KYIV, Ukraine — A drone attack on a fuel depot in the city of Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea set off an enormous fire early Saturday, a Russian official said, in the latest assault on a peninsula key to Moscow’s war effort.
A thick cloud of black smoke darkened the skies above the port city, which is home to the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet.
The Crimean Peninsula, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 and has been heavily fortified in the years since, is critically important to Moscow’s control over occupied territories in southern and eastern Ukraine. It has increasingly become a target of attacks, though Ukraine typically maintains a policy of strategic ambiguity about strikes there.
The Kremlin-appointed local governor, Mikhail Razvozhaev, urged local residents to remain calm as teams of firefighters battled a blaze that he said was caused by “enemy drones.” Ukrainian officials did not claim responsibility for Saturday’s blaze.
“The main thing is that no one was hurt,” Mr. Razvozhaev told reporters at a news conference. “With the rest — we’ll figure it out.”
Crimea was a key staging ground when President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago. The Russian leader visited Sevastopol last month to mark the ninth anniversary of Russia’s annexation, a defiant gesture just one day after an international court issued a warrant for his arrest.
As Ukrainian officials say the country is in the final stages of preparation for a counteroffensive to take back territory seized by Russian forces, President Volodymyr Zelensky has maintained that Kyiv needs to reclaim control of Crimea in order to prevent future aggression by Moscow.
He reiterated that position in an interview published on Saturday by the Finnish channel Yle, saying that the more weapons the West can provide to Ukraine, the faster the war will end.
“We want to save as many lives as possible, so the number of weapons matters,” he said.
Part of Ukraine’s argument in asking for longer-range missiles from its allies has been that it wants to be able to strike deeper behind Russian lines, including in Crimea. The Biden administration so far has held a hard line against doing so, fearing it could provoke the Kremlin.
It is often unclear how Ukrainian forces are able to hit Russian targets in Crimea, but the attacks have become increasingly bold.
In August, explosions rocked a Russian air base in Saki. Ukraine claimed credit for the attack two months later, when Kyiv’s top commander, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, wrote that the military had targeted a number of Crimean military sites, including the air base, to undermine Russia’s military abilities and stoke worries in Moscow about the security of areas it considered to be out of reach of Ukrainian weapons.
In October, an explosion severely damaged the only bridge linking Crimea to Russia, a deep embarrassment for the Kremlin. Since then, Ukraine is believed to have been behind several high-profile attacks on Russian ships anchored at the port in Sevastopol.
As Ukrainian forces set the stage for the long-expected counteroffensive, assaults on the peninsula, including attacks on rail links and other vital infrastructure, have increased.
At the same time, Russian forces have been building up their defensive positions across the already heavily militarized peninsula. Satellite photographs published by private firms in recent weeks reveal a growing network of trenches and other fortifications.
On Saturday, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence service said the fire at the fuel depot in Sevastopol was “God’s punishment” for Uman, the city where a Russian missile strike a day earlier killed 23 people, including five children.
“This punishment will be long-lasting,” the spokesman, Andriy Yusov, said. “All residents of the temporarily occupied Crimea should not be near military facilities and facilities that supply the aggressor’s army in the near future.”
He claimed that more than 10 tanks with oil products with a total capacity of 40,000 tons were destroyed in Saturday’s blaze. However, the local Russian authorities said that the damage was less extensive and that the fire had been extinguished as of the afternoon. While Mr. Razvozhaev initially said that two drones had hit the fuel depot, he later clarified to say that a second drone had been shot down before it reached the target.
While Ukrainian officials cheer the attacks on Crimea, the military typically does not take credit in order to maintain operational secrecy. Kyiv does not want Moscow to know what long-range weapons it has at its disposal, even as it engages in ambitious fund-raising campaigns to expand its fleet of long-range aerial and maritime drones, officials say.
On Saturday morning, the billowing smoke from the fire at the oil depot on Kazachya Bay could be seen for miles. It was burning an area of about 10,000 square feet, Mr. Razvozhaev said, adding that there would be no evacuation of the local area and fuel supplies for drivers would not be affected.
Russian shelling: In Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, shelling in the town of Bilozerka hit a hospital and several private homes, killing a 57-year-old woman in her own home and injuring three more people, the regional military administration said on Friday evening.
Marc Santora reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Victoria Kim from Seoul. Anatoly Kurmanaev contributed reporting from Berlin.