Without Crimea, Ukraine will never win
There is no victory for Kyiv – or Nato – unless we give the Ukrainians the tools to seize back the peninsula
26 January 2023 • 7:32pm
The Ukrainian General Staff have set an amazing example for military planners in Europe. Their activities are methodical, professional and disciplined. Their understanding of operational design on the battlefield, and operational security, has never been matched by the Russians. So we can safely conclude that, with the right weapons, Ukraine can prevent a major Russian breakthrough
just about anywhere on the battlefield. But more than that, Ukraine can retake Crimea this year.
Currently, Kyiv appears to be building up an armoured force, division-size or larger, that is prepared to serve as the breakthrough formation for the next major offensive phase of the campaign. I’d anticipate it will be at least two months, more likely three, before they are able to do that. It will be built mostly around Ukrainian armour that they already possess or which they have captured.
Of course, Western tanks will provide an added lethal edge
, even if the numbers promised are well below what was requested. But Zelensky has now moved his attention to long-range precision missiles, which he knows will be decisive in the effort to liberate Crimea. They can be used to isolate the peninsula, allowing his forces to then attack exposed Russian facilities.
This is where Western strategy meets its biggest problem, since we haven’t yet decided whether to support Zelensky’s policy on Crimea in the first place. The answer should be obvious, because without retaking Crimea it is virtually impossible for Ukraine to win this war. For as long as Putin has a foothold in Ukrainian territory he will always be able to manipulate Ukraine’s society and economy. Put simply, do we want Ukraine to win or not?
Regrettably, Pentagon officials, such as Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defence for policy, seem conflicted. They ought to be reminded that Ukraine has already shown its ability to isolate Crimea in a disciplined fashion.
For instance, the best known Russian landline of communication (LOC) in Crimea, which goes over the Kerch Bridge
, was severely damaged months ago and won’t be fully repaired before the spring. I expect the Ukrainians will attempt to ensure it is never fully repaired. And the other major land LOC – the so-called “land bridge” between Crimea and Rostov – is also being targeted by Ukrainian forces.
These are the only two land LOCs which connect Crimea to Russia. Both are demonstrably vulnerable. Ukraine can easily destroy them in weeks, but only if we send our most sophisticated long-range missiles.
We can easily supply an Army Tactical Missile System
(ATACMS), for example, which would vastly improve the ability of Ukrainian forces to strike the Russian land bridge, hitting river crossings, logistics hubs, rail connections, headquarters, troop concentrations and ammunition storage sites. Such missiles can be supplemented by Gray Eagle armed drones and ground-launched Small Diameter Bombs (SDB).
Then there is the ability to strike vulnerable targets on the Crimean peninsula, including the Russian navy base at Sevastopol, the major logistics hub at Dzhankoy and the airbase at Saky. And, of course, the same missiles will guarantee that Russia can never rebuild Kerch Bridge.
But Colin Kahl has said that sending the ATACMS is a “juice [that] isn’t really worth the squeeze”. This is the same pessimistic approach that delayed the sending of other key equipment, such as Patriot systems, several months ago. It is also the approach originally taken to sending Abrams tanks, which was thankfully reversed yesterday. Time and again, the pessimism of the Pentagon has been mistaken, and yet it continues.
If we really cannot send the long-range missiles Zelensky needs, we make an awful statement of intent: that we do not believe Crimea is up for the taking. And that, I fear, would render all Western support redundant. In the aftermath of 2014, the West stated that Crimea is Ukrainian but failed to do enough to prevent a full-scale Putin invasion. We have a duty now to put it right because, for all the nice rhetoric from Western leaders, there is no victory for Kyiv – or Nato – without the liberation of Crimea.
Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges is the former commander of US Army Europe