As the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues to unfold in the southern part of the country and the Donbas, the Ukrainian military has been steadily ramping up its operations against the Russian force in occupied Crimea.
In the last couple of months, Ukrainian special operations forces and military intelligence have destroyed a highly advanced air defense system and clocked in an important psychological victory.
Raiding Crimea and destroying S-400s
While the Ukrainian infantry and combat engineers have been trying to breach the extensive Russian defensive lines in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, in southern Ukraine, and around Bakhmut in the Donbas, Ukrainian commandos have been taking the fight to the Russian forces a few dozen miles to the south in Crimea, in two difficult operations.
On August 24, during a night raid, Ukrainian commandos used small boats to insert close to their target near the towns of Olenivka and Mayak. Surprising the Russian forces, the Ukrainian special operators hanged a Ukrainian flag in a building before exfiltrating under heavy fire.
Throughout the operation, the Ukrainian commandos used small boats to provide cover – much like U.S. Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) operators support Navy SEALs with their small but extremely deadly boats.
A day earlier, the Ukrainian military delivered another blow on the Russian forces in Crimea, when it managed to destroy an S-400 Triumf air-defense system.
With a range of up to 250 miles, the S-400 is the most advanced air-defense system in the Russian arsenal. The one destroyed in Crimea is only the second complete system to have been destroyed in combat. It is not yet clear if this system was destroyed by a missile or special operations raid, but Kyiv didn’t choose the location and weapon system randomly. Located near Olenivka, in the western part of Crimea, the S-400 commanded the direct path from mainland Ukraine to Sevastopol, Crimea’s capital. Now, Ukrainian missiles and suicide drones can travel more easily toward targets in Crimea.
The Ukrainian Military Intelligence (GUR) released videos from both operations, thus maximizing the psychological and propaganda effects.
Then on October 4, the Ukrainian commandos struck once more. Using jet skis and combat divers, the Ukrainian military conducted another special operation in Crimea.
According to GUR, two special operations elements “landed on the territory of the Crimean Peninsula and inflicted fire damage on the Moscow occupiers.”
Although the Ukrainian special operators didn’t inflict any considerable physical damage, their landing has had an indirect effect: the Russian military is now forced to commit more forces than it would otherwise have to defend Crimea from Ukrainian special operations. With serious and persistent force generation issues, the Russian military can’t really spare the forces, and thus frontline units suffer more.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government have been clear that their goal is to liberate Crimea. For Kyiv, this makes complete sense: The full-scale Russian invasion might have brought death and disaster in Ukraine, but it has also created opportunities. Kyiv would never liberate Crimea during peacetime. But through Putin’s huge strategic miscalculation, Ukrainian forces are now only a few dozen miles from the key peninsula.
Often called the unsinkable aircraft carrier, the Crimean Peninsula is a strategic territory as it commands access to Russia from the Black Sea and is the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Since invading and illegally annexing Crimean in 2014, the Russian military has placed Anti-Access/Aerial Denial (A2/AD) systems, including S-400 air defense batteries and anti-ship systems to deter access to Russia from the southwest. As such, the Kremlin will likely defend Crimea to the last man.
The special operations and long-range drone and missile strikes against Russian forces in Crimea reaffirm Kyiv’s commitment to liberate the peninsula. But it won’t be easy.
The ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive offers brutal evidence that the Russian military can defend itself. It might not be very capable on the offensive – as is evident by the repeated failed counterattacks in the direction of Avdiivka recently – but it can defend skillfully. Thus, to liberate Crimea, the Ukrainian forces will need to be both persistent but also clever in how they attack when the time comes.
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