Russia took Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Now Kyiv is fighting back

Ukrainian soldiers on August 10, 2022.

Bulent Kilic | AFP | fake images

When Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014 little was done to stop it or actively help Ukraine regain its territory, a highlight given Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbor that began earlier this year.

But now, Ukraine seems finally in a position to strike back on the peninsula with a series of recent incidents in which Russian military positions and infrastructure in Crimea have been damaged.

It is believed that these are likely to be part of Ukraine’s attempted counter-offensive in the south as it seeks to dislodge the occupying forces and eventually retake its territory, once and for all.

The latest incidents in Crimea took place on Tuesday when a fire caused multiple explosions at a Russian ammunition depot near Dzhankoi in the north of the peninsula. A nearby railway and power substation was also damaged, as well as residential buildings, the Russian Defense Ministry said.

The incident prompted the evacuation of several thousand civilians in the surrounding area. although there were no serious casualties.

Separately, Russian media also reported that smoke was rising near the Gvardeyskoye airbase in central Crimea.causing huge queues to form at the nearby Simferopol train station as residents tried to flee the region.

Russia’s Defense Ministry later said the incidents were “the result of sabotage” but gave few details about the cause. Ukraine, meanwhile, has not openly admitted responsibility for the blasts, but several officials have hinted that Kyiv might have had something to do with the incidents.

Andriy Yermak, a senior official in Ukraine and an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wryly said on Twitter on Tuesday that the latest incident was part of the “demilitarization” of Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory and that “Crimea is Ukraine.” Another Ukrainian official and adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, echoed the sentiment, calling the incidents “demilitarization in action.”

Moscow has repeatedly said that the goal of its “special military operation,” as it calls the invasion, is the “demilitarization” of Ukraine.

The Russian Defense Ministry’s press office did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment on the latest incidents in Crimea, but a Russian analyst said the incidents show Crimea is becoming a tinderbox.

“It’s pretty obvious that Crimea is going from being a safe region to being a dangerous one, and this is a direct consequence of the fact that the war is dragging on,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow and president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. , he told CNBC on Wednesday, adding that this was “another one of Putin’s strategic miscalculations.”

This week’s incidents are not the first of their kind. Last week, a series of explosions were reported at the Russian Saky military base on the Crimean coast, destroying several Russian warplanes in the process.

Again, Ukraine has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for that attack and several others that have taken place in recent weeks, but analysts say they are part of a counteroffensive launched in southern Ukraine over the summer, with the help of weapons donated by the West. , to recapture lost territory like Crimea and Kherson just north of the mainland.

Kherson was the first city to fall to Russian hands after the unprovoked invasion began on February 24. But Ukraine has begun a counteroffensive to retake the city, attacking bridges in and around the area in recent weeks in a bid to cut off Russian supply routes to its troops.

“The attacks on Russian positions in and around Crimea are likely part of a coherent Ukrainian counteroffensive to regain control of the western bank of the Dnipro River,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, he said in his latest update on Tuesday.

Russian supply lines from Crimea directly support Russian forces in mainland Ukraine, including those in western Kherson Oblast. [province]. Ukraine’s targeting of Russian land lines of communication and logistics and support assets in Crimea is consistent with the Ukrainian counteroffensive effort that has also targeted bridges over the Dnipro River and Russian logistics support elements in the Oblast. of occupied Kherson,” they said.

The net effects of this campaign will likely disrupt Russia’s ability to sustain mechanized forces on the western bank of the Dnipro River, the ISW analysts added.

Incidents that baffle Russia

A woman walks past huge banners bearing images of Russian President Vladimir Putin reading “Russia does not start wars, it ends them” and “We will aim for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine” in the city center of Simferopol, Crimea, On March 1. 4, 2022.

stringer | AFP | fake images

Russia has occupied Crimea since 2014, annexing the territory from Ukraine shortly after a popular uprising in Kyiv toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Russia initially denied any involvement in the March 2014 invasion of Crimea with what locals called “little green men,” essentially Russian soldiers in unmarked green uniforms but carrying Russian weapons and speaking with a Russian accent. President Vladimir Putin insisted they were local “self-defense groups,” though a month later he confirmed that the Russian army had been deployed to Crimea to, as he put it, support the “Crimean defense forces.”

As Russian forces annexed Crimea, a referendum was carried out by asking residents if they wanted to join Russia with the support of 97%. Although the result was widely discussed and seen as rigged, it meant Russia could use the vote as an excuse, saying it was “defending” the rights of Crimean civilians to self-determination.

The United States, Europe and their allies imposed sanctions on Russia for its invasion and the country was expelled from the then Group of Eight (now the G-7). But the international community arguably did little more to reclaim Crimea for Ukraine, a country in political flux at the time, and Russia accommodated to the sanctions.

For its part, Russia has insisted that its annexation of Crimea was an act of “reunification” and that it is protecting ethnic Russians there. However, in Crimea, as well as in the pro-Russian breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine, Russia has also pursued an aggressive “Russification” policy, issuing Russian passports to locals, suppressing the Ukrainian language and culture, and introducing the ruble, mention some steps.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert to mark the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea to Ukraine at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on March 18, 2022.

Mikhail Klimentiev | Afp | fake images

In retrospect, the lack of a strong and unified response against Russia, and its subsequent support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, allowed it to position itself for the recent full-scale invasion.

Meanwhile in Crimea, eight years after annexation, Russia has settled on the peninsula, which is a popular holiday destination for Russians.

Moscow has also built up its military grip on the region with sea and air bases there, and has spent billions of rubles cementing ties with mainland Russia with infrastructure projects like the 12-mile Crimean Bridge (also known as the ” Kerch Bridge” as it crosses the Kerch Strait) which cost $3.7 billion to build and opened in 2018.

A general view shows a road and railway bridge, which is being built to connect the Russian mainland with the Crimean peninsula, at sunrise in the Kerch Strait, Crimea, on November 26, 2018.

REUTERS | pavel rebrov

Against this background, the increasing frequency of incidents like Tuesday’s is likely to unnerve Russia, according to the UK Ministry of Defence.

“Dzhankoi and Gvardeyskoye [where the incidents took place Tuesday] they host two of the most important Russian military airfields in Crimea. Dzhankoi is also a key road and rail junction that plays an important role in supplying Russia’s operations in southern Ukraine,” the ministry noted.

“The cause of these incidents and the extent of the damage are still unclear, but it is very likely that Russian commanders are increasingly concerned about the apparent deterioration in security in Crimea, which functions as a rear base for the occupation.” .

The ‘fog of war’

However, Ukraine is unlikely to openly take responsibility, or rather credit, for such incidents in Crimea.

“Ukraine’s reason for avoiding direct discussions of responsibility and opacity is that it has more to gain from the fog of war and uncertainty, in this case, than from bringing the debate to how exactly it has carried out these attacks and its aims to do so,” Max Hess, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC on Wednesday.

“It has become quite clear in Ukraine that we have seen attempts to try to destabilize support for the Russian occupation in Crimea by carrying out these attacks and making Crimea seen as an unsafe holiday destination for Russians. And we’ve seen Ukrainian officials, a number of military officials, indicate that they consider the Kherch bridge that connects Russia and Crimea… as a potential target, but they don’t want to focus on how they would do it, what weapons they’re using to do it. ,” he said.

Hess said that while Kyiv’s recent declared counteroffensive in and around Kherson was designed to weaken Russia’s ability to hold territory north of the Dnipro River, we still haven’t seen much territorial progress for Ukraine.

Ukrainian infantrymen train May 9 in an area north of Kherson Oblast, most of which is controlled by Russia.

John Moore | Getty Images News | fake images

“Despite having been talking about this possible counter-offensive for a month, we have not seen any major Ukrainian advances on any of the Kherson-Mykolaiv-Dnipropetrovsk fronts,” he said.

“The extent to which they can still do it remains somewhat skeptical,” he said. “It seems that their strategy is to make it impossible for Russia to hold, and then have a siege instead of a counteroffensive, to try to convince them to relinquish control of the territory of Kherson and Mykolaiv, north of the Dnipro river.”

As for Crimea, Hess believed that while liberating Crimea was a long-term goal, it was premature to see it as a short-term possibility.

“It’s too much, too soon to talk about it. But of course, that is a long-term Ukrainian goal and a sovereign Ukrainian territory that they are right to ultimately try to liberate.”

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