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Ukraine targets ‘sacred place’ amid warnings of retaliation

By Anton Troianovski


A series of brazen attacks on Russian-occupied Crimea by Ukraine in recent days — the latest Tuesday by an elite military unit operating behind enemy lines — come in defiance of dire warnings of retaliation from Moscow. A senior Russian official vowed last month that if Ukraine attacked Crimea, it would immediately face its “Judgment Day.”


The Black Sea peninsula that Russia illegally seized in 2014 is more than a crucial military base. It holds special meaning for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has told his people that Crimea is a “sacred place” and Russia’s “holy land.” And by repeatedly striking at the territory, which Russia has held for the better part of a decade, Ukraine has posed a fresh challenge to Putin’s standing at home.


On Tuesday, huge explosions rocked a Russian ammunition depot, as Ukraine tries to counter Moscow’s advantages in materiel and disrupt supply lines by ratcheting up its military tactics and striking deep behind the front. Last week, blasts at a military airfield in Crimea sent beachgoers rushing for cover, and an attack by a makeshift drone in the port city of Sevastopol on July 31 forced Russia to cancel its Navy Day celebrations.


A senior Ukrainian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss Tuesday’s operation, said an elite unit was responsible for the explosions. And Russia’s Defense Ministry called the blasts an “act of sabotage” — a significant acknowledgment that the war is increasingly spreading to what the Kremlin considers Russian territory.


Some pro-Kremlin commentators called on the military to make good on the country’s threats to respond harshly to any attacks on Crimea. Andrei Klishas, a senior lawmaker from Putin’s United Russia party, said in a social media post that “Russia’s retaliatory strikes must be very convincing.”


“This is about protecting our sovereignty,” he wrote.


No single action that Putin has taken in his 22-year rule provoked as much pro-Kremlin euphoria among Russians as his largely bloodless annexation of Crimea, which cemented his image at home as a leader resurrecting Russia as a great power. And in the run-up to the invasion last winter, it was Crimea that Putin repeatedly cited as the locus of an existential security threat posed by Ukraine, warning that a Western-backed effort to retake the peninsula by force could trigger a direct war between Russia and NATO.


When Putin launched his invasion Feb. 24, Russian forces lunged north from Crimea in a lightning operation that captured a large swath of territory in southern Ukraine, including the Kherson region, which Russian forces almost fully control. Russia is now using Crimea to provide air and logistics support to its forces in Kherson and the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region, where Ukraine has been attacking Russian supply lines and threatening a counteroffensive.


Pavel Luzin, an independent Russian military analyst, said that Ukraine’s attacks are limiting the ability of Russia to “seize the initiative.”


“Crimea is the only way to support the grouping of troops in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions,” he said. “Otherwise, this grouping of troops does not exist.”


Putin, who addressed a security conference in Moscow by video link a few hours after the early-morning blasts in Crimea on Tuesday, made no mention of the attack and instead focused on a frequent argument: a Western-allied Ukraine poses an existential threat to Russia.


Russia, he said, was prepared for a lengthy war.

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