Ukraine has hinted it was behind another mysterious and devastating strike in occupied Crimea that, in a series of dramatic explosions, destroyed a key railway junction used for supplying Russian troops.
Smoke billowed into the sky near Dzhankoi, a significant railway hub in the north of the peninsula used by the Russian military to transport troops and equipment to occupied Melitopol, which Moscow seized early in its full-scale invasion.
The explosions on Tuesday appeared to have destroyed a Russian ammunition dump and an electricity substation about 125 miles (200km) from the frontline with Ukrainian forces, deep behind enemy lines.
A similar attack last week wiped out Russia’s Saky aerodrome in the west of Crimea. At least eight war-planes were incinerated. Tourists relaxing on the beach fled in panic, while long queues of traffic sought to escape via a bridge to the mainland.
It was unclear how Ukraine managed to reach both military targets and Kyiv has not formally confirmed responsibility. The US-supplied Himars system used by Ukrainian soldiers to destroy bridges across the Dnipro river has a range of about 50 miles.
Officials in Kyiv have suggested the Crimea strikes might be the work of partisans emboldened by Ukraine’s recent guided missile successes, or the product of disagreements within the Russian military. Either way, Russia’s southern bases and command posts look suddenly vulnerable.
The ministry of defence in Moscow confirmed a fire had broken out in Dzhankoi but offered no explanation as to what might have happened. “The necessary measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of sabotage,” Russia’s defence ministry said.
Senior Ukrainian government aides took to social media to express their glee.
Mykailo Podolyak, an adviser to the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said the apparent attack was an example of “demilitarisation in action”. He posted on Twitter: “A reminder… Crimea occupied by Russians is about warehouse explosions and high risk of death for invaders and thieves”.
Another presidential aide, Oleksiy Arestovych, tweeted a photoshopped picture of himself relaxing on a sun-lounger similar to the ones pictured last week in Ukraine’s apparent Saky attack. In the background is black smoke. “Morning in Dzhankoi”, Arestovych wrote.
In his latest nightly address, Zelenskiy again accused Moscow of “nuclear blackmail” and called on Russia to hand back the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which it is using as a military base from which it has been shelling the nearby Ukrainian-controlled towns of Nikopol and Marhanets.
Zelenskiy called for sanctions to be imposed on Russia’s nuclear agency Rosastom and on the “entire nuclear industry of the terrorist state”. Rosatom employees are at the complex, which Ukrainian technical staff continue to operate.
“All Russian troops must be immediately withdrawn from the plant and neighbouring areas without any conditions,” Zelenskiy said. More than 40 countries have urged Russia to pull out and to withdraw heavy weapons from the facility, Europe’s biggest nuclear plant.
One former senior employee, speaking anonymously, said the Russians had moved large numbers of armoured vehicles into the giant turbine hall of reactor No 1.
They said the Russians were shelling the plant from surrounding villages and roads. Their apparent goal was to raise the stakes in negotiations with Kyiv and to put pressure on the international community, which would force Ukrainian concessions, they suggested.
“The whole situation in the plant is dangerous but still not catastrophic,” the source said. “I still believe they [the Russians] are not crazy and they will not get to the point of disaster.”
Four of the reactors were no longer working and in a state of cold shutdown, they said. The other two were operational but functioning at half capacity. Rosatom staff were liaising with Russian soldiers and advising them which areas could be “safely” shelled, they alleged.
Asked if Ukraine was itself shelling the plant, as Russia had claimed, the source replied: “That is like believing the sun goes around the Earth. It’s absolutely impossible. It’s our plant, our territory and our people. The Russians are responsible for this.”
About 50,000 people live in Enerhodar, the city in the Zaporizhzhia region next to the nuclear complex. Russian troops keep a low profile and have hung Russian flags over its main buildings, including the former headquarters of the SBU, Ukraine’s intelligence service.
Many male residents had evacuated their wives and children to safer Ukrainian-controlled territory, the source said. Schools and kindergartens were closed. Shops that were empty during the early months of the invasion now had products, available to buy in Ukrainian hryvnias, they added.
Over the past 10 days, nightly explosions have rocked Enerhodar, the source continued. One man walking his dog was killed by shelling in the first district – the only local casualty in recent months.
“The Russians are actively using the territory around the town. I hear all these terrible sounds at night and during the day. Sometimes it sounds as if the explosions are so close they are in my neighbour’s yard,” they said.
There was every sign Russia plans to annex occupied Zaporizhzhia soon. An “election tent” had been set up in Enerhodar ahead of a so-called vote, they said. The front-page headline on a new Russian propaganda sheet, Zaporizhzhia Vesnik, reads: “Referendum will happen!”
“None of my friends wants a referendum. I don’t see people who will vote. Maybe there are a few who live in a parallel universe,” they said.