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Ukrainian attacks in Crimea frighten Russian tourists and force Russia’s army to change tactics

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine began in Crimea. It could also end there.

View of aircraft after attack at Saki Airbase in Crimea
Close-up view of aircraft after an attack on Saki Air Base in Crimea on Aug. 10. Credit: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies.

While Crimea is still not seeing anywhere near the level of violence visited on eastern or southern Ukraine, the strikes deep in the heart of a place that has been safely in Russian hands for eight years are creating difficult military and political challenges for the Kremlin. They are also raising questions about just how far Ukraine will be able to push its campaign to recover territory it lost to Russia, nearly a decade ago.

Putin’s “holy land”

In short, it’s not territory that he, or any Russian leader, would part with easily.

Military mystery

Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow and military aviation analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, is skeptical, telling Grid that for the U.S. to provide weapons to Ukraine but not acknowledge them “wouldn’t fit the observable pattern so far.”

Bronk believes “a much simpler explanation for the type of explosions you see is that Ukrainian Special Forces used UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones] to drop small munitions onto things like fuel trucks and parked aircraft.”

Ukraine’s strategy: disruption and terror

“It’s forcing the Russians to make impossible choices about how they use their overstretched forces,” said Bronk. “It takes a huge amount of personnel to lock down the huge potential attack areas that these small teams could attack. That would mean taking thousands of troops away from the front lines and putting them in rear areas to provide local security for bases. [For the Ukrainians,] it’s a very efficient way of making things difficult for the Russians.”

Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher specializing in Russian military strategy at the Rand Corporation, told Grid that the recent Ukrainian strikes “suggest that they know their opponent very well. Local Russian forces in Crimea are not really taking significant force protection measures since the start of this war, because they assumed that the Ukrainians wouldn’t be able to touch them there.” The fact that drones were able to reach the Black Sea Fleet headquarters twice suggests that even now, the measures the Russians are taking are limited.

Almost as important as the military impact has been the psychological effect. “Sevastopol was a secure city after the Russian takeover there in 2014,” said Bendett. “There wasn’t any activity there. Now there are air raid sirens, anti-aircraft fires, and the citizens and the military are basically waiting for a drone to appear in the skies at any point.”

Massicot told Grid, “In the last couple of weeks, you’ve seen a lot of traffic going back into Russia from Crimea, like they don’t believe that bridge is stable. I think the local population’s confidence is something to keep watching.”

The final battle?

“It’s a much more difficult proposition,” said Massicot. “Russia has had eight years to entrench itself. They’re occupying military facilities and fortifying them. There’s a lot of air power there. The Black Sea Fleet is there. There are a lot of things that will be very difficult for Ukraine to cope with. They’ve shown the ability to be very creative in taking an indirect approach, but at some point to still do need to evict, and I don’t know where that force would come from.”

Based on his comments this week, Zelenskyy does appear to be raising public expectations around a final battle for Crimea. The Ukrainians have defied the odds before in this war, but if Crimea is really the end goal, it’s yet another indication that the fighting is not anywhere close to over.

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