The Shortest Path to Victory in Ukraine Goes Through Crimea

Foreign Policy, 08.12.2023
Luke Coffey y Peter Rough, académico y director del Hudson Institute respectivamente
  • The West needs to keep its nerve, recognize the stakes, and support Kyiv’s clearest path to victory

A pall of pessimism hangs over Western supporters of Ukraine. With Kyiv’s counteroffensive underperforming most observers’ expectations, a fatalistic attitude bordering on defeatism has set in from Washington to Berlin. NBC News and the German tabloid Bild reported last month that U.S. and European officials were deliberating about an end to the war. As Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni told two Russians posing as African officials in a prank call: “We are near the moment in which everybody understands that we need a way out”.

The truth is that there is no easy way out. Moscow has repeatedly made it clear that it will only accept Kyiv’s surrender, and the latter’s underwhelming ground offensive will only have emboldened the Kremlin. The only way to force Russian President Vladimir Putin from his objective is to give Ukraine the means to beat him on the battlefield.

This is not an impossible task, but it requires the United States to keep its nerve, recognize the stakes, and identify the best path ahead.

A successful U.S. strategy for the war in Ukraine should begin by recognizing that Moscow is uninterested in any genuine cessation of hostilities. We already know that Putin views cease-fires as instruments of war. From 2014 to 2022, as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has pointed out, Russia agreed to 20 cease-fires in Ukraine—and promptly violated every one of them. Putin may float another such deal in the coming months, but it would only serve one purpose: to give his forces a respite before resuming hostilities.

It is also unrealistic to think Putin would be content with control over the five regions of Ukraine that he has already annexed: Crimea, Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia, only the first of which he fully controls. Of course, the West could attempt to pressure Ukraine into ceding large territories and millions of Ukrainians to Russia in hopes of appeasing Putin, even though Kyiv would fiercely and justifiably resist such a move. It would destroy the relationship with Kyiv, tank morale throughout Ukraine, and raise doubts about U.S. commitments around the world. It would embolden Putin to pocket his gains and press onward.

Such a gambit might make sense if Ukraine were on the brink of collapse and blind to its own peril, but it is nowhere near that point. Ukrainians are convinced of the need to resist Russia by force of arms and have achieved real success in doing so. Kyiv still has reservoirs of power that it is willing to commit to the fight. To give up on Ukraine now would be entirely premature.

In 2022, Ukraine achieved major victories, liberating nearly half of the territory which Russia had occupied since the start of its full-scale invasion. If this year’s ground offensive proved less successful than anticipated, it has much to do with U.S. dithering in providing key weapons, such as the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICMs). This allowed Russia valuable time to dig in.

Moreover, Washington’s prohibition on Ukraine’s use of Western-supplied weapons to strike Russian territory further handcuffed Kyiv. As one of the authors of this piece wrote last spring, before Ukraine’s counteroffensive began:

“If Ukraine’s counteroffensive stalls, or even fails, it’s no excuse to end support. On the contrary, it would be a time to learn from mistakes, keep the weapons flowing and the training going and prepare Ukraine for the war’s next phase”.

That phase begins now.

In this new phase, the West should consider bolder and more creative options for supporting Ukraine. Rather than search for off-ramps that don’t exist, it should focus its efforts on moving Ukraine closer to victory with a sustained focus on Crimea, which retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges has rightfully described as the war’s “decisive terrain”.

Without the liberation of Crimea, Ukraine will never be safe. The occupied territory is the key staging ground and resupply base for Russian operations in southern Ukraine. As a first step, Ukraine must deny Russia the freedom to operate from Crimea.

That’s why Kyiv’s forces have repeatedly targeted Russia’s highest-value asset there: the Kerch Bridge, which serves as the essential transportation link connecting the Russian mainland to the peninsula. Twice, Ukraine has successfully hit the bridge. In October 2022, an explosion collapsed a portion of its westbound vehicle section and damaged a parallel rail line. In July 2023, a second Ukrainian strike temporarily destroyed another section of the bridge, limiting its operations for some time.

Ukraine has also repeatedly struck Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, including its headquarters in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol. Over the past 20 months, Ukraine has damaged or destroyed at least 19 Russian vessels and struck military facilities on the peninsula with missiles, including Russian air bases and air defense systems. As a result, the Russian Navy has essentially been driven out of the western Black Sea.

Ukraine has the political will and creativity to launch a major campaign against Crimea, but it is up to the United States to ensure it succeeds. While the details should, of course, be left to Ukrainian military planners, a Crimea campaign would likely consist of three phases.

The first phase would be to isolate the peninsula. To that end, the West should prioritize arming Ukraine with the weapons that it needs to destroy, or at least incapacitate, the Kerch Bridge. Rendering the only direct connection between Russia and Crimea inoperable would put enormous pressure on Russia’s other route to Crimea, which runs through the so-called land bridge—the long stretch of occupied Ukraine along the Black Sea coast.

That means Washington should also assist Ukraine in targeting key transit nodes along that route, including the Henichesk, Syvash, and Chonhar bridges that connect occupied Crimea to Kherson Oblast. Ukraine needs to be able to put constant pressure on these targets and stay one step ahead of Russian engineering units.

The second phase of a Crimea campaign involves making the peninsula’s naval and air bases unusable for Russian forces. This requires urgent and plentiful deliveries of ATACMS, including variants with a unitary warhead and 190-milerange. With pressure from Washington, Berlin can be persuaded to also supply the German-made Taurus, a powerful air-launched cruise missile with a range of about 300 miles.

So far, Ukraine has had some success striking Russian ships, air defense batteries, electronic warfare platforms, airfields, and headquarters in Crimea using repurposed Soviet-era S-200 air defense missiles, as well as British Storm Shadow and French SCALP-EG air-launched cruise missiles. The S-200s, however, are less precise than more modern systems, and the Storm Shadow and SCALP-EG cruise missiles, like the Taurus, must be air-launched, limiting their use so long as Ukraine does not control the skies.

What’s more, Britain, France, and Germany only have small stocks of these weapons. This is why providing ATACMS—which exist in large numbers—is so important.

The third phase of a Crimea campaign consists of striking key facilities inside the Russian Federation. Russian forces pushed out of Crimea must be denied safe haven on the other side of the border, where they would otherwise regroup to launch their next attack. The United States has restricted the use of U.S.-supplied weapons to targets in occupied Ukraine; instead, Washington should assist Kyiv in developing and manufacturing its own capabilities to strike Russian naval and air bases in Rostov Oblast, Krasnodar Krai, and other regions of Russia located across the sea from Crimea or bordering occupied Ukraine.

Ukraine has already launched minor successful attacks against Russian bases, ports, airfields, and headquarters in these nearby regions, including Novorossiysk, Tuapse, Temryuk, and Taganrog. These attacks should be supported and encouraged. Russia also continues the unfettered movement of Iranian military supplies and smaller Russian naval vessels from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov through the Volga-Don Canal. This makes the canal fair game as a target.

Similarly, if claims that Russia is establishing a new naval base in Abkhazia, a Russian-occupied region of Georgia, are accurate, this facility would also be a legitimate target. Why should we require Ukraine not to hit the Russian military bases from which Ukraine is being relentlessly pummeled?

U.S. policymakers should recognize that the shortest and most direct path to victory for Ukraine runs through Crimea. Ukraine must be armed, trained, and equipped with the campaign for the peninsula in mind. Just as Russia’s war on Ukraine began with the invasion of Crimea in 2014, so too will it only end when Ukraine eventually regains control there.

For Washington, a clear eye on the campaign for Crimea is an antidote to doom and gloom. By adjusting its strategy, the West can help Ukraine make crucial progress, weaken Russia in the Black Sea, and chart a path to ending this long and bloody war.

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