Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has said that panicking Russians have realised that Crimea is “not a place for them” after three mysterious and devastating strikes on the peninsula over the past week, thought to have been carried out by Ukrainian operatives.
In his latest video address Zelenskiy said long queues of cars streaming across the Crimea Bridge leading to the Russian mainland proved that the “absolute majority” of Russian citizens had got the message. At least 38,000 cars crossed on Tuesday – a record.
The mass exit came after an ammunition dump and electricity sub-station blew up near the town of Dzhankoi, a significant railway hub. Another apparent Ukrainian strike took place outside the regional capital Simferopol, where a Russian airbase was destroyed.
Zelenskiy hinted that similar inventive attacks could be expected. He urged Ukrainians living in Crimea and the occupied south to stay away from enemy command posts and logistics bases. “Do not approach the military objects of the Russian army,” he said.
These might also explode because of “bungling”, he added, describing his country’s struggle against Russian occupiers as a “people’s war of liberation”. Millions of Ukrainians were fighting against a “terrorist state”, he added.
In its latest intelligence update, the UK Ministry of Defence said Russia’s military leaders were likely to be “increasingly concerned” about the surge of setbacks in Crimea. The defence ministry in Moscow has vowed to deal with what it called local “sabotage”.
Six alleged Islamist extremists were detained on Wednesday, according to Crimea’s Moscow-appointed head, Sergey Aksyonov. It was not clear what relation – if any – those arrested had to the recent attacks, which include a strike last week on the Saky aerodrome.
At about 3am on Wednesday Russian strategic aircraft bombed the port city of Odesa, firing two long-range missiles. Four people were wounded. The rockets set fire to a recreation centre in the region and several homes nearby.
The Kremlin’s initial war aim was to seize Odesa, a Russian-speaking city founded by Catherine the Great, and to link up with the Moldovan enclave of Transnistria, where Russian “peacekeeping” troops are based.
The plan unravelled when Ukrainian forces halted attempts to capture the neighbouring city of Mykolaiv and sank Russia’s flagship carrier, the Moskva. Since then the amphibious threat to Odesa has been largely neutralised, military analysts believe.
There are growing signs that Moscow is planning to press ahead next month with a “referendum” to annex the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. A Ukrainian counter-offensive to recapture the city of Kherson occupied since March has yet to happen.
In the run-up to the “vote”, Russian soldiers have been hunting down local community leaders. The latest victim was Svitlana Korotun, the mayor of the village of Verkhny Rohchyk. She was kidnapped for refusing to cooperate with the Russians, and has disappeared, regional officials said.
In the occupied southern city of Melitopol explosions reportedly took place near a Russian command centre. Details were sketchy. The area is at the centre of a significant partisan uprising, which has involved harsh countermeasures enacted by Russian troops, and so-called “filtration” of entire districts.
Writing on Telegram, Melitopol’s mayor-in-exile, Ivan Fedorov, said that a “loud explosion rang out near the enemy’s lair” in the centre of the city. “Let me remind you that one of the commandant’s offices of the occupiers is located here,” he said.
He added: “The earth will burn under the occupiers. This unshakable truth is proven every day by our soldiers from the armed forces of Ukraine in the south of Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, at least two people were killed in the latest shelling in the eastern Donetsk oblast. Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor, reported that Russian forces had attacked the already wrecked towns of Avdiivka and Zaitseve, close to territory held by Russian-controlled separatists.