Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party
The Ukrainian defence ministry publishes a handy account of the kinds of Russian equipment they think they’ve destroyed every week. Initially dismissed as propaganda, the numbers turn out to track open source intelligence assessment and leaked Western figures. Last week they showed something unusual: a sharp increase in the number of fuel trucks destroyed.
Fuel and ammunition supplies are the weakest link in modern war. Without them tanks can’t roll, artillery can’t fire, and infantry are forced to trudge on foot. It is far more efficient to attack them and deprive the enemy of supply than to face well equipped forces in battle. These losses suggest Ukraine has started softening Russian forces up ahead of its counter-offensive.
Though one can never be sure because of the importance of strategic deception in war (before D-Day the allies confused the Germans by hinting at landings in both Italy and Calais), it looks as though Ukraine’s target might be Crimea.
This may appear strange to Western observers, who seem to think that because Crimea was the first Ukrainian territory taken by the Russians, it must therefore be the last to be liberated, but there are sound strategic reasons to plan to go after Crimea first. The suggestion that Russia be allowed to keep Crimea if it gave up its other conquests resurfaces from time, even though it would legitimise a grave violation of international law.
The Crimean peninsula bisects Ukraine’s southern coast, cutting off the Sea of Azov to its east, and overshadowing Odesa to the west. It hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet whose submarines launch missiles at Ukrainian cities, and whose surface ships can blockade Ukrainian ports and cut off Ukrainian grain exports.
As long as it is in Russian hands, it gives that country a base from which to launch ground attacks into the middle of Ukraine, and it was from there that the most successful assaults of Russia’s 2022 invasion, reaching close to Mikolayiv in the West and encircling Mariupol to the East, were carried out.
Despite this strategic importance, Crimea is strategically vulnerable. Only two roads connect it to the rest of Ukrainian territory. And it is linked to Russia only by a bridge over the Kerch strait that has already been attacked once, and transport over occupied territory is hazardous – vulnerable to HIMARS rocket attack and Ukrainian guerrilla warfare.
Astonishingly, though, the aim of Ukraine’s attacks is obvious: drive down through the middle of the territory Russia occupies, divide Russian forces, prevent ammunition and fuel from getting into Crimea, and push into the peninsula once Russian supplies start running low: the Institute for the Study of War assesses that Russian troops in the region are the least well-prepared of any across the front. It appears that Russia’s war of attrition against Ukraine in Bakhmut and Vulhedar has mostly been a war of attrition against itself, diverting resources from preparing defensive positions.
Of all Ukrainian regions, Crimea had the lowest pro-independence vote in 1991, with 54 per cent in favour. It long had autonomy and hosted a major Russian military base. These factors were no doubt behind Vladimir Putin’s decision to seize the peninsula to punish Ukraine for throwing out Viktor Yanukovich and siding with Western democracy, but Russian rule was still established by force of arms, and maintained by the instruments of its police state. In another free vote, it would still choose Ukraine.
We all hope that Russia losing Crimea would deal a fatal blow to Putin’s prestige, and sap his regime’s credibility, as being evicted from the Falklands destabilised Argentina’s Junta. But despite the similarities – militaristic regimes with economies supported by natural resources undone by foreign military adventures – Russia’s regime is far stronger than Argentina’s was in 1982.
The Junta had at this point in its existence spent several years fighting a “dirty war” against guerrillas so serious that the regime “disappeared” 30,000 people and imprisoning countless. This would be like Russia disappearing 140,000 people, after years of terrorism and urban warfare in major Russian cities.
I have no doubt Putin would resort to measures at least this brutal if he really did face a serious violent rebellion against his rule, but no such rebellion has taken place. There are but hundreds or low thousands of political prisoners in Russian jails. Extra-judicial killings, however alarming to businessmen who find themselves on the wrong side of apartment building windows, are nowhere near the Argentine scale.
Though Crimea can be cut off relatively easily, the Donbas, which Russia also occupied in 2014 in the guise of the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” since 2014, cannot. Railway lines from which the front can be reinforced link these industrial areas Russia. Attacking these logistics is considerably more challenging, particularly without the Western-supplied air power that would allow Russian supply lines into the Donbas to be hit. Doing so while still being vulnerable to attack from the rear through Crimea would be considerably more difficult.
These military facts pull the rug out of the split-the-difference diplomacy that would reward Russian aggression with the conquest of Crimea, so long as it went no further. Russian possession of Crimea makes it a dagger pointed at the middle of Ukraine. Kyiv has every reason to take it out of commission.