Twice last week, Crimea’s night skies lit up with the fiery destruction of valuable Russian military equipment.
In the early hours of Wednesday, cruise missiles struck the Sevmorzavod shipyard, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Clips of the aftermath showed the skies over Sevastopol illuminated by a burning landing ship and attack submarine.
The following morning at Yevpatoriya, in the west of the Russian-occupied peninsula, footage circulated on social media showed another fireball. This time the target was said to be one of Russia’s sophisticated S-400 Triumf air defence batteries.
The Ukrainian attacks 150 miles behind enemy lines were the latest in a string of strikes against the peninsula.
While international attention has been on the slow progress of Ukraine’s grinding counter-offensive through the trenches and minefields of Zaporizhzhia and Bakhmut, military analysts say another prong of Ukraine’s broad campaign is striking Crimea from afar.
Kyiv appears to be stepping up attacks on Russian naval targets, both in Crimea and the surrounding Black Sea.
The peninsula, which has been occupied since 2014, remains a key objective for Kyiv, not just for its symbolic significance, but also because of its practical importance in supporting and supplying Russia’s invasion force.
While Kyiv’s forces will need to break through heavily fortified Russian front lines to eventually liberate it, they are becoming increasingly successful at hitting targets on the peninsula.
The arrival of UK Storm Shadow and French Scalp cruise missiles in May gave the Ukrainians longer range to hit the peninsula than before. At the same time Ukraine is also using its own new fleet of attack drones and Neptune missiles.
To add to the blitz, Washington is reportedly considering Kyiv’s long-standing request for ground-launched Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), with a range of nearly 200 miles. Germany is also discussing sending its own Taurus missiles, with a range of 300 miles.
That arsenal could ultimately make Crimea “untenable” for Russia and its Black Sea fleet, said Ben Hodges, a former commander of the US army in Europe.
“Crimea is the decisive terrain of this war,” he said last week.
One aim is to weaken Russia’s grip and smash its supply lines on a peninsula that acts as an important logistics hub for forces trying to hold back the Ukrainian army’s thrust. As well as last week’s attacks, Ukraine has hit supply depots and Russia’s transport connections to Crimea.
“The way to victory on the battlefield is to defeat the logistics of the Russians,” Andriy Yermak, a senior adviser to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said after Wednesday’s Crimea strikes. Defeating Vladimir Putin’s forces depends on not giving Moscow “the opportunity to preserve the military potential for waging an aggressive war”, he said.
At the same time, ever since Russia pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal allowing the export of Ukraine’s produce, Kyiv has been keen to set up its own safe maritime corridor. Part of that plan is thought to involve weakening Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which has been enforcing a blockade from Crimea, or at least forcing it to keep its distance.
Damage from Ukraine's recent strike on Russian air defenses in Crimea is visible in new high resolution satellite imagery. pic.twitter.com/is2lF3TonU
— Brady Africk (@bradyafr) September 14, 2023
Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said Ukraine’s Crimea strikes were part of a “deep battle” hitting targets far behind enemy lines. This softening up of Russia’s logistics and command “may set Ukraine’s forces up for breakout success or at least to significantly diminish Russia’s combat power”.
He said: “By attacking the dockyards and air defence sites, Ukraine is seeking to shift the balance in air and at sea, which should enable it to better prosecute further attacks in both domains.”
Much of what is going on could be unseen, he said.
“It seems to me it is relatively easy for Western media to see Ukraine front line units, but the deep battle is much more hidden from view.
“I think it’s likely that we only see those attacks that are posted on Russian social media and those the Ukrainian forces tell us about. These may be the tip of the iceberg.”
The strike on Sevastopol’s military dockyard was the biggest yet to be conducted against the Russian navy by Ukraine.
Lt Gen Mykola Oleshchuk, commander of Ukraine’s air force, said Sukhoi Su-24 jets fired UK Storm Shadow and French Scalp missiles.
The barrage caused severe damage to two vessels in dry dock, according to the UK Ministry of Defence.
The landing ship Minsk “has almost certainly been functionally destroyed” while the Kilo Class submarine Rostov-on-Don “has likely suffered catastrophic damage”.
Moreover the docks are now full of debris which will take time to clear.
“There is a realistic possibility that the complex task of removing the wreckage from the dry docks will place them out of use for many months,” the MoD said.
“This would present the Black Sea fleet with a significant challenge in sustaining fleet maintenance.”
The loss of the Minsk deprives Russia of an important military transport ship, while the Rostov could carry cruise missiles which have repeatedly been fired at Ukrainian cities.
Hours after striking the shipyard, Kyiv claimed to have hit two Russian patrol vessels enforcing the Kremlin’s maritime blockade in the south-western Black Sea. A Ukrainian sea drone was also said to have damaged Russia’s Samum missile ship at the entrance to Crimea’s Sevastopol Bay.
Ukrainian forces also said they had retaken Russian-held oil rigs in waters off Crimea. Video showed them removing electronic devices thought to be part of the peninsula’s air defences.
“It certainly seems the situation in the Black Sea is really heating up at the moment,” one international diplomat told the Telegraph.
Damage from Ukraine’s strike on a drydock in Sevastopol used by the Russian Navy is visible in new high resolution imagery of Crimea. pic.twitter.com/qHUNCNtdXS
— Brady Africk (@bradyafr) September 14, 2023
If Ukraine’s attacks on the fleet are aimed at providing more space for its navy and merchant shipping, likewise the destruction of the air defence system could go some way towards opening up Crimea’s skies for further attacks.
The destruction of an S-400 system saw a wave of drones damage its radar and antennae while Neptune anti-ship missiles hit the launcher.
The strike followed the destruction of another S-400 on Aug 23 near Olenivka in Crimea.
“We need to open up the sky over the peninsula in order to be able to actively destroy Russian military and warehouse infrastructure,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, told The Wall Street Journal.
There were signs this week that Russian military commentators were increasingly worried about Ukraine’s success in striking Crimea.
One pro-Russian blogger, called Military Informant, suggested after the dockyard attack that Kyiv was laying the groundwork to strike targets, including warships, with impunity.
The blogger said: “Apparently, the Ukrainian armed forces are trying to purposefully thin out the air defence of Crimea for unhindered attacks on strategic targets... as well as ships of the Black Sea Fleet.
Without air defence cover, he warned the ships were “almost completely defenceless”.