A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 18, 2023

Why Ukraine Continues Crimea Attacks, Despite War In Donbas

As long as Russia holds the Crimean Peninsula, it will be difficult for Ukraine to rebuild its economy. Russia will use its bases on Crimea to continue attacks on Ukrainian seaborne commerce from southern Ukrainian ports, deny it access to Black Sea gas deposits and deploy harassing attacks from there. 

As a result, Ukraine has no alternative but to render Crimea unsafe for Russian settlement and development. JL 

Howard Altman reports in The Drive:

Though the bulk of the fighting in Ukraine is taking place in the Donbas, Kyiv has not taken its eye off Crimea. With its Black Sea Fleet and other Russian military installations on Crimea, Ukraine knows they’ll never be safe so long as Russia occupies the peninsula. They’ll never be able to rebuild their economy so long as Russia occupies Crimea. No access to the Azov Sea means Mariupol and Berdiyansk can never function as seaports, even after they’re liberated. The Black Sea Fleet would continue to disrupt commerce in and out of Odesa. And Russian claims to territorial waters would deprive Ukraine of gas deposits under the Black Sea. Crimea is the key, it is the decisive terrain.”

Though the bulk of the fighting in Ukraine is taking place in the Donbas, especially in and around Bakhmut, Kyiv has not taken its eye off Crimea. That point was apparently hammered home over the skies near Sevastopol overnight Wednesday and into Thursday.

“Beginning at night, the attack on the peninsula began,” Sevastopol occupation governor Mikhail Razvozhayev announced on his Telegram channel Thursday. 

The Black Sea Fleet and local air defenses shot down two Ukrainian drones “in the zone of Sevastopol,” Razvozhayev wrote. “Several more UAVs were shot down in the water area - in the zone of the Republic of Crimea. Everything is calm in the city. Trust only official information.”

While "everything was calm," ferry service was apparently halted during the attack. Meanwhile, video and images began appearing on social media of a huge cloud apparently resulting from an explosion about 100 miles to the north near a Russian military base in Armyansk, a town on the northern tip of the Crimean peninsula. It’s unclear at the moment what happened, but the local Ukrainian CrimeanWind Telegram channel said Russian officials provided several explanations, ranging from it being “a cloud of unusual shape” to ongoing training to the disposal of World War II ammunition.

Whatever the reason, Crimea has, as we have written about many times before, been a frequent target of Ukrainian drone attacks.

Last month, Razvozhayev reported on his Telegram channel that two drones were intercepted and shot down over the Black Sea on Jan. 2. Russian air defenses were also activated that day over Dzhankoy, home to a Russian airbase.

There were two reports of air defenses at Sevastopol being activated in December, including another case of Ukrainian drones being shot down, according to Razvozhayev at the time.

And in August, a mysterious, 'available on Alibaba,' converted long-range suicide drone attacked the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol. These drones are likely the same weapons that have repeatedly made attacks on the Black Sea stronghold since.

It all started on July 31, when a mysterious drone attacked Sevastopol. It appears the drone impacted a roofline, damaging it, but there is no word on casualties, at least according to Russian officials. At the time, we predicted that this was just a sign of what was to come, which proved all too accurate.  Ukraine has also used explosive-laden unmanned boats in offensive operations, including in a large-scale October attack on Sevastopol, home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Russian sources claimed Ukraine used them again a few weeks later in Sheskharis Harbor in Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

The most recent drone attack on Sevastopol came hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a group of experts via a Zoom call that a “Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea would be a red line for Vladimir Putin that could lead to a wider Russian response,” according to Politico.

“According to four people with knowledge of Blinken’s response, he conveyed that the U.S. isn’t actively encouraging Ukraine to retake Crimea, but that the decision is Kyiv’s alone. The administration’s main focus is helping Ukraine advance where the fight is, mainly in the east.”


But despite that advice, Ukraine is eyeing an effort to recapture Crimea, which Russia invaded in 2014, a goal repeatedly espoused by President Volodymyr Zelensky and others. 

In October, Ukrainian Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of that nation’s Defense Intelligence directorate (GUR), told The War Zone that Ukraine would recapture the peninsula sometime this year.

While Blinken reportedly suggested that Ukraine focus on the Donbas, the liberation of Crimea would achieve two goals, Ben Hodges, a retired Army lieutenant general who commanded U.S. Army Europe, told The War Zone on Thursday. 

“Crimea is the key,” he said. “it is the decisive terrain.”

Ukraine should “focus on Crimea now as the main effort while using ‘economy of force’ in the east to slow/stop Russian ground attacks.”

With its Black Sea Fleet and several other Russian military installations on Crimea, “Ukraine knows they’ll never be safe or secure so long as Russia occupies” the peninsula.

“Any ‘peace settlement’ which results in Russia holding on to Crimea only means that Russia will wait two or three years until we, the West, will lose interest and ... meanwhile, they’ll rebuild their military, address their mistakes, and restart their war against Ukraine. That’s been the pattern since 2008.”

In addition, “Kyiv also knows that they’ll never be able to rebuild their economy so long as Russia occupies Crimea. No access to the Azov Sea means that Mariupol and Berdiyansk can never function again as seaports, even after they’re liberated. The Black Sea Fleet would continue to disrupt/interdict commerce in and out of Odesa. And Russian claims to territorial waters, if not challenged, would deprive Ukraine access to potential gas deposits under the Black Sea.  So Ukraine has to liberate Crimea. It is the key. Do that first, this year.  Donbas will come later. It’s important but not decisive.” 

The sentiment about Donbas' role in Ukraine's ultimate goals echoes what White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Feb. 14 about Bakhmut, the coal-mining city in Donetsk Oblast that is at the heart of the fighting in Donbas right now.

“As we have said before, I think we shall say again today, even if Bakhmut falls it would not have the strategic impact on the overall war,” said Kirby. “I would go so far as to say it won't even have necessarily a strategic impact.”

To liberate Crimea, Ukraine will need to make it “untenable for the Russian Army, Navy and Air Forces on the peninsula and then occupying it.”

That means starting with “isolating it with long-range precision strike against the only two land lines of communication that connect it to Russia - the Kerch Bridge, already severely damaged [in an Oct. 8 attack] - and the so-called ‘land bridge’ which connects Crimea to Russia via Mariupol and Melitopol along the coastline of [the] Azov Sea. Targeting that transportation infrastructure will begin the isolation of Crimea from resupply or movement.” 

A “large Ukrainian armored force that attacks southeast in the direction of [the] Azov Sea and penetrates Russian linear defenses would complete the isolation of Crimea and enable the closer deployment of [M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or] HIMARS launchers which could then be in range of specific Russian facilities on Crimea.”

The peninsula, he added, “is about the size of Massachusetts. There’s no place to hide. All Russian facility locations are well known and obvious - and vulnerable.”

“Precision strikes on Sevastopol will force the Black Sea Fleet to reposition to Novorossisk which is far less capable as a base, and further away from Ukrainian cities. The airbase Saki, on the west coast of Crimea, should become completely unusable. And the logistics hub at Dzankoy in the north of Crimea should become a huge bonfire.”

Both of those facilities have either already come under attack before, as in the case of Saki Air Base, which we wrote about here, or had air defenses activated for reasons still unclear, as we previously mentioned.

“Once Crimea is untenable, then [Ukrainian] ground forces can begin to attack south, towards the Perekop Isthmus, and then into broader Crimea,” said Hodges. “Other Ukrainian assets ([Special Operations Forces], marines, unmanned systems, etc) will also play a role.”

Whether Ukraine tries to accomplish what Budanov told us it would, or adheres to Blinken's apparently more cautious approach remains to be seen. But either way, it is something we will watch closely.


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