Intensifying attacks elevate Crimea’s role in Ukrainian counteroffensive

Moscow has launched attacks on grain infrastructure in Odesa after ending export pact and as ‘retaliation’ for latest strike on the Kerch Bridge, a key element in Russia’s supply lines

Ukraine war
A column of smoke and fire from an explosion at a military training ground in the Kirovske district of Crimea on July 19.STRINGER (REUTERS)
Luis de Vega (Special Correspondent)

The war is intensifying in the south of Ukraine, albeit on two very different fronts. While the counteroffensive launched in early June by Kyiv army has in recent days targeted the Crimean Peninsula, Russian troops are pounding the city of Odesa and issuing warnings to ships attempting to continue exporting grain from Ukraine following Moscow’s breaking of the pact guaranteeing a safe corridor through the Black Sea.

The growing intensity of attacks on Crimea, which has been in Russian hands since 2014, is a sign that while far from the trenches of the eastern front, the peninsula remains an essential and inalienable pillar of the Ukrainian nation, as reiterated by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The latest blow was struck on Wednesday when a fire raged through an ammunition depot at a Russian military training camp near the city of Staryi Krim. The flames forced the evacuation of around 2,000 residents, according to the occupation authorities, who did not provide an explanation for the incident, with Kyiv also remaining silent at the official level. Telegram channels linked to Russian and Ukrainian security services said that the fire was caused by a nighttime air strike carried out by Ukraine, Reuters reported

“Measures are being taken. The situation is being clarified. I cannot say more at the moment,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitro Peskov stated when asked about the incident, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin was aware of it.

Kyiv avoids officially recognizing such actions, which according to various sources and media are the work of the Ukrainian Security Forces. “Crimea is a logistical center that the Russians have been militarizing to the maximum throughout the occupation. Twenty percent of what arrives comes through the [Kerch] bridge. And that is enough to justify our country’s attacks,” says Alexandr Krasnokutskii, professor of philosophy and public administration at the Zaporizhzhia National University and an expert on the problems facing Crimea under the Russian occupation.

The most significant of the recent attacks took place on Monday when the bridge across the Kerch Strait, the only land link between Russia and Crimea and essential to Moscow’s supply lines into the peninsula, was partially destroyed. Although Zelenskiy has not spoken of committing direct attacks, the Ukrainian president has hinted in recent days that the strategy is to harass the peninsula from the north by means of a counteroffensive and thus force his counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to negotiate. On Wednesday, Kyiv announced advances in the direction of Melitopol, in the Zaporizhzhia region, a city which stands at the gates of Crimea and from which the Ukrainian Army is currently about 70 kilometers (43 miles) away.

“Russia insists that this bridge is a civilian infrastructure, but we view it as military because it is used to transport military equipment,” says Professor Krasnokutskii. He believes the strategy of directing Ukrainian forces to northern Crimea is sound and is an advocate of destroying the Kerch Bridge. In that instance, “the peninsula becomes an island,” he notes, while observing that any hypothetical negotiations Putin would be forced into would serve Kyiv “to save lives, because Ukraine does not have limitless human resources.”

The Ukrainian Army, the expert adds, has struck Russian logistical centers on the peninsula. However, he believes that Kyiv must exercise caution in planning to potentially regain control of Crimea. Krasnokutskii is firm in his belief that the occupation will come to an end one day, but he believes that a difficult transition process will follow.

The peninsula has been in the hands of a Russian “dictatorship” for nearly a decade, he states, and it is not easy to gauge what Crimean citizens think. “It’s impossible to know, we need to be there to be able to carry out fieldwork and develop a real sociology. In the meantime, we can only move in the realm of hypothesis. Thus, hypothetically, in Crimea we can estimate that around 50% of the population is in favor of Ukraine, but there are many people who carry Ukraine in their hearts and cannot talk about it,” the professor notes.

The process of Kiev regaining authority in Crimea would unfold in two ways, Krasnokutskii understands. On the one hand, formally, since Kyiv has already initiated a recruitment process for civil servants willing to join a new administration, to which 800 people have already signed up, according to the professor. This recruitment drive includes the police, the Prosecutor’s Office, the military and other government bodies, Krasnokutskii explains. But, beyond the formal considerations there is another parallel one that must be carried out by civil society because “it is impossible to change that territory by the force of the state alone,” he acknowledges.

This handout photograph taken and released by the Ukrainian Emergency Services on July 20, 2023, shows rescuers extinguishing a fire in an administrative building in Odesa.
This handout photograph taken and released by the Ukrainian Emergency Services on July 20, 2023, shows rescuers extinguishing a fire in an administrative building in Odesa. HANDOUT (AFP)

Russian strikes on Odesa

Russia, meanwhile, is increasing pressure on Odesa, shelling the Black Sea port city on Tuesday and Wednesday after the rupture of the agreement allowing the export of Ukrainian grain through a safe corridor. In addition, the Kremlin said through a Defense Ministry statement, from now on any ship approaching Ukrainian ports will be considered a potential military target. Moscow’s repeated attacks on port infrastructure are designed to prevent Kyiv’s grain exports to the rest of the world from continuing, in what Moscow has termed “retaliation” for the attack on the Kerch Bridge.

The early hours of Wednesday morning were “hellish,” according to Ukrainian authorities, as up to 63 missiles and drones rained down on Odesa, causing significant damage in a second consecutive night of intense shelling. In the Port of Chornomorsk alone, Kyiv said, 60,000 tons of grain was lost. Three of the ports in the Odesa area are the main point of departure for grain cargo ships that have been sailing under an agreement sponsored by the UN and Turkey, the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which Moscow refused to extend when it expired last Monday. Ukraine views the Russian bombardment as an attempt to dissuade it from seeking alternatives to the pact in order to continue exporting grain.

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