Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 7 March 2024


Ukraine’s Crimea Campaign

A Ukrainian ‘Sea Baby’ naval drone. Photo: UNITED24

Kyiv, Ukraine

Russia annexed Crimea 10 years ago this month, and its success paved the way for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Ukraine made important progress last year toward degrading Russian military capabilities on the peninsula, but its dwindling supply of weapons imperils these gains and makes Russian advances likelier.

Moscow views Crimea as a giant military base in a strategically vital location. After Russian forces assumed control of the peninsula and the bridges connecting it to the rest of Ukraine in 2014, there was a “huge delta in how many important Ukrainian cities” became “basically frontline cities,” including Melitopol, Berdyansk and Kherson, says Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. Several of those cities fell quickly when the Russian tanks rolled in two years ago.


Russian air and naval assets in Crimea have allowed the Kremlin to project military power throughout the Black and Azov seas. Early in the war this allowed Russia to blockade Ukrainian maritime exports. Many drone and missile strikes against Ukrainian soldiers, civilians, cities and infrastructure originate from Crimea and from Russian ships and planes in the Black Sea.

In 2018 Vladimir Putin presided over the opening of the 12-mile Kerch Bridge, which links Crimea with Russia. The peninsula is “extremely important to Russia as a logistical hub for supplying the southern grouping of the army,” says Maj. Gen. Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence. “Everything that concerns the movement of troops, the way by which equipment is being supplied, ammunition—all of this is coming into Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts through Crimea.” Without it, Russia would have to rely exclusively on land routes in occupied southern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s goal is to liberate all occupied territory. Until it can take back Crimea, it seeks to erode Russian military power there. Throughout 2023 Ukrainian forces carried out at least 184 attacks on Russian military and infrastructure targets in Crimea, the Black Sea and the Russian shore, according to Andrii Klymenko of the Black Sea Institute of Strategic Studies, a Ukrainian think tank.

That effort, which accelerated as the counteroffensive stalled elsewhere, has paid dividends. Strikes in Crimea “often generate Russian panic disproportionate to their kinetic effect and negatively impact Russian morale,” the Institute for the Study of War has observed. Mr. Klymenko counted 27 strikes targeting Russian air defenses in Crimea last year, including two that took out sophisticated S-400 air-defense systems. These strikes facilitated other Ukrainian attacks on Russian assets in Crimea, including on the Black Sea fleet.


Ukraine’s biggest, and most underrated, success of 2023 was driving the Russian navy into retreat. Ukraine conducted at least 25 strikes targeting Russian ships and at least 45 targeting Sevastopol, Russia’s main naval base there, says Mr. Klymenko. The campaign continues. This week Ukraine destroyed Russia’s Sergei Kotov patrol ship near the Kerch Strait using naval drones, according to military intelligence. Since January, its forces have also sunk the Russian Caesar Kunikov amphibious landing ship and the Ivanovets missile corvette off the Crimean coast.

That has evidently led the Russian navy to worry about operating in the Western portion of the Black Sea and docking at Crimean ports. The Institute for the Study of War examined satellite data and reported in December that Russia was shifting naval assets, including surface vessels and subs, from Sevastopol to a Russian port in Novorossiysk.

Ukraine’s strikes have deterred the Russian navy from operating in the Western portion of the Black Sea, breaking Mr. Putin’s blockade. Nearly 1,000 vessels have sailed since Ukraine re-established its maritime corridor, importing 29 million tons of cargo, including 20 million tons of grain, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Infrastructure.

Ukrainian strikes have also sought to degrade Russian command, communications and logistics. Mr. Klymeneko counted five attacks targeting various headquarters or command centers and 14 on rail tracks and rail junctions last year.


Ukraine has hit Mr. Putin’s prized Kerch Bridge five times in the past two years, as well as the Chonhar and Henichesk bridges linking northern Crimea to the southern Ukrainian mainland. Ukrainians used unconventional strikes to incapacitate the Antonivskyi Bridge on the Dnieper River as part of their Kherson counteroffensive, and last fall Ukrainian officials told me they believed they could disable the Kerch Bridge too.

But the timing matters. To make the most of a strike on this logistics choke point, Ukraine would need to initiate a push against the Russians. It lacks the arms it needs “to do a proper counteroffensive,” former Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk says. “It would be very unfortunate if Ukraine has the chance to make a push and doesn’t have the resources to do so.”

Gen. Skibitsky said last month that Russia has a 15-to-1 advantage on ammunition in some portions of the front. “We are losing the potential to advance” because of a lack of artillery and ammunition, says Serhii Kuzan, head of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center, a Kyiv think tank. “We have backtracked in terms of what is called preparing the battlefield.”

Gen. Skibitsky says Ukraine needs “high-precision weapons,” including long-range missiles and ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems to continue to “develop the successes we have” in Crimea. Mr. Klymenko estimates that 39 of last year’s strikes involved “missiles of different kinds,” 75 involved Ukrainian- or foreign-made aerial drones, and 29 involved naval drones.


Last week Russia leaked a conversation in which senior German military officials discussed the possibility of providing Ukraine with Taurus long-range cruise missiles, which could be used to take out the Kerch Bridge. In releasing the recording, the Kremlin is seeking to deter such a move. But Ukraine’s Western backers increasingly understand the importance of striking deep into Russian positions. “The Russians are scared,” Mr. Zagorodnyuk says.

Meanwhile, Russia is adapting to Ukraine’s Crimea strategy. It is building a railroad through Zaporizhzhia oblast that would reduce Russian reliance on the Kerch Bridge. Gen. Skibitsky described how Russia is setting up defensive buoys around Sevastopol. He added that Russian forces have “started to reinforce their Crimean defenses by moving air-defense systems from other regions, like from the region of the Northern fleet and from the far east.” They are also trying to reinforce their electronic-warfare presence to thwart drone attacks on Crimea.

In Crimea and elsewhere, Ukraine has proved it can make progress against Russia when it has the necessary weapons. The U.S. risks squandering that potential with politically driven delays.

Ms. Melchior is a London-based member of the Journal editorial board.

Journal Editorial Report: Paul Gigot interviews Gen. Jack Keane. Images: AP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly


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Appeared in the March 8, 2024, print edition as 'Ukraine’s Crimea Campaign'.

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