Could Ukraine take back Russian-occupied Crimea?

The Explainer

Could Ukraine take back Russian-occupied Crimea?

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The peninsula is also connected directly to Russia by the 12-mile-long Kerch Strait Bridge. Commissioned by Mr. Putin in 2016, it’s a vital supply line, and Ukrainian special forces have hit it repeatedly with everything from explosives to jury-rigged drones. Ukraine’s defense minister recently promised that his country would keep on doing that until the bridge is destroyed.

How has Ukraine attacked Russian forces in Crimea?

In one of the most high-profile missile strikes of the war, Ukrainian officials in September claimed to have killed dozens of officers as well as Adm. Viktor Sokolov, head of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Moscow denied these claims, releasing unverified videos of the admiral in meetings as proof of life. 

What’s clear from satellite imagery is that the strike left the fleet’s headquarters in Sevastopol caved in and smoking. This happened, significantly, despite robust Russian air defenses and electronic warfare capabilities, notes a report this month from the Institute for the Study of War think tank in Washington. 

Ukrainian long-range missiles also took out an amphibious assault landing ship and an attack submarine in Sevastopol last month. These were “incredible” hits, says retired Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe – particularly since Russian ships are one of the main platforms Moscow uses to shoot its own missiles into Ukraine.

Kyiv has also continued to target the Kerch bridge. A July strike left a span dangling precariously, and a massive explosion last October shut down heavy traffic on it for months. 

Are these attacks pinpricks or serious blows? 

Though Russia routinely claims to have repelled most of the Ukrainian military’s attempted attacks – and it has – it is clear that defending Crimea is siphoning off its resources. 

To protect the Kerch bridge from Kyiv’s tenacious naval drones, Russian forces built an extensive underwater barrier of submerged ships. They have also stationed missile defense batteries, attack helicopters, and even truck-mounted smoke generators there. 

Recent missile strikes have also forced Moscow to move a number of ships out of Sevastopol. This has diminished the effectiveness of the Black Sea Fleet, including its ability to enforce blockades on Ukraine’s exports, according to a recent British defense intelligence report. 

At minimum, analysts say, Crimea is no longer the safe harbor it once was. This is in large part because Western long-range missiles, which can travel up to 150 miles, are increasingly allowing Ukraine to strike “high-value targets” in attacks that are far from pinpricks, Mr. Hodges says.

As a result, although Russia’s extensive air defenses are still able to thwart most missile attacks, Russian ships and anti-aircraft systems that were once safely out of range are now in the crosshairs of Ukrainian forces.

At the same time, Ukraine has long been lobbying for the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System, known as ATACMS (pronounced “attack-’ems”). The Biden administration, in the face of growing congressional opposition to Ukraine aid, quietly greenlighted a small number of these long-range missiles in September. They turned up on the battlefield this month. But U.S. defense officials also warn that America’s stockpiles of the weapon are low. 

Still, Ukraine had hoped this U.S. pledge would inspire Berlin to share its own long-range Taurus missiles. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in early October nixed this, however, reportedly expressing concern Kyiv might use them to blow up the Kerch bridge.

Could Ukraine take back Crimea? 

To have a chance of this, analysts tend to agree that Ukrainian forces must fight their way to the Sea of Azov in order to cut off the land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia now occupies.

This is a tall order, to put it mildly: Russians have dug in and fortified their front lines there with minefields and other heavy-duty barriers. It’s far tougher, military strategists know, for attackers to dislodge such positions than it is for defenders to hold them. 

Tanks help with an offense, of course, which is why Kyiv lobbied so hard to get them last year. What delayed their arrival was in large part concern about Mr. Putin’s redlines: Crimea is sacred to him, and threatening it could push him to use his nuclear arsenal, the thinking goes.

Western officials don’t want to be “irresponsible,” but believing this theory is to some extent also buying into Mr. Putin’s hype, says Iulia-Sabina Joja, director of the Black Sea program at the Middle East Institute in Washington. He has “said he really cares about Crimea – but so does he care about a lot of things that aren’t his,” Dr. Joja says.

Still, while ATACMS are manufactured to have a maximum range of some 180 miles, the ATACMS recently delivered to Ukraine from the United States have a shorter range of some 100 miles, in order to guard against the possibility that they could be used to strike across the actual Russian border and further escalate the war. 

That said, Mr. Putin won’t lose leadership of Russia if he’s forced to surrender Crimea, argues Mr. Hodges. He adds that the exodus of Russian men fleeing conscription bears out a deep disinterest in fighting for the territory among Mr. Putin’s political base, even as Russian tourists continue to flock there for vacations. 

At the same time, fighting spirit has achieved the near-impossible on the battlefield before, analysts note, and for this reason, it’s important to examine what Crimea means to Ukraine, too.

Specifically, Russia is determined to economically strangle Ukraine. It purposely built the Kerch bridge low enough, for example, to block 30% of Kyiv’s maritime cargo traffic. “Ukraine cannot survive economically” without Crimea, Dr. Joja says.

Officials in Kyiv know, too, that military campaigns are fought not just to achieve battlefield objectives, but also to set political conditions for peace. If Kyiv can demonstrate that it can credibly threaten Russian control of Crimea, Ukrainian forces not only alarm vacationing Muscovites and boost Ukrainian morale, but also can potentially strengthen Kyiv’s position in future negotiations. 

To this end, Crimea is “decisive terrain,” Mr. Hodges posits. “Whoever controls Crimea is going to win this war.” 


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