Ukraine opens up a new war front in Crimea

Kyiv’s forces are making the most of newly added long-range weapons to periodically punish Russian positions in the Black Sea peninsula

Satellite image of the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, in Sevastopol, hit by a Ukrainian attack last Friday.
Satellite image of the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, in Sevastopol, hit by a Ukrainian attack last Friday.HANDOUT (via REUTERS)
Cristian Segura

Ukraine has opened up a new war front in Crimea. In this particular offensive there are no infantry or armored vehicle assaults. The Ukrainian offensive against the Black Sea peninsula, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, is taking place by sea and air. The results that Kyiv is achieving are made possible by the fact that its allies in NATO have allowed it to use the weapons they have supplied. This Western approval is a significant script change because, until a few months ago, Washington, Berlin and Paris considered Crimea a red line that could further escalate the conflict. For the Kremlin, and for most Russians, Crimea is an inalienable part of their national identity.

Now, Russian military infrastructure in Crimea is under attack almost daily. The last two weeks have been especially successful for the Ukrainian Air Force. On September 13, the Sevastopol headquarter dry docks were bombed, damaging a submarine and a landing ship at the repair facility. On the 20th, the second command headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet was partially destroyed. On September 21, Saki Air Base, Russia’s main air base on Ukrainian territory, was attacked again. Three missiles hit the Russian fleet headquarters in Sevastopol on September 22, during a meeting of senior officers of the Russian Navy and the Southern Military District, which directs the invading troops in the province of Kherson and on the Zaporizhzhia front. A day later, on Saturday, a Ukrainian rocket destroyed a fuel depot used by the Russian fleet in Crimea.

The star of this new military scenario is the Storm Shadow–SCALP-EG, a British-French cruise missile that the United Kingdom has been supplying to Ukraine. It is the first long-range weapon (340 miles) that the Allies have sent to Ukraine. In the spring it began to be used mostly to override Russian command bases on the Donbas and Zaporizhzhia fronts. In 2022, the United States provided Himars missiles with a range of 50 miles. These weapons were decisive in destroying the invader’s command headquarters and arsenals in the counteroffensives that liberated the province of Kharkiv and half of the province of Kherson. The Russian reaction was to move barracks and arms distribution centers beyond the 50-mile range. With the Storm Shadow, there is no longer a safe distance possible.

In a new turn of events, the Storm Shadow has now become the spearhead of the offensive in Crimea. The strikes of the last two weeks in Sevastopol have all used these missiles. But they will not be the only long-range NATO weapons at the service of Ukraine, because after more than a year of arduous negotiations, and American hesitation about the advisability of striking Crimea, President Joe Biden has agreed to supply the high-precision, long-range ATACMS, as reported by several U.S. media outlets.

Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov, head of the intelligence services of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, stated this past Saturday in an interview in the American digital media outlet The War Zone that the ATACMS will not be used against Russian territory, but he also stressed that Crimea is part of Ukraine. Another medium-range missile that is being used by Ukraine in Crimea is the Neptun, a weapon originally designed for marine targets that has been adapted to hit ground targets. The problem, according to Budanov, is that Ukraine does not have enough industrial capacity to produce a large number of these weapons.

One offensive, three objectives

The offensive in Crimea that began this summer has three purposes, according to the Ukrainian high command. The most basic one, as noted by Budanov in The War Zone but also by his spokesman, Andriy Yusov, on September 20 in state news, is to destroy the Russian Army’s logistics chain in Crimea. Resources for the troops on the southern front enter and leave through the peninsula. Infantry units of the Russian fleet take part in the defense of the occupied territories in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. That is why the emphasis is on the destruction of fuel depots and bases, but also on the attacks on the Chonhar bridge, which connects the peninsula with the province of Kherson, and especially the Kerch bridge, the only road link between Crimea and Russian territory.

A Storm Shadow missile at an industry fair in Le Bourget, north of Paris, last June.
A Storm Shadow missile at an industry fair in Le Bourget, north of Paris, last June.Lewis Joly (AP/Lapresse)

Another goal of the offensive is to wear down Russian anti-aircraft defenses. The Ukrainian tactic in Crimea follows the same logic as the Russian one in its strikes against cities in the rearguard: first waves of drones are sent to consume the ammunition from the anti-aircraft batteries, and then the cruise missiles enter the scene. “Air defense equipment is very expensive and takes a long time to produce, and the Russians have all their units active, even in Moscow,” noted Budanov. This is one of the reasons, as the Ukrainian Air Force admits, for periodically firing drone bombs into Russian territory, to keep Russian anti-aircraft batteries active away from the front. “We also attack Crimea because if they have to bring in new equipment, they have to take it from somewhere else.”

Crimea is protected by one of the best networks of anti-aircraft batteries in the world. Its backbone is the S-400 missile system. Ukraine has already destroyed two such anti-aircraft batteries, out of six on the peninsula — one of them with a Neptun — according to satellite images from Western intelligence services. Another Ukrainian technique consists of special forces assaults in Crimea. Teams of around a dozen soldiers have managed to access the Crimean coast by speedboat. The infiltration operations last a short time, but have served to gather information and, in the case of the August 24 assault on Cape Tarkhankut, to destroy a radar system, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

The third purpose of the offensive in Crimea is, as defined by the secretary of the Ukrainian National Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, “to cut the Russian Black Sea fleet into slices.” Russian military ships are transporting material for their troops on the Zaporizhzhia front through the Sea of Azov; for them, the Black Sea is blocked to shipping between Ukraine and the outside world. Ukraine is forcing Moscow to maneuver more cautiously in the Black Sea due to the vulnerability of its ships to the Neptun missiles and marine strike drones. These drones have attacked warships hundreds of kilometers off the Ukrainian coast in Crimea, in Russian ports in the province of Krasnodar and even on the high seas, as was the case last July, when they disabled the Russian patrol boat Sergei Kotov.

The drone action is supplemented by amphibious operations by special forces, which have reconquered islets and hydrocarbon extraction platforms in the Black Sea in the hands of Russia since its occupation of Crimea in 2014. The intensification of operations to secure the Black Sea have coincided with the launch of a new route to export Ukrainian grain, developed after the Kremlin ended the agreement with Turkey and the United Nations to allow the movement of merchant ships loaded with grain from Ukraine.

Vadym Skibitsky, representative of the intelligence services of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, made it clear on September 9 in state news that his Armed Forces are acting to “neutralize” Russian control in the Black Sea: “Crimea is key for Russia, for its control of the Black Sea and for its access to the Mediterranean. Its position is also a threat to civil maritime trade. This must end.”

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