Strikes Show Ukraine Can Hit Deeper Behind Russian Lines

From a Wall Street Journal story by James Marson and Michael R. Gordon headlined “Crimea Strikes Show Ukraine Can Hit Further Behind Russian Lines”:

Russian forces seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 with barely a fight, and Vladimir Putin said it would belong to Moscow forever.

Eight years later, blasts at a Russian air base and ammunition depot there—the result of Ukrainian attacks, according to senior officials in Kyiv —have exposed Moscow’s vulnerability and made the peninsula the latest battleground in the continuing war between the neighbors.

Ukraine’s immediate goal isn’t to retake Crimea, but degrade Russia’s ability to wage war in the south and east, where Kyiv is seeking to regain territory captured by Moscow’s armies. Crimea is home to large Russian bases and plays a critical role in supplying forces elsewhere.

For two months, Kyiv has used long-range rocket launchers furnished by the U.S. to hit targets in Russian-held territory on the Ukrainian mainland. The Crimea strikes demonstrate Ukraine’s ability to hit deep into Russian areas that are beyond the range of those U.S. weapons.

An attack at Saki air base last week destroyed at least eight Russian warplanes, according to satellite images and Ukrainian and Western officials. Russia said ammunition detonated and no planes were lost. Tuesday, a Russian ammunition depot in northern Crimea was rocked by explosions.

Ukrainian officials haven’t publicly taken credit for the strikes, but senior officials have said they are the work of Ukrainian forces. Tuesday’s attack was carried out by Ukrainian saboteurs, an official said.

In late July, a small explosive device delivered by a drone hit the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, prompting the Russians to cancel ceremonies honoring Russia’s navy, a Russian lawmaker and Sevastopol’s mayor said. Ukrainian officials didn’t confirm their forces were involved.

The U.S. has so far balked at Ukrainian requests to provide longer-range rockets that can travel more than 185 miles and, thus, could strike well into Russia. The multiple launch rocket systems, or HIMARS, and ammunition it has provided have a range of 48 miles, U.S. officials say.

The Biden administration supplied them after Ukraine promised not to use them to strike Russian territory. The U.S., like most countries, doesn’t recognize Crimea as part of Russia.

Russian officials have warned that assaults on Crimea could lead to a direct war between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But a U.S. official said that it doesn’t tell Ukraine how to fight and that “Crimea is Ukraine, and Ukraine has the right to defend itself.”

U.S. officials have previously said they are sharing intelligence with Ukraine on Russian forces in Russian-occupied Crimea and Donbas. They add, however, that the U.S. had no advance notice of the attack on the Saki air base.

The strikes in Crimea have provided a morale boost to Ukrainians battered by nearly six months of war. They also slice into Russian supply lines in the south.

Ukraine has used rockets provided by the U.S. to hit Russian ammunition depots, command posts and bridges there. The aim, Ukrainian officials say, is to avoid a head-on collision with Russian forces and instead squeeze them out of territories that they captured in the early days of the war. The main initial target is the regional capital of Kherson on the west bank of the Dnipro river.

“This strategy presents the Russians with a bunch of very bad choices, but leads the Russians to leaving the west bank of the Dnipro,” said Frederick Kagan, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington. “The only question is when and at what cost.”

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that the HIMARS had no impact on Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine and accused the West of waging war with Russia by proxy by providing weapons systems and targeting data.

The explosions in Crimea suggest that Ukraine has capabilities in addition to HIMARS, including sabotage groups that can strike well behind enemy lines.

“It’s not a fist against a fist,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in a recent interview. “It’s a mobile tactic.”

That strategy will take time, but officials and analysts say it is the best way to take on a powerful foe.

“We need to continue to be patient with a small country that can’t have one-on-one military parity with Russia,” said Mr. Kagan from the American Enterprise Institute. “Slow is good because the Ukrainians suffer fewer losses.”

Russian propagandists fumed that Ukraine had crossed red lines and should be punished.

Mr. Putin’s largely bloodless seizure of Crimea in 2014 cemented his image as a leader who had restored Russia’s power on the world stage.

The Russian president has described Crimea as Russia’s Temple Mount and invested heavily in the peninsula, including a road and railway bridge linking it with the Russian mainland.

Andrei Klishas, senior lawmaker in Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, called for harsh measures to prevent further sabotage.

“Russia’s strikes in response should be very convincing,” he wrote on social media. “It’s a matter of our sovereignty.”

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