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All Roads Lead to Crimea
Will it be the Last Campaign?
We will restore the normality of life in the territory of Donbas and Crimea, which were illegally occupied in 2014 and have been brought to the point of disaster by the occupiers over the time that has passed.
As the northern winter draws to a close, both the Ukrainians and Russians are preparing to resume large scale offensives. The war has not stopped over winter. Russia has continued its massed drone and missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure while continuing its human wave assaults against tactical objectives around Soledar and Bakhmut.
Ukraine, for its part, has continued its campaign to recapture the strategically important Kreminna-Svatove-Starbil’s’k triangle in eastern Ukraine. If Ukraine secures this region, the Russian position in Luhansk is may become untenable, and its forces in Donetsk will be forced into reorienting their defences and reprioritising the employment of forces that might otherwise be used in their offensives.
But with all the speculation about the potential locations and objectives of these forthcoming offensives, there is one strategic objective that may be the culminating point of this war.
Indeed, whether it is a major military campaign on the ground, a Ukrainian long range strike campaign to make Crimea militarily untenable for Russia, or a forced negotiation, Crimea may well be this war’s last campaign. But before examining the ‘how’ of such a campaign, why might Ukraine conduct it?
First, politics. President Zelensky has repeatedly included Crimea in the Russian-occupied territory that he wants returned. It is one of his core aims for the termination of the war. Indeed, things would be very difficult for President Zelensky if the war to end with Crimea still in Russian hands. In August 2021, the Ukrainian government launched its Crimea Platform, an initiative that undertakes international coordination to pressure Moscow on the return of Crimea to Ukraine.
Second, by law Crimea is part of Ukraine. As Andriy Zagorodnyuk notes in his recent Foreign Affairs article:
One of Russia’s key narratives, pushed by Moscow for decades and repeated by many international observers, is that Crimea has a special historical connection with Russia…Most of the peninsula’s people speak Russian. As a result, Putin has reasoned that in taking back Crimea, he corrected a historical error. But Crimean history is much richer and more diverse than this narrative suggests. The peninsula became a part of Russia only after the country invaded it, in 1783; it has been ruled by multiple empires over the course of the last millennium.
Crimea became a part of Ukraine in 1991 after a national referendum in which the majority of Crimean residents voted for independence from the Soviet Union. It is recognized as part of Ukraine by the majority of nations at the United Nations.
Third, Russian retention of Crimea would present an ongoing military threat to Ukraine. One of the reasons Russia was able to make such significant gains in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions at the start of the war is because of the land connections into southern Ukraine from Crimea, and the extensive air, fires and logistic support that Russian forces received from bases in Crimea. If Russia was to retain Crimea as part of some future negotiation (I am not advocating this), it would pose a significant and ongoing threat to Ukraine. As Clausewitz tells us:
In war, the result is never final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may be found in political conditions at some later date.
This cuts both ways of course. But, if Ukraine were to recapture Crimea, it would be much more difficult for Russia “to remedy” its losses in this war at some later date.
That’s the positive side of the case for retaking Crimea. What might be the reasons for Ukraine to not take back its Crimean territory?
First, there are sound military reasons for thinking that a military conquest of Crimea will be exceedingly difficult. At the 20 January 2023 Ramstein Summit, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, told journalists that “from a military standpoint, I still maintain that for this year it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from all … Russian-occupied Ukraine.” In many respects, that is true if considered from current territorial holdings and weapons of the belligerents. Additionally, the terrain in the approaches to Crimea hardly assists the attacker. There are just two narrow land approaches, both of which are likely to be heavily fortified by the Russians.
A second reason is Putin’s view of Crimea. As Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage have written, Crimea appears to occupy a “different place” in this war. It has symbolic and well as strategic value. They propose it is a special part of Putin’s vision of Imperial Russia:
Putin could lose in Kherson, or elsewhere in Ukraine, and accept his losses. He could even lose the Donbas, part of eastern Ukraine that Russia has occupied since 2014, and make do politically. But Putin surely regards losing Crimea and surviving as president as irreconcilable. He will go to great lengths to hold on to Crimea.
As such, Putin could decide, despite his recent ratcheting down of nuclear rhetoric, that his only option to defend Crimea is nuclear weapons. While there are numerous articles that speculate about this scenario, Regardless, nuclear weapons cannot be taken off the table by politicians or strategic planners examining the problem of Crimea. A recent discussion on Michael Kofman’s podcast, The Russia Contingency, explores this issue in detail.
Ultimately, because of Putin’s imperial ambitions, there is minimal prospect of Russia negotiating over the future of Crimea unless they are forced to through battlefield defeats. Putin has shown zero inclination to give up annexed territory he doesn’t control, let alone Ukrainian territory he illegally seized in 2014.
Finally, some propose that a Ukrainian conquest of Crimea might split European support. In a 2022 article, Boris Johnson proposed that a return of Crimea to Ukraine was fraught with risk. Despite the legal status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine, a narrative appears to have developed that it is a separate issue to the Ukrainian re-conquest of the rest of its territory. Some believe that a campaign for Crimea could extend the length of the war. As Fix and Kimmage note, “countries in the global South are seeking a quick end to the war and to its many global ripple effects. They are agnostic about Crimea, unwilling to recognise it as part of Russia but eager for the whole problem to go away.”
But, European and American concerns over retaking Crimea have gradually, if not fully, abated. In June 2022, it was reported that France sought a full military victory for Ukraine, including the return of Crimea. An early 2023 report notes that the US President is “prepared to arm Ukraine to recapture Crimea”. And as recently as the 23rd of January 2022, the US administration has made it clear that it supports Ukraine retaking Crimea. In a White House press briefing, an administration official noted that:
Crimea is Ukraine. We’ve never recognized the illegal annexation of Russia — of Crimea. But where the Ukrainians decide to go and how they decide to conduct operations in their country, those are their decisions to make.
So, there are strategic advantages and disadvantages for a Ukrainian campaign to recapture its Crimean territory. And, both sides are entrenched with their positions on retention or return of Ukraine. What might be the precursors to a military campaign?
Preliminary Operations: Precursors for Ukraine Retaking Crimea
The first element of preparation is western industry stepping up the production of munitions and the transfer of armoured vehicles (and other offensive capabilities) to Ukraine. The US has recently announced a six-fold increase in ammunition production for Ukraine. This is a very positive step and hopefully sets the scene for other nations to follow suit. But as Seth Jones describes in his excellent new report on the US defence industrial base, which describes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as The Great Awakening:
Years of acquisition policy, culture, and behavior have prioritized efficiency and cost control over speed and capacity, and it will take time to find a more appropriate balance.
But Ukrainians also require large numbers of armoured vehicles (tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armoured obstacle breaching vehicles), replacement artillery systems, helicopters, and modern fighter aircraft. As Ukrainian command in chief Zaluzhnyi has noted in a recent interview with The Economist, “we have made all the calculations—how many tanks, artillery we need and so on and so on. This is what everyone needs to concentrate on right now…it’s more important to focus on the accumulation of resources right now for the more protracted and heavier battles that may begin next year.”
The recent decisions on the transfer of infantry fighting vehicles, western main battle tanks, and additional artillery, air defence and mine clearance equipment greatly assists. But much of this assistance will also be required in the offensives that are likely to occur as preliminarily operations to any Crimea operation.
A second precursor to any Ukrainian move to retake its Crimean territory is the recapture all of its southern territory. The liberation of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces will be the operational and tactical foundations for any Ukrainian campaign in Crimea. Not only do these provide the only two ground axes that might be used to advance into Crimea, but they will also be critical for logistics, fire support from artillery and basing of aircraft. Politically and militarily, seeking to liberate Crimea without first doing so in these other two southern provinces would be extraordinarily difficult.
A third precursor will be influence operations to ensure that the population of Crimea understand that a Ukrainian move to retake its territory will not result in discrimination against them in the aftermath. A large proportion of the population of Crimea either identifies as Russian or speaks Russian. There is also a significant minority of Crimean Tatars. Therefore, the clever strategic influence and information operations conducted by Ukraine to gain international support, and sustain national unity, will need to be applied to reassure the residents of Crimea in the lead up to, during and after any Crimea campaign.
Fourth, strategic patience from Ukraine’s international supporters is critical. It is likely that it may take all of this year for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to recapture its southern territory before a Crimea operation is possible. To be fair, patience is something that US and European governments and populations have shown so far in this war. This must be unsettling to Putin, given his assumptions to the contrary before the war. Part of his logic for invading Ukraine was his assumption that the West was unlikely to intervene, and even if it wanted to, Kyiv would be taken too quickly for it to react. Although Putin reputedly told the Israeli Prime Minister earlier this year, “we are a big country and we have patience”, the West is surprising Putin by demonstrating resilience and ongoing support for Ukraine. This has to continue, probably into 2024.
Ukrainian Options for a Crimea Campaign
All of these are necessary precursors to Ukraine considering a large military campaign to seize Crimea. There are two broad options for a Ukrainian conquest of Crimea.
First, Ukraine could undertake a large-scale air, sea and land operation to advance on several axes against key land objectives in Crimea. Given the strength of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and Crimea’s proximity to Russian airfields and ports, a robust air and sea campaign would be needed to accompany the hundred thousand or so Ukrainian troops required to capture Crimea.
We should be under no misconceptions about such a campaign. It would not be one or two battles; it would be a significant campaign requiring a large proportion of Ukraine’s total air, sea and land combat power. This would all need to be supported by diplomacy, information operations and massive stockpiling of munitions and supplies beforehand. It would be bloody on both sides, and perhaps the most hard-fought campaign of the war. This does not mean Ukraine seizing Crimea is impossible. But it does mean it will need to be cleverly planned, very well resourced, and followed through to the end with tremendous courage and will.
A second military option would be for Ukraine to capture the entirety of its southern provinces of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia and then hold fast, essentially forming a land blockade and fire support base to threaten Crimea and its Russian military infrastructure. Ukraine has already demonstrated the ability to strike targets in Ukraine including airbases and the Kerch Bridge. This option would see them able to hold all of Crimea at risk of large-scale missile and drone attacks of a type well beyond earlier attacks.
Such an approach, assuming Ukraine is able to utilise long range weapons such as HIMARS, ground launched small diameter bombs, drones, missiles, long range air defence and other long-range targeting and assessment systems, may be enough to convince Russia that its position in Crimea is untenable. Certainly, the naval base would be all but unusable and airbases would similarly be impossible to maintain if they came under constant fire.
Of course, these are not mutually exclusive military options. Both are saleable and have multiple variations and potential branch plans. Ukrainian planners, understanding how bloody an invasion of Crimea would be, would also phase their campaign to attempt the latter first before finally launching a large-scale operation to retake Crimea.
Indeed, if all of these came to pass, and Ukraine was in a position to undertake either of these two military campaigns, there could be an opportunity for negotiations about the future of Crimea. Russia would be in a difficult position if it holds out on negotiations. And of course, it may still consider the nuclear option.
Do All Roads Lead to Crimea?
There are many things that must occur before such a scenario for Crimea can be considered. The winter has seen Ukraine and Russia reinforcing weary and battered units, protecting (or attacking) strategic infrastructure, sourcing munitions and supplies for 2023, while continuing limited assaults in eastern Ukraine. And in the coming months, there are military campaigns to be executed in the east and south by the Russians and the Ukrainians. A lot more blood will be shed before a campaign for Crimea is possible.
But at some point, if the Ukrainians are able this year to sustain the momentum generated at the end of 2022, and retain the initiative on the battlefield, they may find themselves on the cusp of military operations to seize back Crimea. It is a scenario that was almost impossible to imagine in the grim, initial days after the February 2022 Russian invasion. But as Mikhail Khodorkovsky former Russian oil tycoon and longtime Putin critic notes in a recent Washington Post story on Crimea, “The question of Crimea, which I thought before the war would take decades to resolve, today is unambiguous. It is difficult to imagine a real end to the war without the return of Crimea to Ukraine.”
In 2023, all roads may lead to Crimea. And it may be the final campaign of the Russo-Ukraine War.
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