Ukraine's air force said Wednesday that nine Russian warplanes were destroyed in massive explosions at an air base in Crimea amid speculation they were the result of a Ukrainian attack that would represent a significant escalation in the war.
Russia denied any aircraft were damaged in Tuesday's blasts — or that any attack took place.
Ukrainian officials have stopped short of publicly claiming responsibility for the explosions, while poking fun at Russia's explanation that munitions at the Saki air base caught fire and blew up. Analysts have also said that explanation doesn't make sense and that the Ukrainians could have used anti-ship missiles to strike the base.
While dodging credit, several Ukrainian officials have pointedly underscored the importance of the peninsula, which Moscow annexed eight years ago.
Crimea holds huge strategic and symbolic significance for both Ukraine and Russia — further emphasized by how both danced around what actually happened. The Kremlin's demand that Ukraine recognize Crimea as part of Russia has been one of its key conditions for ending the hostilities, but Ukraine has vowed to drive the Russians from the peninsula and all other occupied territories.
Hours after the blast, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised again to do just that.
"This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea — its liberation," he said in his nightly address.
The explosions, which killed one person and wounded 14, sent tourists fleeing in panic as plumes of smoke towered over the nearby coastline. Video showed shattered windows and holes in the brick work of some buildings.
Crimea's regional leader, Sergei Aksyonov, said some 250 residents were moved to temporary housing after dozens of apartment buildings were damaged.
But Russian authorities sought to downplay the explosions on Wednesday, saying all hotels and beaches were unaffected on the peninsula, which is a popular tourist destination for many Russians.
President Vladimir Putin has long insisted Crimea is Russian and warned that any attempts to take it back would trigger massive retaliation. Moscow's apparent swallowing of the strike showed Putin's weakness, said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.
"He's expected to protect Crimea as Russia proper," said Zhdanov. "Now he's afraid to recognize that it was done by the Ukrainian armed forces."
Russian warplanes have used Saki to strike areas in Ukraine's south, and social networks were abuzz with speculation that Kyiv fired missiles at the base.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, who is more outspoken than other officials, cryptically said Tuesday that the blasts were caused either by a Ukrainian-made long-range weapon or were the work of guerrillas operating in Crimea.
The base on the Black Sea peninsula, which dangles off southern Ukraine, is some 125 miles away from the closest Ukrainian position — out of the range of the missiles supplied by the U.S. for use in the HIMARS systems.
The Ukrainian military has successfully used those missiles, with a range of 50 miles, to target ammunition and fuel depots, strategic bridges and other key targets in Russia-occupied territories.
HIMARS could also fire longer-range rockets, with a range of about 185 miles — and Ukraine has repeatedly pleaded for such weapons.
U.S. authorities have refrained from providing them thus far, fearing that it could provoke Russia and widen the conflict. The explosions raised speculation on social media that Ukraine might have finally gotten the weapons.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said it couldn't independently assess what caused the explosions, but noted that simultaneous explosions in two places at the base likely ruled out an accidental fire — but not the possibility of 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."
If the Ukrainian forces were, in fact, responsible for the blasts, it would be the first known major attack on a Russian military site in Crimea. A smaller explosion last month at the headquarters of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol was blamed on Ukrainian saboteurs using a makeshift drone.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.