukraine. The videos, taken from multiple angles by beachgoers using smartphones, showed the immediate aftermath of two large mushroom clouds, followed shortly by a third.

It took only minutes for online cybersleuths and amateur open-source intelligence analysts to definitively identify the location of the explosions as Saki Air Base near Novofedorivka, about 30 miles to the north of Sevastopol on the western coast of the Crimean peninsula.

The fact that the air base was deep inside territory that Russia has controlled since 2014 lent the dramatic spectacle ominous import, and pro-Ukrainian commentators were quick to herald the blasts as a signal achievement for Ukraine’s military.

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That Crimea will be retaken before the end of the war has become an article of faith in Ukraine. But with the frontlines nearly at a standstill, and Russian forces entrenched in Kherson, more than 50 miles northwest of the peninsula, it is unlikely that will happen any time soon.

That, too, is part of the reason events like the explosions at Saki are so important for the Ukrainians to highlight.

“This will be a morale booster for Ukrainians,” said Dr. Matthew Ford, a senior lecturer at Sussex University. “They need to see successes. Watching the stories about the Russians fleeing Crimea offers some hope.”

But the fog of war does not lend itself well to easy penetration, even by the “extremely online.” A dense atmosphere of deliberate disinformation, strategic ambiguity and coordinated messaging is a hallmark of conflict in the 21st Century, and the explosions in Crimea quickly became an inflection point in the Russo-Ukrainian propaganda war.

Over the 24 hours succeeding the appearance of the videos, a flurry of conflicting official and unofficial narratives about what had happened at Saki appeared on the internet, in print and on television.

In The New York Times, a “senior Ukrainian official” was quoted as saying that the Ukrainian military had carried out an attack using “a device exclusively of Ukrainian manufacture.” If true, this would be a significant affirmation of the ability of Ukraine to produce the weapons it needed to reclaim territory it had lost to Russia, without foreign aid.

Meanwhile, a senior adviser to President Volodomyr Zelensky told reporters that “partisans” working for Kyiv had carried out an attack — an assertion unwittingly echoed by one of Russia’s most prominent television commentators, who attributed the explosions to “sabotage.”

Other unnamed “Ukrainian military sources” were cited by numerous publications as saying an attack was the work of “Ukrainian special forces.”

If it were true — that partisans were able to act against occupying troops or that special forces could carry out attacks behind enemy lines — the significance of pro-Ukrainian forces conducting actions that might have a material impact on the course of the war would be striking, and have long-term ramifications for Russian forces in Ukraine.

Unlike many previous negative developments that have been flat-out denied by the Russian government, the Kremlin acknowledged that there had in fact been explosions at the air base. The multiple viral videos with easily identifiable locations and scenes of giant fireballs exploding a short distance away from vacationing beach-goers made the event all but impossible to disregard. But, according to the state-sponsored outlet TASS, Russia’s defense ministry attributed the explosions to an “accident” related to the improper storage of munitions. It also said no aircraft had been destroyed in the disaster at the air base.

The dubiousness of that proposition was highlighted by publicly available commercial satellite photos taken just hours before the explosions occurred, which became a talking point among Ukraine watchers immediately after the explosion videos appeared. The photos clearly show dozens of military aircraft parked in or near the scene of the apparent attack.

Subsequent videos and photos emerged of a burning Russian fighter jet and destroyed cars in a parking lot hundreds of meters from the blast-site, calling into question whether Russian government statements could be relied upon for an accurate accounting of the damage. Meanwhile, Russian occupation authorities said that one person had been killed and 13 injured, an acknowledgment that something terrible had in fact happened.

Multiple analysts of varying quality and authority attributed the explosions to a bewildering array of munitions: the detonations showed the effectiveness of HARM anti-radiation missiles — designed to seek out and destroy air-defense radars – recently supplied by the United States; no, they showed that Ukraine was employing its 16 HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems to good effect — despite the fact that the missiles it uses have a range of 85km, and could not plausibly strike an air base 200km from the nearest Ukrainian-held territory; wrong, they demonstrated the creativity of the Ukrainian military in sneaking loitering munitions such as the Switchblade suicide drone behind enemy lines; no, they showed that the domestically produced Hrim short-range ballistic missile program was more advanced than people thought; no, they demonstrated that Ukrainian-made Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles could be used against land targets – a bizarre, if not impossible, employment for such a weapon.

As the United States alone has supplied more than $9.8 billion worth of military aid to Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion in late February, officials in Kyiv and their supporters have good cause to demonstrate they are using such weapons effectively.

This also played into the second act of the propaganda fight over the explosions in Crimea.

In the hours after the blasts, scenes of Russians fleeing Crimea began to pop up and spread across social media. These included video and photos of long lines of cars waiting to cross a key bridge out of the occupied territory; screenshots of navigation apps showing traffic out of Crimea at a standstill; even clips of a woman sobbing that her vacation had been ruined by the explosions. All of this became fodder for digital expressions of schadenfreude, which were amplified by pro-Ukrainian social media accounts and subsequently began to surface on traditional media outlets.

The Ukrainian defense ministry sharpened the point of the message, taking the moment as an opportunity to mock Russian forces on Twitter, saying: “The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine would like to remind everyone that the presence of occupying troops on the territory of Ukrainian Crimea is not compatible with the high tourist season.”

Even President Zelensky talked about Crimea in his regular evening address on the day of the explosions, although he didn’t refer to them directly. “The presence of Russian occupiers in Crimea is a threat for all of Europe and to global stability. The Black Sea region cannot be a safe place while Crimea is occupied.”

To those who study information warfare, there is a clear purpose to all of this messaging.

“The story coming from the Ukrainians for the Russians is that you can’t hide from the war. We are coming for your holidays,” said Dr. Matthew Ford, a senior lecturer at Sussex University who is also a co-author of Radical War, a book about how “digitally saturated fields of perception” have created a “dystopian new ecology of war.”

A primary goal of such an information campaign would be to chip away at Russian propaganda saying that the war was going smoothly and there was nothing to worry about.

“It would not surprise me if what the Ukrainians are doing is trying to break into that official narrative of this being limited to a ‘Special Military Operation,’” Ford told me. “One of the difficult things for the Russians is to explain away images of people on Crimean beaches looking at a couple of explosions going on.”

Indeed, a “Crimean beach holiday” is a common aspirational vacation for many Russians, while the belief that Sevastopol and the peninsula are historically tied to Russia is pervasive, even across layers of society thought to eschew the official line.

This was illustrated to me in late 2019, when a Russian friend — whom I shall call Misha (not the real diminutive of his given name) — was talking to me after dinner in Istanbul one night. As we stood in a garden overlooking a 19th-century mosque along the Bosphorus, enjoying a postprandial scotch, he cordially invited me to visit him some summer at his beach house on the Black Sea.

“Where is it?” I asked. “Near Sochi?”

“Crimea,” Misha said. “A bit north of Sevastopol.”

“How long have you had it?” I asked.

“Since 2015,” he said.

I paused, considering the import of his words.

“So you bought it after the invasion?” I asked. “After Crimea was taken from Ukraine?”

He looked at me sharply, then smiled and shook his head reproachfully: “Crimea is part of Russia.”

Misha lives in Moscow, and works for a Western company. He is a smart guy, compassionate, cosmopolitan and well-traveled, and I had never had reason to think of him as a nationalist. I didn’t know what to make of his comment, but I could imagine how my Ukrainian friends would react if they heard it.

We let the matter drop, and I never did visit Misha’s beach house.

Nor is it likely to be overrun by Kyiv’s forces any time soon. Ford told me — echoing most observers — that the prospects are dim for any major battlefield changes in Ukraine’s favor in the near future. Regardless of Western-supplied arms, Ukraine simply doesn’t have the numbers in place to force the Russians out of Crimea quickly.

“Right now time is running away from them. The weather is going to change, and then we are back to quagmire. The war is going to freeze. Neither side is going anywhere.”

“Just because a story is well-received doesn’t mean it has anything to do with what is going on. The war has totally flipped people inside out. They see what they want to see, instead of what is.”

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