MOSCOW: A Ukrainian drone attack on Crimea Saturday blew up an ammunition depot, sparking evacuations on the Moscow-annexed peninsula and halting rail traffic, just five days after drones damaged Russia’s symbolic bridge across the Kerch Strait.

Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, has been targeted by Kyiv throughout Moscow’s 17-month long Ukraine offensive but has come under more intense, increased attacks in recent weeks. In a counteroffensive launched to retake lands lost to Moscow, Kyiv has increasingly made clear—despite some Western unease—that it aims to also take back the Black Sea peninsula.

“The goal is to return Crimea,” Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky said, according to a transcript published by his office Saturday of a speech addressing the Aspen Security Forum Friday. He said Kyiv considers the Crimea bridge—opened by Russian leader Vladimir Putin in 2018 -- as an “enemy object” and wants it to be “neutralized”. Less than 24 hours later, the Moscow-installed head of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, said an “enemy” drone had detonated an ammunition depot.

“As a result of an attack by an enemy drone on the Krasnogvardeisky district, an ammunition depot detonated,” Aksyonov said on Telegram, referring to an area that lies inland at the centre of Crimea. He ordered the evacuation of people living within five kilometers of the zone. Aksyonov reported no casualties and claimed there was little damage, but unverified videos on social media showed billowing smoke rising into the air.

He also said rail traffic will be stopped on the peninsula: “To minimize risks, it was also decided to halt rail traffic on Crimean railways.” Road traffic across the Crimea bridge—one of the few ways to get out of Crimea as flights have been cancelled during the conflict—only resumed Saturday after a Ukrainian attack damaged the bridge Tuesday, killing two people.

The attacks came a day before Putin was due to meet his closest ally—Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko—for the first time since the latter helped end a dramatic mutiny by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group. The pair is due to meet in Putin’s home city of Saint Petersburg.


Black Sea escalation

The attacks on Crimea have come as many of Kyiv’s Western allies feel uncomfortable about Ukrainian ambitions to take back the annexed land, fearing a larger-scale conflict with Russia. They have also signified a sharp escalation in the Black Sea area. Ukraine has said it was looking for ways to continue a grain corridor in the Black Sea, suggesting a patrol by border countries in the area. Zelensky said he discussed the “unblocking” of the corridor with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Saturday. The pair had spoken about “future steps necessary for unblocking and (the) sustainable operation of the Black Sea grain corridor,” he said, without giving further details. In his speech Friday, Zelensky warned that Moscow “believes that the Black Sea is purely Russian.”

Kyiv has called on the United Nations and neighboring countries to secure safe passage for cargoes through joint patrols. The Russian army on Friday carried out live-fire exercises in the Black Sea, with the UN warning against escalation.

On the battlefield, Moscow’s forces said Saturday that they had pushed back three Ukrainian attacks in the eastern villages of Urozhayniy and Priyutniy. Ukraine said Russia shelled Kupyansk—in the north-east Kharkiv region where Russia has gone on a limited offensive this week—Saturday, killing a 57-year-old woman.


Cluster munitions

Russia also alleged that Kyiv had used notorious cluster munitions on the Russian border village of Zhuravlevka and that the controversial weapon had killed one of its journalists in a frontline village. The allegations came two weeks after US President Joe Biden faced fierce criticism from his own allies for sending the munitions, that carry a long-term risk to civilians.

The Russian army announced that Rostislav Zhuravlev, a war correspondent working for the state RIA Novosti news agency, died from his wounds after coming under fire from cluster munitions in occupied southern Ukraine.

Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, meanwhile, said “three cluster munitions from a multiple rocket launcher were fired (by the Ukrainian army) at the village of Zhuravlevka” on Friday.

The region has seen near daily cross-border attacks for months. It was the first time Russia reported the weapons were used on its territory. Putin has said Moscow had enough cluster munition to answer if Ukraine was to use the weapons.


Poland summons Russian ambassador

EU member Poland, which borders both Russia and Ukraine, issued an “urgent” summons to the Russian ambassador on Saturday, a day after Putin claimed that Western Poland was a “gift” from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. “Our friends in Warsaw have forgotten? We will remind them,” Putin said during a government meeting. Putin said Poland “dreams of Belarusian land,” a claim often repeated by Moscow. Poland called the comments “provocative” and said it was an attempt to whitewash Putin’s role in Ukraine. Warsaw and Kyiv have expressed worries about Belarus hosting Wagner fighters on its territory after Minsk said the force will train its army. Relations between Poland and Russia have been historically difficult and have dipped to new lows since Moscow’s Ukraine offensive. Warsaw’s summons came a day before Putin and Lukashenko will meet Sunday. — AFP