Will an Attack on Crimea Change the Course of the Ukraine War?
Kyiv has shown that it can hit far behind enemy lines, but putting Crimea in play may deal a psychological blow without altering the territorial endgame.
Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt! Are you enjoying the dog days of summer?
Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt! Are you enjoying the dog days of summer?
Matthew Kroenig: Like many Washingtonians, I am doing my best to avoid the swamp this month. I am currently in La Jolla, California—technically for work, but I hope to make it to the beach at some point.
Although you and I generally take a different approach to foreign policy, I suspect you were also savvy enough to escape the city this month?
EA: I tried, but it’s heating up everywhere: including in Crimea, once a favorite summer vacation spot for Soviet elites and now a conquered territory and a springboard that helps Russia sustain its intervention in Ukraine.
In fact, it is so hot that things are going boom. Reports are saying that Ukrainian special forces are responsible for the massive explosion in Crimea that took out a Russian airfield. It marks a significant escalation in the war: Thus far, the Ukrainians haven’t really been able to stage attacks that far behind Russian lines.
MK: It is a notable development indeed. And I think a positive one for the Western war effort. The Russians reportedly lost at least eight aircraft. It won’t be easy for Russia to replace that much military hardware anytime soon.
I think it is also good for the Ukrainians to strike into territory that Moscow considers to be part of Russia. It never made sense for the Ukrainians to refrain from striking Russian military power in Russia while Russia was actively attacking Ukraine. It was like fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. It’s partly America’s fault of course; the Biden administration was reluctant to provide the Ukrainians with longer-range weapons from the start of the war.
I also hope this attack brings the war home in the minds of the Russian people. They may pay more attention to foreign policy with billowing clouds of smoke getting in the way of their sunbathing. Don’t underestimate the psychological impact of this attack, with wealthy Russian vacationers fleeing clogged roads in a panic with explosions in the background. Maybe the Russian people can finally put pressure on the Kremlin to end his invasion.
EA: In all fairness, despite some folks talking about the escalation risk of hitting Russian territory, until this point, it has largely been a question of capability: For the most part, the Ukrainians haven’t been capable of striking back into Russian territory proper. Certainly, there have been some fires at Russian ammunition dumps and fuel depots in recent months, perhaps as a result of sabotage, but this incident is the first the Ukrainians have claimed openly, marking what I suspect will now be a trend.
I’m less sure that this strike will have a significant military impact. You are probably right about the psychological impact—disturbing Russians’ vacations in Crimea and making them feel unsafe—but in military terms, it’s not as important. Air assets have been relatively less useful in this war, and the Russians have massive stockpiles of old Soviet equipment and ammunition to draw from. Some of the other strikes that have taken place, like using the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System to attack Russian supply lines, are probably more militarily significant.
That said, it does all raise the question of where the war in Ukraine goes from here. We are now six months in, and an endpoint looks further away than ever.
MK: Well, speaking of endpoints, this week’s attacks provide more evidence of what the combatants might want. In debates over a final political settlement, some argue that Kyiv should trade land for peace. They say the pre-Feb. 24 borders would be an acceptable outcome—with Russia essentially keeping the territory it took since 2014 in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Maximalists like me think the goal should be to push Russia out of all the territory it took by force since 2014, including Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea.
Of course, it will be up to the Ukrainians to decide how much they want to fight and for what objectives, but on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seemed to come down on the side of the maximalists, saying, “This Russian war … began with Crimea and must end with Crimea—with its liberation.
I think this is the right goal, but I suspect you see it differently.
EA: My concern is practicality. Sure, it would be great if the Ukrainians could push the Russians back to the Feb. 24 lines—or even all the way back to pre-2014 lines. But I have serious doubts that it is possible.
In just the last few weeks, we’ve learned that the death toll in this war is already extremely high, perhaps as many as 15,000 Russians and a roughly similar number of Ukrainians. Both sides are now operating with fresh recruits; Ukraine has likely lost many of its best troops. And while the Ukrainians seem to be making a little progress around the Ukrainian city of Kherson, it’s notable that that’s the only city on the western bank of the Dnipro River held by Russia. It’s uniquely vulnerable. For example, Ukraine took out all the bridges to the city, making it harder for Russia to resupply its forces there. Elsewhere, advances will be harder.
We will learn a lot over the next few months as the Ukrainians start to conduct the long-awaited offensive against Russian forces in the south. The destruction of the air base itself is likely to only have minimal military impact, but it signals that the Ukrainians can now attack supply lines and logistical targets in Crimea, which may have more of an impact on the Russian effort in the south. If Ukraine is able to make significant progress there, then it may be more feasible to talk about rolling back at least some Russian gains since February. But if they cannot make progress, it suggests that a stalemate is probably the best that can be hoped for in the conflict, and some kind of settlement is necessary.
Regardless, I think it’s pure fantasy to suggest that the Russians can be pushed out of Crimea.
MK: You are right that the battle lines have barely moved in recent weeks. Both sides are exhausted, and a continued stalemate is possible—if not likely.
But it is August, and everyone is looking for some good beach reading, so let me indulge in a little fantasy.
I think there is a case for cautious optimism. Ukraine has just recently received more advanced Western weapons, such as the U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). With the free world behind it, I think Kyiv also has the advantage in terms of the resupply of material. The Ukrainians have a morale edge. They are fighting for their very existence while Russians are fighting a made-up “special military operation.” While Russia has a theoretical manpower advantage, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been reluctant to fully mobilize the Russian military because he doesn’t want to provoke a backlash when large numbers of grieving Russian mothers see their sons coming back in body bags. And, as you point out, Ukraine is just now launching this new offensive in the south, so we have yet to see what might be possible there.
I think it is too early to declare victory, defeat, or stalemate.
EA: The next few months are likely to be decisive—not in battlefield terms, necessarily, but in telling us whether anything other than a stalemate is possible.
And that’s where it gets trickier because there are costs to continuing the war and the risks of escalation to a broader conflict remain so long as the war continues. The winter in Europe will be tough given Russia’s decreases in gas shipments to European states, and public support for Ukraine is waning in the United States. American taxpayers are likely to start to wonder what they’re getting for that funding. After all, Washington has already spent $54 billion on Ukraine. It’s a lot of money. I seriously doubt that Congress will approve another large funding bill for Ukraine—at least this year—while the domestic economy is in such turmoil.
If the Ukrainians cannot make advances in the coming months, Western leaders should be seriously looking at ways to wind this conflict down rather than prolong a stalemate at such enormous costs.
MK: Funding for Ukraine has become controversial in the United States, with people asking: Why are we defending Ukraine’s borders if we can’t even protect America’s own southern border? But I think helping Ukraine defeat Russia does make the American people safer, richer, and freer. In fact, while people think of the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party as increasingly isolationist, the best case I have seen for why average Americans should support Ukraine was made by former U.S. President Donald Trump’s own secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
EA: That’s going to be a tough sell among voters, and I’m not sure Pompeo is going to be the one to persuade them!
Look, here’s another long-term cost to the war. The Russians have announced that they are suspending U.S. access for inspections under the New Strategic Arms Reduction (START) Treaty, which governs both sides’ stockpiles of intercontinental ballistic missiles. It’s not really in anyone’s interest to lose that last vestige of arms control between the two sides.
MK: Putin can be clever, and I think he is trying to hit the Biden administration where it hurts. The Democrats have always prized arms control—almost as an end in itself. By suggesting that New START—the last remaining arms control agreement between Washington and Moscow—may be at risk, he is trying to find other ways to increase pressure on the White House for its support of Ukraine.
I do suspect, however, that this is mostly a bluff. Putin also values arms control because it is the last remaining issue for which Russia still gets a seat as a real great power. Also, the terms of the treaty are one sided in Russia’s favor at this point because Russia is building all kinds of exotic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons not limited by the treaty.
EA: You’ve never found an arms control treaty you wouldn’t like to kill, have you?
It’s probably a bluff from the Russians, particularly following the White House’s recent statement that they were open to talking with Russia about strategic arms control even during the war in Ukraine. But losing the inspections does reduce confidence and makes the treaty shakier. As you, yourself, pointed out, the Russians like to cheat on arms control; we can’t spot that easily without the inspections. It’s not a reason to dial down on America’s commitment to Ukraine. But it’s a reminder that it carries concrete costs that could actually impact the security of those here in the United States.
Add that to the other costs we’re starting to see: inflation, food shortages, and a looming energy crisis in Europe that could be catastrophic when winter arrives. Policymakers should be looking for ways to try and get out of this situation before it becomes a multiyear war. The recent deal to extract some grain shipments from Ukrainian ports suggests there are openings for diplomacy that benefit all sides; we should be thinking about how to exploit that.
Before we wrap up though, how about some lighter summer fare? It’s the summer of post-COVID-19 “revenge travel” but also the summer of wild inflation. Where should folks head for their inflation vacation?
MK: Hmm. Where does our money go furthest? I know it is not my current location of La Jolla—where U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney famously has a house with an elevator in the garage. In fact, San Diego is so expensive, American families are now crossing America’s southern border in search of a better life in Tijuana, Mexico. For one salient point of comparison, a plate of tacos in Tijuana costs about 20 pesos (or under $3) compared to up to $60 in San Diego.
I will have to come up with a more frugal option for next summer. Maybe there will be good deals on dachas in liberated Crimea next year after Ukraine pushes the Russians out!
EA: Well, if U.S. sanctions stay in place, your dollar should go pretty far. I was thinking about Latin America, but with inflation at 90 percent in Argentina, that doesn’t seem like the best idea. How about a trip to Europe? The dollar is at parity with the euro for the first time in 20 years. And everyone knows that Europeans love nothing more than American tourists in terrible Hawaiian shirts stomping around their historic cities en masse!
But equally important: What should folks read on vacation? Let’s throw out some great new books for our readers to enjoy at the beach. I’ll even refrain from plugging my own book. (Oil, the State, and War: The Foreign Policies of Petrostates, available now!)
MK: Well, it is too late since everybody who is anybody has obviously already memorized your book by heart.
I am hoping to get to the new Michael Beckley and Hal Brands book, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China. I know it is not exactly a light read, but this is how I like to spend my free time. What about you?
EA: I’m currently rereading Odd Arne Westad’s magisterial history of The Cold War: A World History. And I just finished Before and After the Fall, which is an edited volume on the end of the Cold War and its impacts. Both are hugely helpful for understanding how we got to where we are today. Next up is looking toward the future with Elizabeth Economy’s The World According to China.
But I should let you get back to your vacation, sorry, work in California. Will Romney be letting you borrow his car elevator?
MK: I don’t think I’ll need it. I am walking distance from the ocean. Now I just have a day of meetings and lectures to get through until I can enjoy it. Until next time?
EA: See you then.
Emma Ashford is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford
Matthew Kroenig is a columnist at Foreign Policy and vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig
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