Ukraine Tries to Blow Up Russia’s Grip on Crimea

Ukraine isn’t taking credit for the strikes, but officials see them as an effort to cut Russian supply lines.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A member of the Russian forces guards in front of surface-to-air S300 missiles in a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile unit on the Cape of Fiolent in Sevastopol on March 5, 2014.
A member of the Russian forces guards in front of surface-to-air S300 missiles in a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile unit on the Cape of Fiolent in Sevastopol on March 5, 2014.
A member of the Russian forces guards in front of surface-to-air S300 missiles in a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile unit on the Cape of Fiolent in Sevastopol on March 5, 2014. VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian officials described punishing strikes into the heart of Russia’s military supply base in occupied Crimea on Tuesday that destroyed more than a half-dozen jets and utterly wrecked a Russian airfield as the first phase in the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive to retake the country’s southern region.

The Ukrainian counterattack included apparent strikes on bridges connecting Russian-occupied Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland, sparking a mass exodus of Russians who have squatted on the Ukrainian territory for the last eight years.

As the battle lines in the Donbas have settled, with the Zelensky administration ordering Ukrainian nationals to evacuate the war-torn area, Ukraine’s focus has turned to the southern region of Kherson, occupied by Russian troops just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion began in February.

Ukrainian officials described punishing strikes into the heart of Russia’s military supply base in occupied Crimea on Tuesday that destroyed more than a half-dozen jets and utterly wrecked a Russian airfield as the first phase in the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive to retake the country’s southern region.

The Ukrainian counterattack included apparent strikes on bridges connecting Russian-occupied Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland, sparking a mass exodus of Russians who have squatted on the Ukrainian territory for the last eight years.

As the battle lines in the Donbas have settled, with the Zelensky administration ordering Ukrainian nationals to evacuate the war-torn area, Ukraine’s focus has turned to the southern region of Kherson, occupied by Russian troops just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion began in February.

Over the summer, Ukrainian officials have pushed U.S. officials for more help in targeting Russian supply chains that are bolstering their occupation of Kherson. “All of the supply chains come from Crimea, and that’s where they’re shooting from,” said Sasha Ustinova, a Ukrainian member of parliament. “Our focus right now is a counterattack in the south to get Kherson back and to keep Mykolaiv.”

Ukrainian officials familiar with the plans said the strikes into Crimea, which the Washington Post reported were conducted by Ukrainian special forces, have two goals: to cut Russian supply lines reinforcing occupying troops in Kherson and to prevent long-range missile attacks from the peninsula fired deep into Ukraine. For instance, Ukrainian officials believe that Russian forces used cruise missiles fired from Crimea in the July strike against the Western city of Vinnytsia—home to one of Ukraine’s top air force commands—that killed 23 people, including three children.

Ukrainian officials said Saki air base, which was hit by three explosions that killed at least one person and wounded several others, had been used to launch attacks into Ukraine. The Ukrainian Air Force said nine Russian planes were destroyed, though the military has not officially claimed responsibility for the attack. Speaking to reporters today, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Russian troops at the air base violated the rule to “never smoke in dangerous places.” A Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia had staged MiG-35 multirole fighter jets and MiG-31 supersonic interceptors at Saki air base but indicated that Ukraine was still trying to assess the damage. Tuesday’s strikes on the air base were followed by reported attacks running between Crimea and the Ukrainian mainland.

Seeming to acknowledge the strikes without confirming Ukrainian involvement in a video message on Wednesday morning, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed that the Crimean Peninsula would be in Ukrainian hands at the end of the war.

“This Russian war against Ukraine and against the entire free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea—with its liberation,” Zelensky said. “Russia has turned our peninsula, which has always been and will be one of the best places in Europe, into one of the most dangerous places in Europe.” Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula after a lightning invasion in 2014.

But Ukrainian officials and lawmakers who spoke to Foreign Policy said Kyiv was not immediately focused on taking back the peninsula. For the past several weeks, Ukraine has made a concerted push to weaken Russia’s ability to resupply the southern city of Kherson, where plans to force a referendum to annex the surrounding territory have been upended by fierce partisan resistance that has even taken the lives of some of the top Russian officials trying to build a puppet regime there.

Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament from the Odesa region, said the Ukrainian military has tried to isolate Russian forces on the right bank of the Dnipro River, which forms the southern boundary of the city, forcing a retreat similar to the concession of Snake Island in the Black Sea last month. Ukraine’s military has already blown up several critical bridges near Kherson, shutting down the strategically vital Antonivskyi bridge into Kherson in a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System long-range strike last month.

“It’s more about decreasing the capability of the Russian and capacity to defend the southern part of Ukraine, for the moment,” Goncharenko said. “The main objective is to liberate Kherson.” Goncharenko said Russia’s supply lines are already feeling the weight of the campaign: There are only four bridges by which Russia can resupply its troops in Kherson, all of which have been struck by Ukraine’s military.

The strikes in Crimea mark a blow to the heart of Russia’s supply chain, which has been a major transshipment point for the Kremlin military effort since it was annexed in 2014. Ukrainian officials said all of Russia’s supplies to the front in Kherson are currently being delivered via the peninsula. And Ukraine is still focused on picking off as many supply points as possible.

“We destroyed their supply chains and warehouses near the combat lines,” the Ukrainian military official told Foreign Policy. “The next step is that we will try to destroy the other Russian facilities that are far from the combat lines to prevent a possible Russian offensive attack.” One European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ukrainian officials were now pondering how Russia would respond to the strikes. The diplomat said Zelensky has been pushing for European allies to get artillery ammunition as quickly as possible over the next two weeks, as more reinforcements arrive for the southern campaign.

Extending the battlefield beyond areas that Russia has occupied since the Feb. 24 invasion could revive debates between American and Ukrainian officials about targeting. To receive the U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System that can hit targets more than 40 miles away—and in an effort to obtain even longer-range rockets—Ukrainian officials assured the Biden administration at the highest levels that they would not strike targets on Russian soil despite frustrations that the Kremlin may be able to get a free pass to take potshots at their troops from across the border. Crimea, for centuries part of Ukraine, is still part of Ukraine, according to long-standing U.S. policy, which seems to make the peninsula fair game for Ukrainian strikes.

Following the explosions that struck near popular resorts and beaches, Russians were seen fleeing Crimea despite the Kremlin’s push to relocate more than a million people to the Crimean Peninsula after occupying it in 2014.

The expansion of the battlefield, which could amount to an escalation of the conflict, is a sign to Ukrainian officials that they could sap Russian public support for the war as the damage impacts citizens more directly.

“For Russia, this is shifting because before that, it was just shooting Ukrainians from the Black Sea that they hate on their own territories without fear,” said Ustinova, the Ukrainian lawmaker, who cautioned she did not know who was directly responsible for the strike. “Now they understand that this is part of their war and this can be dangerous for them.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.

Russia’s Defeat Would Be America’s Problem

Victory in Ukraine could easily mean hubris in Washington.

Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.
Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.

Russia’s Stripped Its Western Borders to Feed the Fight in Ukraine

But Finland and the Baltic states are still leery of Moscow’s long-term designs.

Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.
Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.

Europe’s Energy Crisis Is Destroying the Multipolar World

The EU and Russia are losing their competitive edge. That leaves the United States and China to duke it out.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.

With Winter Coming, Europe Is Walking Off a Cliff

Europeans won’t escape their energy crisis as long as ideology trumps basic math.