New Year’s 2024 saw Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky announce a new strategy toward winning its war with Russia.
The Economist, which published its interview with President Zelensky on January 1, 2024 would report:
Mr Zelensky gives little away about what Ukraine can achieve in 2024, saying that leaks before last summer’s counter-offensive helped Russia prepare its defences. But if he has a message, it is that Crimea and the connected battle in the Black Sea will become the war’s centre of gravity. Isolating Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, and degrading Russia’s military capabilities there, “is extremely important for us, because it is the way for us to reduce the number of attacks from that region,” he says.
The Economist would elaborate, claiming that by destroying ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and evicting Russia from a “naval base that Russia has held for the past 240 years,” referring to Sevastopol Naval Base, would be a “huge embarrassment for Mr. Putin.”
The article also explains that President Zelensky requires additional weapons and assistance from Ukraine’s Western sponsors, including long-range stealth cruise missiles (specifically the German-made air-launched Taurus) to destroy the Crimean Bridge (also referred to as the Kerch Bridge).
However, the article never explains how a “huge embarrassment for Mr. Putin” would in any way shift the conflict strategically in Ukraine’s favor. The article does mention that the large-scale mobilization of both Ukrainian society and the Western World in February 2022 “is not present today” and “that needs to change,” hinting toward waning Western and Ukrainian resolve.
The article concludes by noting President Zelensky remains convinced “Ukraine cannot turn back from its plan to defeat Russia,” despite never actually articulating a sound plan that could actually defeat Russia, before inferring that Ukraine’s Western sponsors no longer share President Zelensky’s confidence.
Ukraine Cannot “Isolate” Crimea
President Zelensky’s strategy of “isolating” Crimea and degrading Russian military capabilities based there is irrational and unrealistic, especially considering the stated means by which Ukraine would supposedly achieve this strategic objective.
The Ukrainian government, military, and their Western supporters have consistently stated that Crimea could be isolated and even captured if Ukraine could succeed in both destroying the Crimean Bridge and cutting the landbridge connecting Crimea to the rest of Russia via Kherson, Zaporozhiya, and the Donbass.
However, this ignores the reality that Crimea joined the Russian Federation following a referendum in 2014, while the Crimean Bridge was completed in 2018, the rail bridge in 2019, and the landbridge established only in 2022. This means that Russia was able to supply both the civilian population and its military bases on the peninsula for several years without either.
Should Ukraine succeed in destroying the Crimean Bridge and in cutting the landbridge, Crimea itself would still be able to move people, goods, weapons, and ammunition back and forth to the rest of Russia via a number of seaports and airports which are capable of moving millions of tons of cargo and millions of people each year.
The Kerch Port alone on its official website claims up to 3 million tons of cargo can be processed at its facilities. The port is also capable of receiving ferries carrying both passengers and vehicles. Crimea’s Simferopol International Airport, according to its official website, is capable of moving 6.5 million people a year. Additionally, there are numerous other airports and seaports across Crimea capable of handling large amounts of cargo and people.
To put these numbers into a military perspective, it should be noted that Russia’s other success story of using solely sea and air to supply a major military operation, its intervention in Syria at the request of Damascus, according to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, involved approximately 200,000 tons of cargo moved in the first 5 months (or extrapolated over 1 year, just short of half a million tons).
Russia possesses an overabundance of logistical capability to sustain an equal or greater military operation on the Crimean Peninsula. Even if several ports and airports were temporarily disrupted by Ukrainian strikes, Russia would possess more than enough facilities and capacity to move all the equipment, manpower, and ammunition necessary to successfully defend Crimea from Ukrainian offensive operations.
The summer-fall 2023 Ukrainian offensive, carried out on a scale Ukraine and its NATO sponsors are incapable of replicating, demonstrated just how effective Russian defenses are even at the end of much longer logistics chains.
Ukraine Doesn’t Have the Weapons Needed and Never Will
Current Ukrainian attempts to strike at Crimea itself depend heavily on air-launched cruise missiles like the UK-made Storm Shadow, the French SCALP, and what are claimed to be Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles used in the land attack role. Large numbers of drones are also employed.
A recent attack targeting the port facilities at Feodosia, as reported on by US government-funded media platform Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in its article, “Ukrainian Air Force Claims Destruction Of Russian Ship In Crimea; Moscow Confirms Missile Strike,” involved Ukrainian military aviation firing multiple air-launched cruise missiles resulting in the sinking of a sole Russian naval landing ship. The port itself, which hosts a large number of military and commercial vessels, remained unscathed.
According to the official website of Feodosia Port, it is capable of processing up to 2 million tons of cargo a year.
In order to strike that single ship, Ukraine was required to launch multiple aircraft which in turn fired multiple air-launched cruise missiles because of the certainty that at least some of them would be intercepted by Russian air and missile defense systems.
In order to disrupt Crimea logistically, Ukraine would be required to carry out massive missile and drone strikes on all sea and airports across the peninsula, and do so regularly. Because Ukraine’s Western sponsors lack the military industrial capacity to produce larger numbers of cruise missiles, and because Ukraine is incapable of launching larger volleys per attack because of limitations of its air and ground launch capabilities, Ukraine will never have the ability to carry out attacks on a scale large enough to significantly disrupt operations at even a single port in Crimea, let alone disrupt logistics across the entire peninsula.
Thus, “isolating” Crimea is militarily impossible for Ukraine into the foreseeable future.
A Strategy to Convince the Western World to Keep Fighting (and Paying)
President Zelensky’s strategy is therefore clearly not to isolate Crimea, but to convince the Ukrainian population and the global public that it is possible anyway. This is done in order for Kiev to justify the continued mobilization and loss of large numbers of Ukrainian men along the front, while it allows Ukraine’s Western sponsors to continue justifying the immense and growing cost in money and material spent on the proxy war.
While defeating Russia clearly isn’t possible, the continuation of the conflict does still fulfill one of the objectives laid out by the US government and corporate-funded RAND Corporation in its 2019 paper, “Extending Russia.”
In the paper under a chapter titled, “Provide Lethal Aid to Ukraine,” it explains:
Expanding U.S. assistance to Ukraine, including lethal military assistance, would likely increase the costs to Russia, in both blood and treasure, of holding the Donbass region. More Russian aid to the separatists and an additional Russian troop presence would likely be required, leading to larger expenditures, equipment losses, and Russian casualties. The latter could become quite controversial at home, as it did when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
President Zelensky and his Western backers’ 2024 strategy is then clearly to continue carrying out high-profile public relations “victories” in the hopes of justifying the costs of the conflict in blood and treasure for the West, but through propaganda and media spin, convince the Russian public and/or elements within the Russian government that the price of continuing to fight is too high and to begin opposing the ongoing conflict and even possibly attempt to remove the current government overseeing Russia’s military operations.
Whether this strategy will be successful or not remains to be seen. It seems much more likely that attacks on Crimea, Belgorod across the border from Ukraine, or even Ukrainian attacks deep within Russian territory (all of which have been ongoing) will do little more than further galvanize the Russian public behind Moscow and the Russian military, and strengthen the resolve of the Russian nation to see this conflict through to the end.
Similar “strategies” of increasing the cost of Russian military operations in the hopes of turning the public against the Russian government were employed during Russia’s military intervention in Syria from 2015 onward. Russia’s military operations were nonetheless exceedingly successful and Russia’s military remains in Syria to this day, having strengthened both Syria and Russia’s position in the region.
Rather than a matter of which narrative prevails, the logistical realities on the battlefield will eventually make it impossible for the US and its allies to sustain this proxy war, forcing them to either cut their losses over Ukraine, or risk dangerous escalation by intervening more directly. Which choice they choose, only time will tell. In the meantime, Washington and Kiev’s commitment to unachievable objectives in 2024 means that this year will be the most difficult for Ukraine yet.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.