Ukraine said Wednesday that nine Russian warplanes were destroyed in a deadly string of explosions at an air base in Crimea that appeared to be the result of a Ukrainian attack, which would represent a significant escalation in the war.
Russia denied any aircraft were damaged in Tuesday’s blasts — or that any attack took place. But satellite photos clearly showed at least seven fighter planes at the base had been blown up and others probably damaged.
Ukrainian officials 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.
If Ukrainian forces were, in fact, responsible for the blasts, it would be the first known major attack on a Russian military site on the Crimean Peninsula, which was seized from Ukraine by the Kremlin in 2014. Russian warplanes have used Saki to strike areas in Ukraine’s south.
Crimea 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.
The explosions, which killed one person and wounded 14, sent tourists fleeing in panic as plumes of smoke rose over the coastline nearby. Video showed shattered windows and holes in the brickwork of some buildings.
One tourist, Natalia Lipovaya, said that “the earth was gone from under my feet” after the powerful blasts. “I was so scared,” she said.
Sergey Milochinsky, a local resident, recalled hearing a roar and seeing a mushroom cloud from his window. “Everything began to fall around, collapse,” he said.
Crimea’s regional leader, Sergei Aksyonov, said some 250 residents were moved to temporary housing after dozens of apartment buildings were damaged.
Russian authorities sought to downplay the explosions, saying Wednesday that all hotels and beaches were unaffected on the peninsula, which is a popular tourist destination for many Russians. But video posted on social media showed long lines of slowly moving cars on the road to Russia as tourists headed for home.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, cryptically said that the blasts were either caused by Ukrainian-made long-range weapons or the work of Ukrainian guerrillas operating in Crimea.
A Ukrainian parliament member, Oleksandr Zavitnevich, said the airfield was rendered unusable. He reported on Facebook that it housed fighter jets, tactical reconnaissance aircraft and military transport planes.
Satellite photos dated Wednesday issued by Planet Labs PBC showed wreckage in spots on the airfield where the company’s photos a day earlier showed numerous warplanes.
“Official Kyiv has kept mum about it, but unofficially the military acknowledges that it was a Ukrainian strike,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.
The base is at least 200 kilometers (about 125 miles) from the closest Ukrainian position. Zhdanov suggested that Ukrainian forces could have struck it with Ukrainian or Western-supplied anti-ship missiles that have the necessary range.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said it couldn’t independently determine what caused the explosions but noted that simultaneous blasts in two places at the base probably rule out an accidental fire but not sabotage or a missile attack.
But it added: “The Kremlin has little incentive to accuse Ukraine of conducting strikes that caused the damage since such strikes would demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems.”
During the war, the Kremlin has reported numerous fires and explosions on Russian territory near the Ukrainian border, blaming some of them on Ukrainian strikes. Ukrainian authorities have mostly kept silent about the incidents, preferring to keep the world guessing.
Neither side has released much information about their own casualties. In his nightly video address Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed nearly 43,000 Russian soldiers had been killed.
Colin Kahl, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, estimated Monday that Russian forces have sustained up to 80,000 deaths and injuries in the fighting. He did not break down the figure with an estimate of forces killed or provide a Ukrainian casualty count.
In other developments, Russian forces shelled areas across Ukraine on Tuesday night into Wednesday, including the central region of Dnipropetrovsk, where 13 people were killed, according to the region’s governor, Valentyn Reznichenko.
Reznichenko said the Russians fired at the city of Marganets and a nearby village. Dozens of residential buildings, two schools and several administrative buildings were damaged.
“It was a terrible night,” Reznichenko said. “It’s very hard to take bodies from under debris. We are facing a cruel enemy who engages in daily terror against our cities and villages.”
In Ukraine’s east, where fighting has raged for eight years, a Russian attack on the center of the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region killed seven, wounded six and damaged stores, homes and apartment buildings, setting off fires, Ukraine’s prosecutor general said on Telegram. Bakhmut is a key target for Russian forces as they advance on regional hubs.
In the city of Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russia-backed separatists since 2014, Ukrainian shelling hit a brewery, killing one person and wounding two, the separatists’ emergency service said. It said the shelling late Wednesday caused a leak of toxic ammonia and warned people to stay inside and breathe through cotton gauze.
Two residents of the village of Staryi Saltiv in the Kharkiv region in the northeast were killed Wednesday in Russian shelling, police reported.
In the country’s southeast, Moscow’s forces continued shelling the city of Nikopol across the Dnieper River from the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia power station, the biggest nuclear plant in Europe. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of shelling it, stoking international fears of a catastrophe.
On Wednesday, foreign ministers of the Group of Seven industrialized democracies demanded that Russia immediately hand back full control of the plant to Ukraine. They said they are “profoundly concerned” about the risk of a nuclear accident with far-reaching consequences.
A tractor pulling a trolley packed with pilgrims returning from a shrine in India overturned Saturday and plunged into a pond, killing as many as 27 people, Indian media reported.
The accident in the city of Kanpur in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh left another 22 people injured, reported The Times of India.
Other news media gave slightly lower death tolls.
The tractor-trolley was bringing Hindu pilgrims back from the Chandrika Devi temple, reports said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered his condolences in a tweet.
"Distressed by the tractor-trolley mishap took place in Kanpur. My thoughts are with all those who have lost their near and dear ones and prayers with the injured," Modi said.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said this kind of vehicle -- a tractor pulling a large cart -- should be used only to transport farm goods and freight, not people, The Hindu said.
"The road accident in Kanpur district is very heart-wrenching," he said.
Germany will deliver the first of four advanced IRIS-T air defence systems to Ukraine in the coming days to help ward off drone attacks, its defence minister Christine Lambrecht said during an unannounced visit to Odessa on Saturday.
As air raid sirens sounded in the port city above, Lambrecht held talks with her Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov in an underground bunker. Lambrecht had extended a visit to nearby Moldova for the meeting.
"In a few days, we will deliver the very modern IRIS-T air defence system," she told ARD television. "It is very important for drone defence in particular."
Ukraine has been seeing more attacks from Iranian-made kamikaze drones in recent weeks, costing lives and causing serious damage to infrastructure.
It first emerged in May that Berlin was considering sending the IRIS-T surface-to-air defence system, which costs 150 million euros ($147 million) apiece.
The German armed forces themselves do not currently own the system, reckoned among the world's most advanced.
Earlier, meeting her Moldovan counterpart Anatolie Nosatii in Chisinau, she urged Western countries not to be deterred from arming Ukraine by threats that Russia could use nuclear weapons.
"We have to be very careful," she said. "But we mustn't let ourselves be paralysed."
Germany is facing calls to step up its support for Ukraine, including by sending offensive weapons such as the modern tanks Kyiv says it needs to take the fight to Russian forces.
Berlin has so far resisted such calls, arguing that such moves would escalate the situation and pointing out that no other country has so far sent tanks more modern than old Soviet stock sent by former Warsaw Pact countries.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry said on Saturday it rejects Russia's annexation of four regions in Ukraine, adding the decision is a "grave violation" of international law.
Turkey, a NATO member, has conducted a diplomatic balancing act since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. Ankara opposes Western sanctions on Russia and has close ties with both Moscow and Kyiv, its Black Sea neighbours. It has also criticised Russia's invasion and sent armed drones to Ukraine.
The Turkish ministry said on Saturday it had not recognised Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, adding that it rejects Russia's decision to annex the four regions, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
"This decision, which constitutes a grave violation of the established principles of international law, cannot be accepted," the ministry said.
"We reiterate our support to the resolution of this war, the severity of which keeps growing, based on a just peace that will be reached through negotiations," it added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed the annexation of the regions on Friday, promising Moscow would triumph in its "special military operation" even as he faced a potentially serious new military reversal.
His proclamation came after Russia held what it called referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine. Western governments and Kyiv said the votes breached international law and were coercive and non-representative.
The United States, Britain and Canada announced new sanctions in response.
Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy said on Friday his country had submitted a fast-track application to join the NATO military alliance and that he would not hold peace talks with Russia while Putin was still president.
The ruptures on the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline system under the Baltic Sea have led to what is likely the biggest single release of climate-damaging methane ever recorded, the United Nations Environment Programme said on Friday.
A huge plume of highly concentrated methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent but shorter-lived than carbon dioxide, was detected in an analysis this week of satellite imagery by researchers associated with UNEP's International Methane Emissions Observatory, or IMEO, the organization said.
"This is really bad, most likely the largest emission event ever detected," Manfredi Caltagirone, head of the IMEO for UNEP, told Reuters. "This is not helpful in a moment when we absolutely need to reduce emissions."
Researchers at GHGSat, which uses satellites to monitor methane emissions, estimated the leak rate from one of four rupture points was 22,920 kilograms per hour. That is equivalent to burning about 630,000 pounds of coal every hour, GHGSat said in a statement.
"This rate is very high, especially considering it's four days following the initial breach," the company said.
The total amount of methane leaking from the Gazprom-led (GAZP.MM) pipeline system may be higher than from a major leak that occurred in December from offshore oil and gas fields in Mexican waters of the Gulf of Mexico, which spilled around 100 metric tons of methane per hour, Caltagirone said.
The Gulf of Mexico leak, also viewable from space, ultimately released around 40,000 metric tons of methane over 17 days, according to a study conducted by the Polytechnic University of Valencia and published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
That is the equivalent of burning 1.1 billion pounds of coal, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency's Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.
Improved satellite technology has rapidly enhanced the ability of scientists to find and analyze greenhouse gas emissions in recent years, something some governments hope will help companies detect and prevent methane emissions.
The major leaks that suddenly erupted in the Nord Stream gas pipelines that run from Russia to Europe have generated plenty of theories but few clear answers about who or what caused the damage. Both Russia and the European Union have suggested the ruptures were caused by saboteurs.
Europe and the United States have heaped sanctions on Moscow in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine, raising worries the Kremlin will seek to deprive Europe of crucial energy supplies leading into the winter.
Caltagirone said, whatever the cause, the damage to the pipeline posed a problem beyond energy security. "This is the most wasteful way to generate emissions," he said.
The United States on Friday imposed wide-ranging sanctions on Russia over its declared annexation of parts of Ukraine, targeting hundreds of people and companies, including those in Russia's military-industrial complex and lawmakers.
Washington acted after Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday proclaimed the biggest annexation in Europe since World War Two, declaring Russian rule over 15% of Ukraine territory occupied by Russian forces.
"We will rally the international community to both denounce these moves and to hold Russia accountable. We will continue to provide Ukraine with the equipment it needs to defend itself, undeterred by Russia's brazen effort to redraw the borders of its neighbour," US President Joe Biden said in a statement.
The latest sanctions come on top of sweeping measures already imposed by the United States and allies this year that have already crippled Russia's international trading and local economy. But they stop short of Russia's energy industry, the country's largest source of hard currency.
Russia's embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment. In a speech on Friday, Putin criticized the West as neo-colonial and Satanist; Ukraine said it would fast-track its application to join NATO, the US-led Western military alliance.
Guidance from the US Treasury and Commerce departments warned that anyone outside Russia, including companies, that provide political, economic or material support to Moscow faced a heightened risk of sanctions.
The Treasury sanctions generally freeze any US assets of those designated and bar Americans from dealing with them.
Commerce added 57 entities in Russia and Crimea to bar exports.
Treasury said it imposed sanctions on 14 people in Russia's military-industrial complex, two leaders of the central bank, family members of top officials and 278 members of the legislature "for enabling Russia's sham referenda and attempt to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory."
Russia moved to annex the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in eastern and southern Ukraine after holding what it called referendums – votes that were denounced by Kyiv and Western governments as illegal and coercive.
Among those designated for US sanctions were Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak; 109 State Duma members; the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of Russia and 169 of its members; and the governor of the Central Bank of Russia, Elvira Nabiullina.
Among the targets related to Russia's defense procurement was a Chinese supplier the Treasury accused of supporting Radioavtomatika, a US-designated Russian defense procurement firm.
Washington said Sinno Electronics Co Ltd, previously placed on the Commerce Department's entity list, maintained a relationship with the Russian firm even after the invasion of Ukraine in late February.
Sinno did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Taco LLC in Armenia, Russia's Novastream Limited, a Belarusian state-owned supplier, and Russian technology and defense firms were among other companies designated over Russia's defense procurement.
Treasury also designated family members of Russia's National Security Council, such as Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin's wife and two adult children, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's wife and adult children and National Guard head Viktor Zolotov's wife and adult children.
In addition, the immediate family members of the deputy chairman of Russia's Federation Security Council Dmitry Medvedev, Speaker of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko, and Saint Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov were hit with sanctions.
The U.S. State Department in a separate statement said it imposed visa restrictions on more than 900 people, including members of the Russian and Belarusian military and "Russia's proxies for violating Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence," barring them from traveling to the United States.
The United States singled out a Russian national, Ochur-Suge Mongush, for his involvement in what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called "a gross violation of human rights perpetrated against a Ukrainian prisoner of war," and said Mongush and his immediate family members cannot enter the United States.
Canada also announced measures on Friday against dozens of oligarchs, financial elites and their family members, plus 35 Russian-backed senior officials in the regions where the referendums took place. Britain also put sanctions on the central bank governor and imposed new services and goods export bans.
The United States hopes Friday's sanctions will reduce Russia's military's ability to menace Ukraine, and "undermine Russia's major sectors" in technology, industry and defense, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said "so that it's capacity to project power, threaten and coerce its neighbors and wage wars of aggression is reduced over time."
Washington's targets are largely proportionate to Russia's annexation, said Brian O'Toole, a former Treasury official now with the Atlantic Council think tank.
The action against Sinno Electronics serves as a warning to other Chinese companies and those that might do business with Russia, he said.
"I'm impressed at how robust this is given that this was a relatively short turnaround," O'Toole said.
Sullivan spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday about their "shared concern" over the Russian annexations and the need to protect critical infrastructure after the apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea, the United States said.
A tractor pulling a trolley packed with pilgrims returning from a shrine in India overturned Saturday and plunged into a pond, killing as many as 27 people, Indian media reported. The accident in the city of Kanpur in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh left another 22 people injured, reported The Times of India.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry said on Saturday it rejects Russia's annexation of four regions in Ukraine, adding the decision is a "grave violation" of international law. Turkey, a NATO member, has conducted a diplomatic balancing act since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. Ankara opposes Western sanctions on Russia and has close ties with both Moscow and Kyiv, its Black Sea neighbours. It has also criticised Russia's invasion and sent armed drones to Ukraine.