At least two things were striking about one of the first videos that emerged of an attack on Russia’s Saki Air Base in Crimea on Aug. 9. One was the size of the mushroom cloud in the background. The other was the sight of clearly alarmed Russian tourists in bathing suits and beach wraps scattering from their cabanas. The first attests to Ukraine’s demonstrated ability to strike targets deep behind Russian lines. The second shows the degree to which Crimea — the peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014 — has been cut off from the war raging just a few miles away, and the sense of calm and security that has prevailed there.
That calm has now been shattered. It started in a relatively small way last month, when a Ukrainian drone flew into the courtyard of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, injuring five people and forcing the cancellation of Navy Day celebrations. Russian beachgoers might have kept to their routines.
Things escalated sharply with the strike on Saki nine days later, which the Ukrainian military said destroyed nine Russian aircraft. Moscow denied any planes had been destroyed and blamed the explosion on an accidental ammunition detonation, an explanation that prompted much online mockery. Satellite imagery showed destroyed planes and significant damage to the airfield. According to Western officials quoted by Reuters, the strike on Saki may have knocked out half the Black Sea Fleet’s combat aircraft. The Russian military wasn’t particularly known for naval aviation to begin with, and that toll would represent a small proportion of total Russian air power, but it could have an impact on Russia’s ability to project power in the Black Sea and southern Ukraine.
A week after the Saki strike, an ammunition depot in Crimea exploded; this time the Russian defense ministry blamed an “act of sabotage.” That same day, there was an explosion at a different air base. The attacks have continued, including a second drone strike on the fleet headquarters on Aug. 20.
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”
“This Russian war … began with Crimea and must end with Crimea — with its liberation,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said this week. He was referring not to this year’s invasion but to the longer conflict between the two countries that began in 2014. That year, in the chaos that followed the ouster of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych amid mass protests in Kyiv, Russian special forces executed a nearly unopposed operation to seize control of the peninsula. After a referendum dismissed by Ukraine and most international observers as a sham, Russia formally annexed the peninsula. And while all but a small handful of the world’s governments still recognize it as Ukrainian territory, there was no forceful global response. Russia has held Crimea without difficulty for eight years.
Crimea matters for historical reasons as well. As a predominantly Russian-speaking region that was transferred to Ukrainian jurisdiction only in 1954, at a time when both countries were part of the Soviet Union, Crimea has featured as Exhibit A in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s argument that rightfully Russian territories were severed from the homeland after communism’s collapse. Owing to Sevastopol’s strategic location, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has been based there since the 18th century. And Crimea is the site where the 10th-century ruler Prince Vladimir, venerated as a saint in both Russia in Ukraine, was baptized into Christianity; as such, the peninsula also plays a significant role in the historical and religious narratives propagated by Putin’s government. The president has even described Crimea as “holy land.” His popularity soared to all-time highs after the 2014 annexation.
In short, it’s not territory that he, or any Russian leader, would part with easily.
A battle to actually retake Crimea is still far off. The first question raised by the recent strikes is how exactly the Ukrainians are pulling them off. Ukrainian officials have been coy about their involvement, but they have confirmed off the record that Ukrainians carried out the attacks. In the case of the Saki strike, Ukrainian officials have said that special operations forces operating behind enemy lines were responsible. In a Yahoo News story published last week, former U.S. special operators reacted skeptically to this explanation, saying that the extent of the damage at the base indicated a missile strike, perhaps with special forces on the ground providing targeting assistance.
The puzzle for military experts is that Saki lies at least 140 miles from the nearest front line, well outside the 40-mile range of the rockets the U.S. has provided for Ukraine’s HIMARS launchers. The HIMARS is capable of firing more powerful “ATACMS” rockets, which have a range of around 200 miles, but the U.S. has explicitly declined Ukrainian requests for ATACMS, in part because of concerns that they would be used to strike inside Russian territory. (The Biden administration has voiced no opposition to strikes within Crimea, which it considers Ukrainian territory.) All of which raises the question: Is the U.S., as some reports have suggested, providing the Ukrainians some of these long-range weapons in secret?
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.”
Drones have played a major role in the war in Ukraine, as demonstrated by their prominence in the latest $3 billion U.S. assistance package. But since the early days of the war, the Ukrainians have used them more for surveillance to aid artillery fire rather than as weapons themselves, in part because Russian anti-aircraft and electronic warfare systems have gotten more effective at neutralizing them.
Russian air defense systems have shot down a number of drones over Crimea as well, but the successful strikes show there are limits to just how effective these systems can be. “When the drone is flying to your position, there is no option but to interdict it, unless you know for sure it’s a friendly,” Sam Bendett, an adjunct senior fellow who studies drone warfare at the Center for a New American Security, told Grid. “So that’s what the Russians are doing — they’re trying to shoot down everything perceived as an unfriendly aerial system, and in the meantime, they’re actually exposing where some of their strongest points are.”
Ukraine’s strategy: disruption and terror
The Ukrainians’ ability to strike inside Crimea, however they’re doing it, is likely forcing the Russians to draw troops away from front lines elsewhere in the conflict.
“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.”
Russian troops are already stretched thin, reinforcing the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine in preparation for a much-hyped but still theoretical Ukrainian counterattack. Those reinforcements have already had the effect of slowing Russian progress elsewhere. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu admitted this week that the pace of the overall offensive had slowed, though he attributed this — not very credibly — to Russian efforts to “avoid casualties among civilians.”
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.”
Strikes on areas that Russia considers part of its own territory, and a place where Russians regularly go for beach vacations, could also help puncture the propaganda bubble that has kept so many Russians insulated from the reality of Putin’s “special military operation.” In recent days, the Ukrainian defense ministry has posted one video warning Russian tourists that they should stay out of Crimea “unless they want an unpleasantly hot summer break,” and another showing an animated floating HIMARS launcher approaching the Kerch Bridge, which connects Crimea to mainland Russia.
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?
Perhaps emboldened by its resistance to date, the Ukrainian government now insists that it is seeking the return of all territory seized by Russia since 2014. That would include Crimea. At the moment, despite the Russian military’s well-publicized difficulties, the Ukrainians are having their own troubles retaking even the territories the Russians have seized this year. A battle for Crimea would likely be exponentially more difficult.
“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.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.