Mystery fires at sensitive facilities compound Russia’s war challenge

Placeholder while article actions load

Unexplained fires at strategic locations in Russia, including a sensitive defense research site and the country’s largest chemical plant, have raised suspicions of some kind of sabotage despite no evidence that most were not accidental.

The latest fire, at two oil storage depots in the Russian city of Byransk near the Ukrainian border, was triggered Monday by explosions, Russian media reported. The site’s loss could disrupt vital oil supplies to the Ukraine war’s northeastern front, where Russian troops are pressing ahead with an attempt to seize territory in the Donbas region.

Footage shared on social media of one of the blasts suggested it was caused by “an air or missile strike,” according to a tweet by Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The depots are less than 100 miles from Ukraine, within range of that country’s Tochka tactical ballistic missiles, Lee noted.

Oleksiy Arestovych, a military adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, declined to comment. “The Russian Federation carries responsibility for what happens on Russian territory,” he said. “They need to provide the reasons for what’s happening, not us.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia is still investigating the cause of the fires.

This month, Russia accused Ukraine of carrying out an attack using helicopters against an oil depot in Belgorod, less than 20 miles from the Ukrainian border. Ukraine has not commented on whether it was responsible.

But if Ukraine is behind the attacks on Russian soil, it would represent a major escalation in the war. It also would be a significant embarrassment for Russia, spotlighting how the country it invaded two months ago with the expectation of a swift victory has managed to strike back deep inside its territory.

At least two other fires well out of the range of Ukrainian missiles can not easily be explained.

Last Thursday, a blaze tore through the upper stories of the Defense Ministry’s Second Central Research Institute in the town of Tver, northwest of Moscow; at least 17 people died, according to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency. More than two dozen people were injured, the news agency said, including some who jumped for their lives out of the building’s upper floors.

The institute is known as a center for highly sensitive research on key missile systems, including Russia’s most advanced stealth programs as well as the Iskander missile, extensively used in Ukraine, and the S-400 air defense system.

Tass said initial inquiries suggested the fire was caused by an electrical fault but that a criminal investigation had been launched.

Hours later, Russia’s biggest chemical plant burned down, also for unknown reasons. The Dmitrievsky Chemical Plant, located about 208 miles northeast of Moscow in Kineshma, was a major supplier of propellants essential for the production of precision-guided missiles Russia needs for the war.

A third fire then engulfed a sensitive facility at the College of Aerospace Engineering and Technology in the Moscow suburb of Korolyov, which is renowned as the home of the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s space programs.

The fact that so many fires have broken out at key locations in such a short period is “quite suspicious,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator think tank in Washington. However, he added, it is “really impossible to tell at this stage.”

There are explanations other than sabotage, Alperovitch said. Accidental fires are not unusual in Russia, which has a reputation for poor maintenance, and Western sanctions are making it harder to secure spare parts for vital machinery.

Arestovych doubts Ukraine was involved in the fires at the defense-related facilities and suggested that Russian officials are setting fires to cover up evidence of corruption.

“I think you need to look for reasons inside Russia – for example, hiding the means by which money has been stolen from the Russian Defense Ministry,” he said.

David Stern in Ukraine and Catherine Belton in London contributed to this report.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *