Roman Olearchyk amd Ben Hall
March 28, 2023
Ukraine’s recent drone attacks on Russian-occupied Crimea highlight the importance of neutralising Moscow’s firepower on the peninsula as Kyiv prepares its much-anticipated spring counter offensive. Russia has used its numerous military facilities in the territory — including Sevastopol port, home to its Black Sea fleet, and the Saki air base — to launch missile strikes across Ukraine and to support its ground forces in the south and east of the country.
Russian officials said last week’s air and naval drone attacks targeted Sevastopol port and the northern Dzhankoi railway hub, but denied any damage to Russia’s military assets. Ukrainian officials claim a railway shipment of Russian Kalibr cruise missiles was hit in Dzhankoi about 130km from the nearest Ukrainian position — even though they continue to avoid taking direct credit for strikes on Russian territory as well as Crimea.
This is part of the processes that will take place before the demilitarisation and de-occupation of both the Crimean peninsula and all the occupied territories of Ukraine, Andriy Yusov, a Ukrainian military intelligence officer, told the Financial Times. Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, a move that was condemned internationally. The drone strikes were much less dramatic than the blast that last October disabled the Kerch Strait bridge that connects Crimea with Russia’s Taman Peninsula. But Kyiv continues to prioritise strikes that damage or destroy Russian military assets in Crimea.
It must be neutralised, it must be reduced, it must be attacked, said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defence minister and head of the Centre for Defence Strategies, which advises the government on security matters.
The US has declined to give Kyiv weapons of sufficient range to allow its forces to strike across Crimea. Washington and other western allies remain concerned that President Vladimir Putin could ultimately use nuclear weapons to prevent Ukraine from liberating the peninsula.
Putin on Saturday resorted once again to what western capitals saw as an effort at intimidation when he announced that Russian tactical nuclear weapons would be stationed in Belarus this year. But Kyiv has noted a change of tone in Washington in recent weeks, with US officials appearing to accept the strategic imperative for Ukraine of countering Russia’s use of Crimea as a military launch pad.
There are mass military installations on Crimea that Russia has turned into essential logistics and back-office depots in this war, Victoria Nuland, US under-secretary of state, told a Carnegie Endowment event last month. Those are legitimate targets. Ukraine is hitting them and we are supporting that.
Asked if Ukrainian and US aims were consistent in relation to Crimea, Nuland replied: In this next phase in terms of what the Ukrainians want to do on the battlefield and what we are enabling them to do, yes.
In April last year, Ukraine used a domestically developed Neptune surface-to-sea rocket to sink the Moskva, the Russian Black Sea fleet’s flagship, raising hopes that Kyiv would be able to contain the military threat from Crimea.
But one year on, despite drone strikes that have damaged some air bases and aircraft on the peninsula, Russia still boasts scores of warships and aircraft that have been used to shower Ukraine with missile strikes. Phillip Karber, a US military strategist, said Crimea was being used by Russia as a military dagger aimed at the heart of Ukraine.
The peninsula hosts six Russian airfields, 20 docks with ships and submarines, 12 long-range air defence radars and launchers, barracks, command and control centres and the Kerch Strait bridge, which Putin built after the annexation and opened in 2018. All these assets made Crimea a target rich environment‖ with a strategic impact, Karber said.
A rolling thunder campaign of mass drone and missile strikes over several days could be enough to make Crimea worthless as a military position, he added. Kyiv has stepped up efforts to develop its own drones and acquire additional ones capable of longer-range strikes. But it is not clear if it has amassed enough for a big campaign to demilitarise Crimea while also supporting counteroffensives elsewhere. Game-changing strike capabilities have featured for months on Ukraine’s wish list of western supplied weaponry.
They include the 300km-range ATACMS missile, which could be fired from Himars multiple-launch rocket systems Ukraine has already obtained. The systems have so far been fitted with 70km distance firepower that has proved crucial to the success of its two counteroffensives last autumn.
For sure we can improvise but only to a certain extent without ATACMS, said Mykola Bielieskov, an analyst at Ukraine’s official National Institute for Strategic Studies, who spoke in a private capacity. Bielieskov said it was not just the ATACMS’s range but also the power of its warhead that mattered.
A Ukrainian campaign to neutralise Crimea would be easier with western-supplied F-16 fighter jets with longer-range missile capabilities, though this option requires many months of pilot training. Relative to other expensive capabilities 100+ ATACMS would be very cost-effective and could still be delivered in time to coincide with the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Karber said. Experts also warned about the risks posed to other countries in the Black Sea region.
It is actually a military fortress right in the middle of the Black Sea, said Serhii Kuzan, chair of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center think-tank in Kyiv. This is a threat to all countries of the Black Sea region. And, of course, primarily for Ukraine.
Government adviser Zagorodnyuk said while it remained unclear if Ukraine’s next counteroffensive would target Russian forces occupying territory in the east or south, if it will go in the south, then of course, Crimea is key.
Longer-range missiles were essential, he said, but even those would not be enough to make the peninsula safe. The question of complete neutralisation, so that Crimea ceases to be a source of threat, is possible only after the liberation of Crimea, Zagorodnyuk said.