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Putin may be about to lose Crimea

In Europe
June 11, 2024

Last October, the UK Armed Forces Minister James Heappey described Russia’s Black Sea Fleet as ‘functionally defeated’ based on the losses they were sustaining to drone and missile attacks, enabled by special forces activities. Crimea may be an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ as once described by Putin, but with Sevastopol in particular taking a beating, and many of the ships there fleeing to the more eastern port of Novorossiysk in pre-2014 Russia, it is becoming quite a dangerous aircraft carrier to be aboard.

Despite these successes, I thought using the word ‘defeat’ was premature – then. It would be another two months before grain and other trade in and out of Ukrainian ports started to recover; longer still before tonnages approached ‘normal’, which they have now done. Hardened cynics would say that even then, so long as the Black Sea Fleet had Kalibr missiles available – able to reach from one side of the Black Sea to the other – then the Fleet could never be described as defeated, functionally or otherwise: though one must always remember that in order to shoot a Kalibr one must know where there is a target to be hit, or where one will be anyway. Russia has long since lost any surveillance and targeting capability in the western Black Sea, and its Kalibrs are thus no menace to merchant ships moving between Odesa and Romanian waters.

In any case, things have moved on. Crimea itself is now being squeezed – and not just the naval base in Sevastopol. American-supplied ATACMS ballistic missiles and President Biden’s eventual lift on the ban from using them to hit targets in Russia (entirely legitimately under Article 51 of the UN charter) means that no place in the theatre is now safe from the Ukrainians.

An obvious target would, of course, be the Kerch bridges. One end of them is in Russia, one in Crimea, and they appear still to be a critical logistic supply line sustaining not only Russia’s troops in the peninsula itself but the front line along the Dnipro and east into the land bridge.

The Ukrainians have managed to hit the bridges twice now, once in October 2022 and again in July 2023. Despite efforts at repair, they are still not at full capacity. In response to this, Russia has built a new railway line across the land bridge from the east. It has also increased the use of RoRo ferries at Kerch, allowing more supplies to flow across the strait, but the ferries have now been hit by ATACMS and are out of use.

In other words there are only two arteries keeping Crimea alive: the new railway and a reduced Kerch bridge, both of which are within ATACMS range. It remains unclear whether Joe Biden has allowed the Ukrainians to have unitary-warhead ATACMS which could take the bridges down: but it is clear that no matter what ATACMS they have they can cut the overland railway whenever they like. It could be repaired quite quickly – it is hard to cripple a railway laid over flat country for a long time – but that supply route is clearly no longer to be relied upon.

Meanwhile, UK intelligence shows Russia putting back in place the eight previously storm-damaged barrier barges on the southern side of the Kerch strait. In other words, the Russians are seriously worried about those bridges.

The assessed reason for these barges is ‘to reduce the angle of approach for Ukrainian Uncrewed Surface vehicles (USVs)’. To an extent they will achieve this but steering something like a Magura V5 USV around or between them would not on its own prove a challenge for a system that can achieve ‘kills’ against moving targets out at sea. The barges will also have an anti-USV necklace strung between them and possibly even people on them with weapons. This might help defeat USVs on their own but would do nothing to an ATACMS strike. The jamming masts they are reported to have for this will be equally ineffective against a missile equipped with anti-jam technology, frequency hopping and inertial navigation backup systems.

The Ukrainians have shown both ingenuity and simultaneity in their attacks many times now. A Storm Shadow (for example) into one of the barges followed by a wave of USVs through the gap would overwhelm any defences there, and that might see the bridges down. This would be totemic in its own right, but even worse, a simultaneous attack on the overland rail line would mean that all supplies for the Dnipro front and the various bases in Crimea had to come by truck through an overburdened road network under the hammer of Zelensky’s guns and missiles. Whilst railways are easier to repair than bridges, supply problems on the peninsula would quickly mount and Russia’s ability to use it as a base would diminish even further. A double win.

Some have even started to consider if this might be the moment for an amphibious landing of some sort by Ukraine. The Ukrainians have already made determined efforts to get across the Dnipro river, but the classic use of amphibious assault is to outflank the enemy. A landing in Crimea would avoid the need to attack into prepared defences as on the existing front line.

Westerners would see this as inconceivable because the Ukrainians, properly speaking, lack the maritime resources for amphibious assault. It’s also a sad fact that despite the respect we have just paid to the veterans of D-Day, we in the West have grown deeply allergic to the risk involved in this kind of beach storming activity.

But it is perhaps worth noting that British military intelligence also assesses that Russia is now attempting to recruit fresh troops in the African countries of Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Uganda. The British analysts consider that Russia has now largely run out of convicts to throw into the meat grinder, and that Putin is wary of rounding up even more Russians – as much because it would damage his economy and force more Russian men to flee overseas, as because he is concerned about domestic opposition.

There are plenty who believe Russia somehow has unlimited resources to call on as this war grinds on, but that doesn’t sound like it to me. With many troops recently drawn off to the north for the failed assault on Kharkiv, it just could be that the battered Russian forces in Crimea are ripe to be overrun.

Irrespective of what I think, for President Zelensky the question remains: when Crimea is choked off and isolated – as it surely will soon be – how does Ukraine press home that advantage?

Maybe Crimea doesn’t need Ukrainian ‘boots on the ground’ at all. Choke the arteries, increase the squeeze and wait for the missiles, ammo and basic supplies to dry up. Then watch the bills mount as Putin is forced to burn resources to hold on to the peninsula, achieving nothing but avoiding a propaganda loss. Add in the embarrassment factor and Crimea becomes not just a greatly reduced operational base but a negotiating point with strategic utility across the whole conflict.

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