How does Ukraine win from here?
For Ukraine, the road to victory runs through Crimea. It is the key. It is the decisive terrain. Liberating Crimea, this year, will change everything in this war.
Ukraine will win because it has the superior will (it’s defending its own homeland) and is supported by a coalition of 50 nations, while Russia has only Iran and North Korea. Russian soldiers don’t want to be there and the Russian people, happy enough to wave flags, are unwilling to join the military. Some 500,000 military-age males left the country in September to avoid the “partial mobilization.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s logistics are steadily improving thanks to support from the coalition, although ammunition stocks are low. Russia’s logistics are steadily worsening thanks to sanctions, poor/corrupt management, excessive consumption, and accurate targeting by Ukrainian precision weapons.
Russia currently has 97% of its army in Ukraine, according to British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, and yet it is still unable to capture even the small town on Bahkmut in the country’s east, which is defended predominantly by territorial defense forces and national guard troops. That tells me that Russian forces are likely to culminate before the end of May; they simply can’t sustain the losses and ammunition expenditures at the current rate for much longer and they remain unable to conduct joint, combined operations.
Russia has also failed to interdict the delivery of Western aid that travels from Poland to Ukraine by rail and by convoy. This is inexplicable given their much larger air force and their apparently endless supply of rockets, missiles, and drones, which Russia uses instead against apartment buildings and power stations.
Our focus should be on helping Ukraine liberate Crimea; it should be the main effort, while using “economy of force” in the east to slow/stop Russian ground attacks. Ukraine knows it will never be safe or secure so long as Russia occupies the peninsula. Any peace settlement which results in Russia holding onto this land would simply allow the Kremlin to wait two or three years until we, the West, lose interest, while in the meanwhile they rebuild the military, address their mistakes, and restart their war against Ukraine — that, after all, has been the pattern since 2008.
OK, so how can Ukraine go about this?
Liberating Crimea means first making it untenable for the Russian army, navy, and air forces on the peninsula and then occupying it.
Start with isolating it using long-range precision strikes against the only two land lines of communication that connect it to Russia; the Kerch Bridge, already severely damaged by Ukrainian forces, and the so-called “land bridge” which connects Crimea to Russia via Mariupol and Melitopol along the coastline of Azov Sea. Targeting that transportation infrastructure will begin the isolation of Crimea from resupply or movement.
A large Ukrainian armored force attacking southeastwards in the direction of the Azov Sea and penetrating Russian linear defenses would complete the isolation of Crimea and enable the closer deployment of HIMARS rocket launchers which would then be in range of key Russian facilities in Crimea. Crimea is about the size of Massachusetts. There’s no place to hide. The locations of all Russian facilities are well known and obvious — and vulnerable.
Precision strikes on Sevastopol will force the Black Sea fleet to reposition to Novorossiysk which is far less capable as a base, and further away from Ukrainian cities. The airbase at Saky, on the west coast of Crimea, should be made completely unusable. And the logistics hub at Dzhankoy in the north of Crimea should become a huge bonfire. Once Crimea is untenable, then Ukrainian ground forces can begin to attack south, towards the Perekop Isthmus, and then into broader Crimea. Other Ukrainian assets (special forces, marines, unmanned systems, etc) will also play a role.
Is there any better military objective? Why not the Donbas?
It’s important but not decisive. The liberation of Donbas won’t significantly change the strategic situation. The liberation of Crimea would be such a monumental defeat for Russia that I think the will to fight among Russian troops and “separatists” in the region would likely evaporate.
What kit does Ukraine need to make this happen?
NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) says that precision can defeat mass if you have enough time. Russian massed infantry depends on Russian massed artillery. Russian massed artillery depends on headquarters, ammunitions stockpiles, and transportation. All three of these can and should be targeted by long-range precision weapons with a range greater than the GMLRS they now have (90km.) Specific systems including ATACMS (300km), ground-launched small diameter bombs (150km), and Gray Eagle drones (25 hours loiter time) would all be useful.
What does victory look like?
- All Ukrainian sovereign territory restored to Ukraine, including Crimea and Donbas;
- All deported Ukrainians (including tens of thousands of children) returned home to Ukraine;
- Accountability for Russian war crimes (delivered through an international tribunal for charges of aggression by Russia.)
Ben Hodges is Senior Advisor to Human Rights First, a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization based in New York, Washington DC, and Los Angeles. Prior to joining Human Rights First, he held the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.