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Ukraine war: Why controlling Crimea could be key to victory

Roman Goncharenko
September 15, 2023

Ukraine has intensified attacks on Russian-annexed Crimea using drones and cruise missiles. Why are Ukraine and Russia so eager to control the peninsula?

Smoke rises over the port of Sevastopol port after Ukrainian missile strikes on Wednesday
Ukrainian missiles struck at the heart of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol on WednesdayImage: IMAGO/ITAR-TASS

This week, Ukrainian forces struck targets in Russian-annexed Crimea on two consecutive nights. Kyiv said it conducted a major airstrike on Russia's Black Sea Fleet Wednesday night, reporting that several cruise missiles struck a landing ship and submarine at its main base at Sevastopol. Both are said to have sustained heavy damage, with Russia's Defense Ministry saying the vessels will be repaired.

Another attack followed early on Thursday morning. Ukrainian media outlets reported that an S-300, or even more modern S-400 air-defense system, was hit in the city of Yevpatoria.

This would make it the second such attack on Russian air-defense systems in occupied Crimea in recent weeks. The Russian military, however, did not comment on the strike in detail, merely saying a drone strike had been thwarted.

Ukraine targets Crimea bridge

Ukraine has been increasing its attacks against Russian-annexed Crimea in recent weeks. And the strikes, which are also reaching a new level of intensity, are inflicting massive damage on Moscow's war effort.

Russia, which annexed Crimea in 2014, fortified the peninsula in the years that followed, setting up several naval and air bases.

Fires rage on Kerch bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia after a Ukrainian attack in October 2022
Kyiv's forces have repeatedly attacked the Kerch Bridge linking Crimea to mainland Russia in an effort to disrupt access to the peninsulaImage: AFP/Getty Images

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry estimates that some 32,000 Russian troops were stationed in Crimea just ahead of Russia's February 2022 invasion. Russian nuclear weapons are reportedly deployed there as well.

Ukraine began launching attacks on the peninsula in August 2022, striking an air base near Saky and destroying several military aircraft.

Then, in October 2022, Ukraine struck the Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland, severely damaging the structure. Since then, Ukraine has repeatedly targeted the bridge, which Russia uses to supply its troops, making deliberate use of sea drones in its attacks.

Why are Ukraine and Russia so keen to control Crimea?

Beyond the symbolism Russian President Vladimir Putin attaches to the Crimean Peninsula, it is also of vital importance to his military strategy. Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based there, for instance, regularly launching waves of Kalibr cruise missiles toward cities across Ukraine — some deep inside Ukraine, others at the EU border.

Russia is similarly using Crimea as an air base for missile-laden aircraft carrying out sorties against Ukraine.

Crimea also plays a central role in supplying Russian troops based in southern Ukraine. And, lastly, the blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports would be much harder for Russia to enforce without control over Crimea.

A map of Ukraine

Soon after launching its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian forces swarmed out from Crimea to seize large swaths of Ukrainian territory and establish a land corridor between Russia and the peninsula. The Ukrainian army has been trying to cut this link since launching its counteroffensive this summer.

To this end, Ukraine has been attacking bridges connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland, mainly deploying Western-supplied precision munitions, such as British and French cruise missiles.

Retake Crimea to end the war?

In an article written in 2022, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine's armed forces, described Crimea as a "key factor" in Russia's war on Ukraine. But, he said, while recapturing the peninsula would decisively weaken Russia, it would not necessarily end the war. Russia, Zaluzhnyi added, could continue fighting from the mainland.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wants to retake the peninsula nevertheless, saying the war started in Crimea and will end in Crimea.

This article was originally written in German.