As Attacks Mount in Crimea, Kremlin Faces Rising Domestic Pressures

Nearly six months into the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin still refers to its invasion as a “special military operation” while trying to maintain a sense of normalcy at home.

But a series of Ukrainian attacks in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that President Vladimir V. Putin illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, is puncturing that narrative.

And as Ukrainian attacks mount in the strategically and symbolically important territory, the damage is beginning to put domestic political pressure on the Kremlin, with criticism and debate about the war increasingly being unleashed on social media and underscoring that even what the Russian government considers to be Russian territory is not safe.

On Saturday, a drone slammed into the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, sending a plume of smoke over the port city of Sevastopol. Separately, in western Crimea, Russian troops launched antiaircraft fire at unidentified targets, the region’s Russian governor said.

Local Russian officials blamed the drone attack on Ukraine and urged residents and beachgoers not to panic, while insisting there had been no injuries and that Russian air defenses were functioning properly.

But as images of antiaircraft fire streaking through the blue Crimean sky ricocheted through social media, the visceral reality of war was becoming more and more apparent to Russians — many of whom have rallied behind the Kremlin’s line, hammered home in state media, that the “special military operation” to save Ukraine from Nazi domination is going smoothly and according to plan.

“People are beginning to feel that the war is coming to them,” Andrei Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organization close to the Russian government, said in a phone interview. “I think this is serious.”

Ukrainian soldiers near Kyiv preparing to deploy to the front lines in the east, where the Russian advance appears to have stalled.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Ukraine has been engaged in a campaign to target Russian forces on the Crimean peninsula. The attacks in Crimea appear to have begun in earnest on Aug. 9 with a strike on the Saki air base in which eight fighter jets were destroyed.

“One can literally feel in the air of Crimea that the occupation there is temporary, and Ukraine is returning,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said on Saturday in his nightly address to the nation.

Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War

  • On the Ground: Analysts say that a new Ukrainian strategy of attacking logistical targets in Russian-held territory is proving successful — symbolically as well as militarily.
  • Trading Accusations: Russian and Ukrainian militaries accused each other of preparing to stage an attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. The United Nations issued warnings about the risk of a nuclear disaster and called for a demilitarized zone around the plant.
  • Crimea: Attacks by Ukrainian forces have tested security on the Black Sea peninsula, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 and has become a vital staging ground for the invasion.
  • Visa Ban: A proposal to bar Russian tourists from countries in the European Union over the invasion has stirred debate inside the bloc, with some questioning whether it would play into Kremlin claims of persecution by the West.

Mr. Kortunov said the Kremlin is likely to view the Ukrainian attacks not as a military threat but as “irritating,” showing Ukraine’s ability to threaten Russian lives deep behind the front lines. But it remained unclear how — or if — Mr. Putin would respond to the attacks, even as pro-Kremlin commentators called for retaliatory strikes.

Russia continues to retain military superiority, and the recent strikes in Crimea haven’t resulted in territorial gains for Ukraine. But they nevertheless appear to have dealt a psychological blow to Russia, undercutting the previous perception of Russian invincibility in a peninsula that exerts a strong hold on the Russian psyche.

Crimea is more than a pivotal military base. A sun-splashed resort and staging ground for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Crimea has particular symbolic resonance for Mr. Putin, who has called it Russia’s “holy land.”

Crimea is where czars and Politburo chairmen kept vacation homes. As home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, it also helps Russia exert control over the sea, including a naval blockade that has crippled Ukraine’s economy.

On the social network Telegram, one of Russia’s best-known state television hosts, Vladimir Solovyov, shared a post describing the attacks in Crimea and in Russian regions near the Ukrainian border as “some kind of surrealism.”

“Are we fighting or what are we doing?” the post by a pro-Kremlin military blogger asked. “Tough, cardinal measures must be taken, every day we pay for half-measures with human lives.”

Ukraine paraded a host of destroyed Russian armored vehicles Saturday in Kyiv’s Maidan Square, the site of the 2014 uprising against Russian influence.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

While the military impact of the attacks may be minimal, there are mounting signs that local people are becoming unsettled by them, prompting officials to issue soothing reassurances about their safety.

“I understand that many are worried,” the Russian governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev, said on his social media page on Saturday. “But that is exactly what the Ukrainian Reich” — a reference to Russia’s false characterization of Ukraine as a Nazi state — “wants to achieve.”

In an interview over a messaging app on Saturday, one resident of Sevastopol said she had never imagined that she would live to see the events of the last six months — both the war and the booms of antiaircraft fire that she said she had heard herself recently. She said that her solution was to try to continue living her life and to avoid the news.

“When you read the news, chaos erupts in your head,” said the woman, Elena, 34, who requested her last name be withheld for her security. “You get the feeling that all around you everything is exploding and burning and that you are in hell.”

To bolster national morale or, perhaps, to poke another stick in the Kremlin’s eye, Ukraine staged a brazen act of defiance on Saturday, with captured Russian tanks rolling into downtown Kyiv on flatbed trucks. Collected from battlefields in the east and south of the country, they were placed on the elegant thoroughfare in the center of the capital that leads to Independence Square, the site of the pro-Western uprising in 2014.

Smoke billowing from a munitions depot in Mayskoye, Crimea, on Tuesday. Ukraine has been coy about claiming responsibility for the explosions.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The disarray in Crimea comes as Russia’s war effort appears stalled on multiple fronts. Fighting in Kherson, in the south, and the Donbas region, in the east, has largely ground to a standstill. A Russian offensive to seize Donetsk Province, part of the Donbas, has temporarily halted — partly, American officials said, because Moscow rushed several thousand troops to the south to counter the anticipated Ukrainian offensive there.

In a reflection of the challenges Moscow is facing, the Russian state news media also reported Friday that the Kremlin had replaced the commander of the Black Sea Fleet after a series of setbacks that include the loss of its flagship vessel, Moskva, in April. Ukraine said it had used Neptune missiles to sink the Moskva, a strike Russia dismissed as an onboard accident. It was the biggest warship lost in combat in decades.

As Ukraine stoked instability in Russian-controlled Crimea, there finally appeared to be some movement to get international inspectors into the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, which is occupied by Russian troops and where anxiety has been growing that shelling in the area could lead to a devastating meltdown.

In a conversation late Friday, Mr. Putin told his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, that Russia “had reconsidered” its insistence that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency first travel through Russian territory to reach the Zaporizhzhia plant, according to the French presidency.

The I.A.E.A. — the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog and monitoring agency — has met with several obstacles in its discussions with Russia and Ukraine to get into the Zaporizhzhia plant since at least June.

Emergency rescue teams wearing radiation protection suits during a disaster drill earlier this week in Zaporizhzhia, the site of a contested nuclear power complex.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

Ukraine objected to the idea that the inspectors would enter through Russian-occupied territory, an option that would have seemed to underscore Russian control of the plant, which provides at least a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity. The United Nations had significant security concerns about having inspectors travel through the front lines of this bitter war, with so much shelling.

The war also continued to reverberate outside of Ukraine, including in ongoing concerns that the Kremlin was using Russia’s vast energy resources as a weapon to punish the West.

The Russian energy giant Gazprom said it would close the taps of its Nord Stream pipeline to Germany from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2 to replace a turbine with the help of its manufacturer, Siemens. Gazprom has said Western sanctions have slowed repairs, reducing gas flows by up to 60 percent. But Berlin has accused Gazprom of playing politics on Moscow’s behalf.

“The Russian side’s justification is simply a pretext,” Robert Habeck, Germany’s economy minister, told reporters in Berlin in June. “It is obviously the strategy to unsettle and drive up prices.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.

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