By GLEN E. HOWARD
The Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz once wrote that “the talent of the strategist is to identify the decisive point and to concentrate everything on it.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky began the new year by stressing this point in an interview with the Economist, emphasizing that Crimea and the Black Sea would become the focus of Ukrainian forces. Isolating Crimea and degrading Russia’s military forces there “is extremely important for us, because it’s the way for us to reduce the number of attacks from that region,” Zelensky said.
While Ukraine may have failed to achieve a decisive breakthrough on land in 2023, the war at sea was a resounding success. Ukraine was able to inflict major punishment on the Russian Black Sea Fleet thanks to a relentless sea and air campaign, using a combination of sea drones and British-made Storm Shadow cruise missiles, forcing the Russians to retreat into their naval bastion in Sevastopol. After the recent destruction of the Novocherkassk landing ship in late December, British Defense Minister Grant Shapps lauded the success of this campaign by announcing that Russia has lost 20 percent of its Black Sea Fleet in just the past four months.
Ukraine has effectively halted the Russian naval blockade of Odesa and renewed its exports of grain and other raw materials from its strategic Black Sea port. U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink announced that “400 ships carrying 13 million tons of cargo have passed through the Black Sea Humanitarian Corridor since August. This is a significant achievement as Ukraine continues to feed the world.”
The next step in the Black Sea is for the West to help Kyiv target Crimea — illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 — and sever Russia’s logistical lifeline to its forces operating in southern Ukraine. Two retired American generals have repeatedly stressed the urgency of helping Ukraine accomplish this goal. According to Ben Hodges, former Commanding General U.S. Army Europe, Crimea is “the decisive terrain of the war.” Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe Philip Breedlove echoed this by emphasizing, “If we enable Ukraine to be able to strike Crimea — pervasively, persistently and precisely —Russia will be forced to rethink its posture there. Strike them all, strike them repeatedly, and destroy them in detail,” he told me.
One of the keys to disrupting Russia’s logistical lifeline to its forces in Crimea is the 12-mile-long Kerch Strait Bridge. Its destruction would severely curtail Moscow’s ability to resupply its military in southern Ukraine and considerably weaken Russian forces. Ukrainian armored forces could then punch their way through the Surovikin Line to reach the Sea of Azov, cutting Russian forces in half should they succeed. The Ukrainian frontlines at Robotnye are currently only 70 miles from the Azov coast.
Ukraine has attacked the Kerch Strait Bridge twice, most recently last July in a sea drone strike that forced Moscow to temporarily suspend road and rail traffic across the bridge. In his interview with the Economist, President Zelensky pleaded for the West to help Ukraine destroy the bridge by providing Kyiv with the German-made 300-mile-range Taurus cruise missile, something officials in the German government, apparently with support from the Biden administration, have refused to do over fears it might “escalate the war.”
Zelensky understands that the Taurus would be the perfect weapon to destroy the bridge, which is already weakened by previous attacks. Designed as a bunker-busting cruise missile, the Taurus could be air-launched by Ukrainian Su-24s — already successfully using the Storm Shadow to great effect — and if equipped with a secondary charge could cause devastating damage to any structure with reinforced concrete, making the bridge inoperable.
As Clausewitz reminded us nearly two centuries ago, it is up to military strategists to identify the “decisive point” and concentrate upon it. President Zelensky has urged us to keep in mind that the decisive terrain is Crimea, and that Germany’s Taurus cruise missile could be the one weapon provided by the West to help Ukraine destroy the Kerch Strait Bridge — and make 2024 a turning point in the war.
Glen E. Howard is the former president of the Jamestown Foundation.