Zelenskyy wants to recapture all areas, and Crimea could also become a target of the Ukrainian armed forces. A military operation would probably cost thousands of lives.
Vladimir Putin had set himself the goal of conquering Ukraine in ten days. Now, nine months later, he’s struggling to maintain the small territory he’s been able to occupy in the meantime.
After two counter-offensives around Kharkiv in the north-east and Cherson in the south, the Ukrainians took the helm with minimum losses and maximum success.
These achievements suggest that the Russians will face far more serious setbacks in Donbass and Crimea, which Vladimir Putin conquered in 2014. In an interview published on November 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reiterated the goal of “taking back all territories”.
His plan has met with approval from the Ukrainian public – but not from Western allies. There, it is feared that a (potentially easier to carry out militarily) mission to recapture Crimea or the Donbass could push Russia into escalation and possibly even beyond the nuclear threshold.
The Ukrainian side is silent about the next steps. “If we spread our planning via social media and television, we would not have achieved anything,” says Mykhailo Zarodskyi, who remains closely involved in the planning process as a former commander of Ukraine’s air assault forces.
The lieutenant general emphasized that an operation to recapture Crimea is not only possible, but is also being prepared for 2023.
When such an operation would begin is another question: there are still many battles to be won. However, a look at history shows that it is “always difficult for an occupying power to hold Crimea”.
Armed forces sources say “nothing” is out of the question, including intervention in areas captured by Russia before February 24.
Roads to Crimea are now within reach of Ukrainian firepower, including those Himars missile launchers that have dramatically disrupted Russian logistics since their introduction in the summer.
In Crimea, Russian authorities are now preparing for a ground attack, have built new fortifications and trenches, and declared a state of emergency in several parts of the peninsula.
Residents in Jankoy say new trenches are being built near an airbase that was attacked by Ukrainian special forces in August (and apparently a few days ago).
However, it is more likely that Ukraine will initially focus its firepower elsewhere. The cutting of the land bridge occupied by Putin, which connects mainland Russia with Crimea, remains the top priority.
This can also be seen within the Russian military planning and corresponding defense lines have been worked out and manned.
A military intelligence official is confident that Ukraine’s structural advantages will prevail – particularly its ability to conduct highly mobile “hit-and-run” attacks and disrupt supply lines.
“We have proven in every phase that our tactics and our focus on logistics are right. We’ll prove that again,” the source said.
The many battles fought in Crimea over the centuries provide Ukrainian planners with a wealth of lessons. The largely bloodless Russian annexation in 2014, in which only two Ukrainian soldiers lost their lives, is not the typical example.
Military operations in Crimea typically claim thousands of lives: in the last century alone, hundreds of thousands have died at the gates of the peninsula.
The Russian Civil War and the Second World War are among the most serious conflicts, apart from the countless casualties of the Crimean War in the 1850s.
Whoever wanted to conquer the peninsula usually had to cross a narrow, open strip of land or a swampy area.
According to military experts familiar with the peninsula, Ukraine’s topographical features should give cause for concern.
In 1992, Admiral Mykola Shibarev provoked the dissolution of the Russian Black Sea Fleet by declaring his frigate to be Ukrainian. Today he believes that the diplomatic route is the most promising for reclaiming the disputed territory.
Andrei Ryschenko, a retired naval captain who was born in Crimea, believes there are a number of prerequisites for a successful operation.
“There is a real chance that events will end in a bloodbath. This is an operation that Ukraine does not need.”
Lieutenant General Zabrodskyj, on the other hand, is convinced that Ukrainian military planning has worked out a promising tactic. Ukraine does not intend a pointless frontal attack on Crimea, he says.
There are other “interesting” possibilities for combined arms maneuvers using land forces, sea landings and air strikes. In this way, Russian sea and air superiority can be thwarted with “asymmetric tricks”.
Examples of this tactic were the Ukrainian drone strikes on the Black Sea Fleet in late October, in which the warship Admiral Makarov was damaged, and the partial destruction of the Kerch Bridge. “We will surprise people – again and again.”
Its Western supporters have avoided publicly downplaying Ukraine’s military ambitions. And Ukraine, too, assures that it did not hold back military planners in private. But there seem to be gaps in the rhetoric.
For example, on November 16, America’s top soldier, General Mark Milley, who belongs to the more cautious spectrum of state opinion in the country, declared that a Ukrainian victory in Crimea “cannot be expected any time soon”.
It is clear to Ukrainian military planners that America and its weapons are the key to the question of victory.
In Kyiv, the political leadership quietly admits that taking back Donbass and Crimea is much more complicated than voicing a public slogan. One accepts the continuing skepticism about Kyiv that a large part of this population harbors.
A network of well-meaning informants helped with the mission in Kharkiv and Cherson. The opposite will be the case in the Donbass regions.
Since the takeover by Russia in 2014, the majority of Kyiv sympathizers have long since fled or been expelled. An operation to recapture Crimea would likely meet resistance from pro-Russian partisans.
It is far from certain that Ukraine can expect support from more benevolent sections of the population such as the Crimean Tatars, many of whom have now accepted Russian rule as a fait accompli.
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For Mykola Bielieskov, an analyst at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, Zelenskyy is now tied to his promise to return Crimea.
According to surveys, even before the successful counter-offensives in Kharkiv and Cherson, more than 84 percent of Ukrainians spoke out against any territorial concessions to Russia in any negotiations; Numbers that are undoubtedly higher now.
It cannot be ruled out that the Ukrainian wartime president might maneuver himself into a dead end. Should he attempt to bring Crimea back under Ukrainian rule, it would be a costly military endeavor – and the result: a rift with allies whom he must not alienate.
The article first appeared in The Economist under the title “A Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea would be bloody and difficult” and was translated by Cornelia Zink.
*The post “Retaking Crimea? ‘It could end in a bloodbath'” is published by The Economist. Contact the person responsible here.