Exclusive: Armenian president hails ‘new page’ in ties with Saudi Arabia, thanks Arab world for providing refuge after genocide

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Updated 28 December 2021

Exclusive: Armenian president hails ‘new page’ in ties with Saudi Arabia, thanks Arab world for providing refuge after genocide

Exclusive: Armenian president hails ‘new page’ in ties with Saudi Arabia, thanks Arab world for providing refuge after genocide
  • Embassies, ambassadors, only a matter of time, says President Sarkissian
  • Saudi crown prince “taking Saudi Arabia in right direction”
  • Iran has no security or military role in Armenia
  • Conflict with Azerbaijan was “never a religious war”

YEREVAN: A phrase Armen Sarkissian likes to repeat when describing his vision for Armenia is “small nation, global state.” As president of the republic, he doesn’t mince his words when it comes to his country’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. 
Occupying only 29,743 square kilometers of territory, Armenia is comparable in size to Belgium or the US state of Maryland. However, while there are fewer than three million Armenians citizens living in his country, the Armenian diaspora worldwide is estimated to be between five and seven million — with the US alone accounting for up to 1.5 million.
Renowned for their contributions globally, including in the Arab world, Armenians have left their mark in science, politics, sports, culture and entertainment. This is probably why Sarkissian not only considers his country’s diaspora a major point of strength, but goes as far as to say that Armenians abroad are as important a national resource as oil is to Gulf countries. In fact, he believes in this idea so much that he wants his country’s constitution to change, to enable more Armenians living abroad to participate in government.

“By constitution, an Armenian from abroad cannot become a minister unless he lives four years, the last four years, in Armenia, and carries only an Armenian passport, which I consider complete nonsense in this new world,” he tells Arab News in his first interview with a Saudi media outlet. “It should be the other way around. You have to bring people that are so successful worldwide. There are hundreds of thousands of experienced people and we’re not using them. I mean, imagine a Gulf state that decided not to use oil.”

Sarkissian (right) sat next to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) at the Future Investment Initiative conference. (SPA)

To complement this, Sarkissian also believes in investing heavily in human capital at home and is proud of what Armenia has achieved in the fields of technology and science, something he says all smart nations — such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE — are already doing. 
But despite this promising vision, the vibe is not all that positive in Yerevan, as people are acutely aware of their nation’s weaknesses and the threats it faces. The geopolitical shadows of the past seem to haunt the present — much like the eternal flame at the heart of Tsitsernakaberd, the genocide memorial dedicated to the lives of the 1.5 million Armenians who perished at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1916. 
Modern day Turkey — one of Armenia’s four neighbors, along with Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan — still does not recognize the genocide and remains at odds with Yerevan. Last year, a second war erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Yet again, the conflict was over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, internationally recognized as Azeri. Turkey publicly supported Baku, while Iran is said to have silently supported Armenia — though this is disputed by some academics and analysts in Yerevan. 
The war ended with an Azeri victory and a cease-fire brokered by Russia, leaving Armenia in a struggle to prevent the harsh geopolitical realities of the present from interfering with its ambitious vision of the future. 
This was a challenge for Sarkissian, but also meant discovering new — and much needed — horizons and opportunities for Armenia. One obvious opportunity was Saudi Arabia, which since last year has been advocating for a peaceful solution between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

A historic visit

Sarkissian made history in October when he became the first Armenian president to visit Saudi Arabia since the independence of his country in 1991. Although the two countries have never been mutually hostile, neither have they had diplomatic relations since Riyadh supported Azerbaijan’s position in the first Karabakh war in 1988-1994.
Sarkissian says that is “unfortunate,” and that one of his “first goals” upon becoming president in 2018 was to establish diplomatic ties with the Kingdom, which he describes as a “very important, very influential and very prominent state, the guardian of the faith of Islam.”
During his visit, Sarkissian sat next to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Future Investment Initiative conference, often referred to as “Davos in the Desert.” He revealed to Arab News the substance of his discussions with the crown prince, which he says were not lengthy but “very specific.”

“First of all, it was a discussion about the respect of the two sides for each other as a nation, as a state, and as individuals. The second thing was that we spoke about our diplomatic relations, and we agreed that in reality our diplomatic relations started with that visit, and I’ve made invitations for the minister of state and foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, and of course His Royal Highness, to visit Armenia.

Sarkissian (left) told Abbas (right) that a timeline for exchanging ambassadors and opening embassies is a matter for the relevant departments in his government and the Saudi Foreign Ministry. (Ziyad AlArfaj)

“The third most important part of our discussion was focused on the future, and I was very happy to find in my discussions with His Royal Highness that he is very focused on the future of his country, on the future of the region, on the future of the Gulf and the future of the world.”

Sarkissian says a timeline for exchanging ambassadors and opening embassies is a matter for the relevant departments in his government and the Saudi Foreign Ministry. “To be honest, for me this is secondary, because what we agreed to is to consider that we have opened a new page in our relations,” he says. 
Sarkissian regrets that his visit was limited to one day, but he met many people — and the major influencing factor for him was his conversation with the crown prince. “I do believe in his honesty as a leader and where he is leading his nation, and that’s very much in the right direction,” he says.
However, Armenia also enjoys friendly relations with Iran, a regime infamous for interfering in the affairs of its neighbors and influencing decisions to serve its interests. Would this deter any prospect of normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia and moderate Arab states? “No, not at all,” says Sarkissian. Armenia is not a religious state and already enjoys “excellent relations” with Arab countries as well as Iran, which “didn’t take the path of destroying Armenian heritage or churches —in fact the government financed the restoration of Armenian churches in Iran.”
He explains that it is in his country’s interest to maintain good relations with Tehran. “We are a landlocked state,” and Yerevan already has troubled relations with two neighbors (Turkey and Azerbaijan), so it cannot afford to upset the relationship it enjoys with the remaining two, Iran and Georgia, which he describes as his country’s gateway to Russia and the Black Sea.

Nevertheless, Sarkissian does understand what he describes as the “concerns” of Saudi Arabia. “I do understand and I see the tensions, I do understand and see Iran and the Gulf, Iran and Lebanon, OK, and I see what Saudi Arabia is doing in the region and the Gulf.” 
But what exactly are the depths of the Armenian-Iranian relationship? Does Tehran play any role militarily, or interfere in security or policy affairs, as it does with almost all its neighbors?

I do understand the concerns of Saudi Arabia. I do understand and I see the tensions, I do understand and see Iran and the Gulf, Iran and Lebanon

“They don’t interfere in military or security,” Sarkissian insists. “They have their interests in what is happening now in the south of Armenia, which of course concerns Iran.” Yerevan and Tehran enjoy a relationship that is historic and cultural, and have mutual interests such as energy and trade, he says. 
But what about perceptions of Tehran’s secret support for Armenia during the recent Karabakh war? And how does President Sarkissian interpret Iranian military drills near the Azeri border? 
“That’s their own policy, they don’t interfere in Armenia,” he replies. “I think … if they feel a danger happening on their borders it is their internal issue.”
Sarkissian also strongly rejects suggestions that the Karabakh conflict was not just a land dispute, but also a religious war between Christian-majority Armenia and Muslim-majority Azerbaijan. “It was never a religious war,” he says. “Armenia has wonderful relations with a lot of states where Islam is a major religion, states where Islam is the only religion, or states that have Islam as their state religion”. 

“The other side (referring to Azerbaijan and Turkey) sometimes like to use that (the “religious war” description) in order in order to accumulate support from Islamic world, but Armenia never tried to get support from Christian states.”

Meanwhile, several Armenian analysts have criticized what they describe as Pakistan’s open and ideological support for the Azerbaijani-Turkish axis, and say that joint military drills with the Azeri side further complicate the situation. Sarkissian says Yerevan has no diplomatic relations with Pakistan — “I’m trying to build them, because I don’t come from the concept that if somebody supports my competitor or the enemy I shouldn’t talk to him.”
“Pakistan is not a country we can ignore. We are not in a position of going to war with Pakistan, that’s complete nonsense. We should try to have a dialogue and see where it takes us, and again I don’t see any again contradiction between having a dialogue with Pakistan and our deep and good relations with India.”

Peace in the South Caucasus? 

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said last week that Ankara was working on advancing the dialogue with Armenia, in coordination with Azerbaijan. “Turkey stands not only for the normalization of relations with Armenia, but also for peace and stability in the entire Caucasus,” he said. Turkey has engaged in an array of regional conflicts in recent years, and its economy has now deteriorated to unprecedented levels. Although this is not the first attempt to bridge the rift between the two neighbors, many observers believe Ankara’s political and economic difficulties present a genuine opportunity for Armenia. 
So, does Yerevan welcome these developments? Does this Armenian goodwill expressed by its president extend to arch-rival Turkey? 
“Armenia is politically divided, especially after the war, as you can imagine,” Sarkissian says. “Every state, when you have a war and you lose the war and there are so many tensions, then it’s not homogeneous in its behavior. I would never say that I speak on behalf of all Armenians.
“I’m the president of a parliamentary republic, I’m the head of state, but I’m not the executive who runs current affairs in the government. It’s the government that has to answer to the Turkish side, and the offer.” It would be wrong for him to comment or judge at this stage, he says. 
“Any agreement … should go through a formal process of being brought to the parliament,” he explains. “The moment it reaches my table you will hear my voice, and as the president of the republic I can either sign whatever is agreed — if I consider that it is in harmony with the national interest of the state and the people of Armenia — or I have a chance not sign it, and then send it, for example, to the constitutional court so the top lawyers can discuss this issue and give me advice.”
As for Azerbaijan, since the international community has recognized Karabakh as Azeri and attempts to resolve the issue continue, does Sarkissian see any role for influential regional or religious bodies such as the Gulf Cooperation Council or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in supporting peace efforts in the Caucasus? 
“My advice would be, let's try to find a logical solution that will be acceptable on both sides. Any solution that is forced will not last,” he says.
Sarkissian argues that it is the Azeris who should be offering compromises to ensure a lasting peace. “There is not much the Armenian side can compromise on today,” he says. “We could have compromised starting from 1994, when we were victorious … that was the time for compromise and to come to a diplomatic solution rather than a war solution that’s a big regret, because thousands of young lives were lost for something that could have been achieved through diplomatic channels.” 

Let’s try to find a logical solution that will be acceptable on both sides. Any solution that is forced will not last

Nevertheless, the war was not a complete loss for Armenia. Sarkissian draws an interesting analogy with Turkey, and explains why there are still plenty of opportunities for his country.  
“During the war, we lost. But the Armenian monetary unit — the dram — was stable. It lost a little bit, but after the war it became stronger than before. Against the US dollar, the Turkish lira went down dramatically.”
The key difference, Sarkissian says, is that Armenia has safeguarded the independence of its central bank, while Turkey has not. “There’s something we did right around the early 1990s, we rebuilt our banking sector. We had more than 150 banks, and as in every Soviet republic most of them were pyramid schemes, but we managed to bring in international banks.
“The first was HSBC, I’m proud to say I brought them here, and they helped us to build our laws into the banking sector. And in Armenia we have a central bank that is really independent from the government.”
Banking is not the only sector Sarkissian is proud of. He speaks highly of Armenia’s technology and agricultural sectors, and even his country’s natural water. Sipping from a bottle of locally sourced still water, he elaborates on how rich his country is in natural water, and insists he can distinguish between the different tastes —like a wine connoisseur. 
Armenia joined the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, but also has strong economic relations with the EU. Sarkissian says the consequent tax and customs alignments present an opportunity for Gulf companies and others to register in Armenia and run businesses from there. “Several countries, including Singapore, want to have deeper relations with the Eurasian Economic Union, and Armenia can be a gateway,” he says.

A message to the Arab world

Sarkissian recalls the key role played by the Gulf states and the Arab world in providing refuge for Armenians who escaped the 1915-1916 genocide.
“They found homes in Syria, in Lebanon, in Egypt, in the Gulf states including Saudi Arabia,” he says. “I take this opportunity to thank those nations, and the heads of state of all these Middle Eastern states, especially Arab states, that were so brotherly to us.
“These are states where the main religion is Islam, or the only religion is Islam, and they took in homeless Armenians who were Christians as their brothers and sisters. So this is an opportunity to thank them.”
Significantly, more than 100 years later, that migration is happening in reverse as Armenians flee their desperate plight in countries such as Syria and Lebanon. Sarkissian believes that, certainly in the case of Lebanon, it would be preferable to support the Armenian community in remaining in their adopted country.
“Five or ten years ago that was a country that was living in harmony,” he says. “Of course there was interference there, but what they got wrong was on the financial side, because of the structure of the constitution and the way they were running their affairs.
“But I would love to help our Armenian community there so they will stay, because there is too much culture, too much presence, and they are important — as are our Armenian communities in many other places.”

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir
Updated 6 sec ago

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir

Five killed as rebels storm India army camp in Kashmir
  • Soldiers responded to the attack, triggering a gunbattle that lasted for at least three hours
  • Rebels in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir have been fighting New Delhi’s rule since 1989
SRINAGAR, India: Three Indian soldiers and two suspected militants were killed Thursday after rebels stormed a military camp in disputed Kashmir, officials said.
At least two assailants armed with guns and grenades attacked the camp in the remote Darhal area of southern Rajouri district early Thursday, said Mukesh Singh, a senior police officer.
The soldiers responded to the attack, triggering a gunbattle that lasted for at least three hours, Singh said.
A reinforcement of soldiers and counterinsurgency police encircled the camp as the fighting raged inside, officials said.
In addition to the five deaths, two soldiers were injured in the fighting, Singh said.
There was no independent confirmation of the incident.
On Wednesday, police said government forces killed three rebels in Budgam district during a counterinsurgency operation.
India and Pakistan claim the divided territory of Kashmir in its entirety.
Rebels in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir have been fighting New Delhi’s rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal of uniting the territory, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
India insists the Kashmir militancy is Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Pakistan denies the charge, and most Kashmiris consider it a legitimate freedom struggle. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul
Updated 11 August 2022

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul

North Korea declares ‘shining victory’ over virus, blames Seoul
  • Kim Jong Un's powerful sister blamed leaflets from the South for causing the COVID outbreak in her isolated country
  • Seoul expresses regrets over the groundless claims and  threatening remarks by North Korea's leader

SEOUL, South Korea: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared victory over COVID-19 and ordered preventive measures eased just three months after acknowledging an outbreak, claiming the country’s widely disputed success would be recognized as a global health miracle.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency also reported Thursday that Kim’s sister said her brother had suffered a fever and blamed the North Korean outbreak on leaflets flown from across the border from South Korea, while warning of deadly retaliation.
Some experts believe North Korea has manipulated the scale of the outbreak to help Kim maintain absolute control of the country amid mounting economic difficulties. They believe the victory statement signals Kim’s aim to move to other priorities but are concerned his sister’s remarks portend a provocation.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, issued a statement expressing strong regret over North Korea’s “extremely disrespectful and threatening comments” that were based on “ridiculous claims” about the source of its infections.
Since North Korea admitted to an omicron outbreak of the virus in May, it has reported about 4.8 million “fever cases” in its population of 26 million but only identified a fraction of them as COVID-19. It has claimed the outbreak has been slowing for weeks and just 74 people have died.
“Since we began operating the maximum emergency anti-epidemic campaign (in May), daily fever cases that reached hundreds of thousands during the early days of the outbreak were reduced to below 90,000 a month later and continuously decreased, and not a single case of fever suspected to be linked to the evil virus has been reported since July 29,” Kim said in his speech Wednesday, according to KCNA.
“For a country that has yet to administer a single vaccine shot, our success in overcoming the spread of the illness in such a short period of time and recovering safety in public health and making our nation a clean virus-free zone again is an amazing miracle that would be recorded in the world’s history of public health,” he said.
For Kim to declare victory against COVID-19 suggests that he wants to move on to other priorities, such as boosting a broken and heavily sanctioned economy further damaged by pandemic border closures or conducting a nuclear test, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
South Korean and US officials have said North Korea could be gearing up for its first nuclear test in five years amid its torrid run of weapons tests this year that included its first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017.
The provocative testing activity underscores Kim’s dual intent to advance his arsenal and pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled negotiations aimed at leveraging its nukes for badly needed sanctions relief and security concessions, experts say.
Kim Jun-rak, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday the South Korean military was maintaining firm readiness and prepared for “various possibilities” of North Korean provocations.
The bellicose rhetoric of Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, is concerning because it indicates she will try to blame any COVID-19 resurgence on the South and is also looking to justify North Korea’s next military provocation, Easley said.
North Korea first suggested in July that its COVID-19 outbreak began in people who had contact with objects carried by balloons flown from South Korea — a questionable and unscientific claim that appeared to be an attempt to hold its rival responsible.
Activists for years have flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of Kim, and North Korea has often expressed fury at the activists and at South Korea’s leadership for not stopping them.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Kim Yo Jong reiterated those claims, calling the country’s virus crisis a “hysteric farce” kicked off by South Korea to escalate confrontation. She claimed that her brother had suffered fever symptoms and praised his “energetic and meticulous guidance” for bringing an “epoch-making miracle” in the fight against COVID-19.
“(South Korean) puppets are still thrusting leaflets and dirty objects into our territory. We must counter it toughly,” she said. “We have already considered various counteraction plans, but our countermeasure must be a deadly retaliatory one.”
Kim Yo Jong’s reference to Kim Jong Un’s illness wasn’t further explained.
Outside experts suspect the virus spread after North Korea briefly reopened its northern border with China to freight traffic in January and surged further following a military parade and other large-scale events in Pyongyang in April.
In May, Kim prohibited travel between cities and counties to slow the spread of the virus. But he also stressed that his economic goals should be met, which meant huge groups continued to gather at agricultural, industrial and construction sites.
At the virus meeting, Kim called for the easing of preventive measures and for the nation to maintain vigilance and effective border controls, citing the global spread of new coronavirus variants and monkeypox.

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home
Updated 11 August 2022

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home

FBI chief Wray denounces threats following search of Trump home
  • Supporters of President Donald Trump have been using violent rhetoric in the wake of his agency’s search of his Mar-a-Lago home
  • Trump is being investigated by the US Justice Department for potential mishandling of classified information

OMAHA, Nebraska: The director of the FBI had strong words Wednesday for supporters of former President Donald Trump who have been using violent rhetoric in the wake of his agency’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home.
Christopher Wray, who was appointed as the agency’s director in 2017 by Trump, called threats circulating online against federal agents and the Justice Department “deplorable and dangerous.”
“I’m always concerned about threats to law enforcement,” Wray said. “Violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re upset with.”
Wray made the remarks following a news conference during a long-planned visit to the agency’s field office in Omaha, Nebraska, where he discussed the FBI’s focus on cybersecurity. He declined to answer questions about the hours-long search Monday by FBI agents of Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida resort.
It has been easy to find the threats and a call to arms in those corners of the Internet favored by right-wing extremists since Trump himself announced the search of his Florida home. Reactions included the ubiquitous “Lock and load” and calls for federal agents and even US Attorney General Merrick Garland to be assassinated.
On Gab — a social media site popular with white supremacists and antisemites — one poster going by the name of Stephen said he was awaiting “the call” to mount an armed revolution.
“All it takes is one call. And millions will arm up and take back this country. It will be over in less than 2 weeks,” the post said.
Another Gab poster implored others: “Lets get this started! This unelected, illegitimate regime crossed the line with their GESTAPO raid! It is long past time the lib socialist filth were cleansed from American society!“
The search of Trump’s residence Monday is part of an investigation into whether Trump took classified records from the White House to his Florida residence, according to people familiar with the matter. The Justice Department has been investigating the potential mishandling of classified information since the National Archives and Records Administration said it had received from Mar-a-Lago 15 boxes of White House records, including documents containing classified information, earlier this year.


Shock, shame among some Muslims as Afghan accused of New Mexico murders

Shock, shame among some Muslims as Afghan accused of New Mexico murders
Updated 11 August 2022

Shock, shame among some Muslims as Afghan accused of New Mexico murders

Shock, shame among some Muslims as Afghan accused of New Mexico murders
  • 51-year-old Muhammad Syed denied being involved with any of the four killings

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.: Muslims in New Mexico interviewed on Wednesday said they felt shock and shame at the arrest of a Muslim immigrant from Afghanistan in connection with the murders of four Muslim men.
Police on Tuesday said they detained 51-year-old Muhammad Syed. A motive for the killings remains unclear, but police said he may have acted on personal grudges, possibly with intra-Muslim sectarian overtones.
Syed denied being involved with any of the four killings when questioned by police, according to the New York Times.
“We’re in complete total disbelief. Speechless. You know, kind of embarrassed to say he was one of our own,” said Mula Akbar, an Afghan-American businessman who said he had helped Syed settle in the city.
“His hatred of Shiites might have had something to do with it,” Akbar said.
Syed was from the Sunni branch of Islam and prayed together at Albuquerque’s Islamic Center of New Mexico mosque with most of the victims, three of whom were from the Shiite branch of Islam. All four victims were of Afghan or Pakistani descent. One was killed in November, the other three in the last two weeks.
Syed, who made his first appearance in court Wednesday, was formally charged with killing Aftab Hussein, 41, on July 26 and Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, 27, on Aug. 1.
Police said on Tuesday they were working with prosecutors on potential charges for the murders of Naeem Hussain, 25, a truck driver killed on Friday, and Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, shot dead on Nov. 7, 2021, outside the grocery store he ran with his brother in southeast Albuquerque.
It was not immediately clear if Syed had retained a lawyer. His family did not immediately respond to a request for comment but local television station KRQE News 13 quoted them as saying they believed he was innocent.
Palestinian-American Samia Assed said the Muslim community of around 4,000 in the city of over half a million people had work to do to prevent violence they left behind in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“This took me back to 9/11 when I just wanted to hide under a rock,” said the human rights activist after she hosted an interfaith memorial at the Islamic Center of New Mexico (ICNM) in Albuquerque, Albuquerque’s oldest and largest mosque.
“For this to happen it’s like setting us back 100 years,” she said.
The mosque is nonsectarian, serves mainly Sunnis from over 30 countries and has never before experienced violence of this kind, according to congregants interviewed by Reuters.
Police on Tuesday declined to comment on rumors Syed was angry one of his daughters had eloped and married a Shiite man.
Syed is a truck driver, has six children, is from Pashtun ethnicity and arrived in the United States as a refugee about six years ago from Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province, said Akbar, a former US diplomat who worked on Afghan issues and helped found the Afghan Society of New Mexico.
Syed developed a record of criminal misdemeanors over the last three or four years, including a case of domestic violence, police said.
Video from February 2020 showed him slashing the tires of a vehicle at the ICNM believed to be owned by the family of the first known victim, Ahmadi, according to the mosque’s president, attorney Ahmad Assed.
“We’re in a surreal time trying to make sense of these senseless killings we’ve suffered,” he said.

9 Russian planes destroyed in ‘first Ukraine attack’ on Crimea

9 Russian planes destroyed in ‘first Ukraine attack’ on Crimea
Updated 11 August 2022

9 Russian planes destroyed in ‘first Ukraine attack’ on Crimea

9 Russian planes destroyed in ‘first Ukraine attack’ on Crimea
  • Strike on occupied territory is major escalation
  • Kyiv officially silent but military say ‘it was us’

KYIV: Ukraine’s air force said on Wednesday that nine Russian warplanes were destroyed in a deadly string of explosions at an air base in Crimea, amid speculation of a Ukrainian attack that would be a significant escalation in the war.

Russia denied any aircraft were damaged in Tuesday’s blasts, or that an attack even took place. But Ukrainian officials mocked Russia’s explanation that a careless smoker might have caused ammunition at the Saki air base to catch fire and blow up. Analysts also said that explanation made no sense and that the Ukrainians could have used anti-ship missiles to strike the base.

“Officially Kyiv has kept mum about it, but unofficially the military acknowledges that it was a Ukrainian strike,” military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.

If Ukrainian forces were responsible for the blasts, it would be the first known major attack on a Russian military site on the Crimean Peninsula, which was seized from Ukraine by the Kremlin in 2014.

Crimea holds huge strategic and symbolic significance for both sides. The Kremlin’s demand that Ukraine recognize the peninsula as part of Russia has been one of its key conditions for ending the fighting, while Ukraine has vowed to drive the Russians out of all occupied territories.
After the blasts, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea — its liberation.”

The explosions, which killed one person and injured 14, sent tourists fleeing in panic as plumes of smoke rose over the coastline near by. Video showed shattered windows and holes in the brickwork of some buildings.
One visitor, Natalia Lipovaya, said: “The earth was gone from under my feet … I was so scared.” Sergey Milochinsky, a local resident, recalled hearing a roar and seeing a mushroom cloud from his window. "Everything began to fall around, collapse,” he said.
The base on the Black Sea peninsula is at least 200 kilometers from the closest Ukrainian position and beyond the range of missiles supplied by the West for use in HIMARS launchers.
Ukraine has repeatedly asked for longer-range missiles for HIMARS that can strike targets up to 300 kilometers away. The explosions raised speculation that it had finally obtained them.
Zhdanov said Ukrainian forces could also have struck the air base with Neptune or Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said simultaneous blasts in two places at the base probably ruled out an accidental fire, but not sabotage or a missile attack. “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,” it said.