Nearly six months into the war in Ukraine, the Kremlin is still describing 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 Putin illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, riddles this narrative.
And as Ukrainian attacks mount in the strategically and symbolically important area, the damage is beginning to put domestic pressure on the Kremlin, with criticism and debates about the war increasingly unleashed on social media, even underscoring what the Russian government considers Russian Territory is not safe.
On Saturday, a drone crashed into the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, sending a plume of smoke over the port city of Sevastopol. Separately, Russian troops in western Crimea have been directing anti-aircraft fire at unknown targets, the region’s Russian governor said.
Local Russian officials blamed Ukraine for the drone strike and urged local residents and beachgoers not to panic, while insisting there had been no injuries and that Russian air defenses were working properly.
But as images of anti-aircraft fire ripping through Crimea’s blue skies bounced through social media, the visceral reality of the war became ever clearer for Russians — many of whom have rallied behind the Kremlin’s line, according to state media hammered home The “special military operation” to save Ukraine from Nazi rule is proceeding smoothly and according to plan.
“People are starting to feel that 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 telephone interview. “I think this is serious.”
Ukraine was involved in a campaign to attack Russian forces in the Crimean peninsula. Attacks in Crimea appear to have started in earnest on August 9 with a strike at Saki airbase that destroyed eight fighter jets.
“You can literally feel in the air of Crimea that the occupation there is temporary and Ukraine is returning,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his late-night address to the nation on Saturday.
Kortunov said the Kremlin is unlikely to view the Ukrainian attacks as a military threat but as “irritating,” demonstrating Ukraine’s ability to threaten Russian lives deep behind the front lines. However, it remained unclear how — or if — Putin would respond to the attacks, even as pro-Kremlin commentators called for retaliatory strikes.
Russia continues to maintain its military superiority and recent attacks in Crimea have not brought any territorial gains to Ukraine. But they seem to have dealt a psychological blow to Russia nonetheless, undermining earlier perceptions of Russian invincibility on a peninsula that exerts a powerful hold on the Russian psyche.
Crimea is more than a central military base. Crimea, a sun-kissed resort town and scene of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, holds special symbolic importance for Putin, who dubbed it Russia’s “holy land.”
In the Crimea, tsars and Politburo chairmen maintained holiday homes. As home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, it also helps Russia exercise control of the sea, including a naval blockade that crippled Ukraine’s economy.
On the social network Telegram, one of the most well-known Russian TV presenters, Vladimir Solovyov, shared a post in which he described the attacks in Crimea and in Russian regions near the Ukrainian border as “a kind of surrealism”.
“Are we fighting or what are we doing?” the post asked by a pro-Kremlin military blogger. “Hard cardinal measures must be taken, every day we pay for half measures with human lives.”
While the military impact of the attacks may be minimal, there are increasing signs that local people are being unsettled by them, prompting officials to issue reassurances about their safety.
“I understand that many are concerned,” Russian Sevastopol Governor Mikhail Razvozhayev said on his social media page on Saturday. “But that is exactly what the Ukrainian Empire” – a reference to Russia’s mischaracterization of Ukraine as a Nazi state – “wants to achieve”.
In an interview via a messaging app on Saturday, a Sevastopol resident said she never thought she would live to see the events of the past six months — both the war and the boom in anti-aircraft fire she said she had it own recently. She said her solution is to try to get on with her life and avoid the news.
“When you read the news, chaos erupts in your head,” said the woman, Elena, 34, who asked that her last name be withheld for her safety. “You feel like everything around you is exploding and burning and you’re in hell.”
Noting the challenges Moscow is facing, Russian state news media also reported on Friday that the Kremlin replaced the commander of the Black Sea Fleet in April after a series of setbacks, including the loss of its flagship Moskva. Ukraine said it used Neptune missiles to sink the Moskva River, an attack Russia dismissed as a shipboard accident. It was the largest warship lost in combat in decades.
The war continued to reverberate outside Ukraine, including lingering concerns that the Kremlin was using Russia’s vast energy resources as a weapon to punish the West.
The Russian energy giant Gazprom announced that it would close the exit points of its Nord Stream pipeline to Germany from August 31 to September 2 in order to replace a turbine with the help of its manufacturer Siemens. Gazprom said Western sanctions have slowed repairs and reduced gas flow by up to 60%. But Berlin accuses Gazprom of doing politics on behalf of Moscow.
“The justification given by the Russian side is just a pretext,” Germany’s Economics Minister Robert Habeck told journalists in Berlin in June. “It’s obviously the strategy to unsettle and push prices up.”