There is much speculation from the usual suspects on what the next stage in the Russo-Ukraine war might be. With the Russians cleared out of the western bank of the Dnipro and Kherson, there has been a pause in proceedings there, whilst fierce fighting seems to be continuing in the Donbas around Bakhmut with little progress being made by either side.
We may have to wait until next year before we see any significant further activity as winter takes its toll on both men and machines. It doesn’t look like either side has the reserves, munitions, or energy to mount a major offensive before then. And if and when they do, who will be first out of the traps and where might the blow fall?
It looks like the Ukrainians are in better shape overall than their Russian foes at this point in time, although both sides have suffered grievous losses. So the initiative probably lies with them for the moment. However, much depends on the continuing supply of weapons and munitions from the west to Ukraine and on the Russians ability to replenish both men and equipment from their own resources.
If the Ukrainians make their move first, then it appears to me that the sensible option is to hold in the Donbas and strike south from Zaporizhzhia towards Melitopol, thereby interdicting the main Russian land supply line from Russia to Crimea along the shores of the Black Sea and splitting the territory they have occupied in two. Ukraine can then look to advance westwards and roll up the remaining enemy forces in the Kherson Oblast.
If successful they will then find themselves perfectly positioned to attempt to recapture Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Crimea is the main strategic prize in this war, for both sides, for who holds it controls the Black Sea and the entrance to the Sea of Azov. And the cherry on the icing that is Crimea is Sevastopol, the main naval port.
Sevastopol is the traditional home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and still is, although modern advances in long range precision weaponry have made ships anchored there increasingly vulnerable. It has been attacked by the Ukrainians both from the air using armed drones, and from the sea by surface uncrewed autonomous vessels, forcing the Russians to relocate some of their naval assets further afield.
Nonetheless, is was once regarded, and may still be, as the best protected secure anchorage in the world, and has been fought over many times before. Famously, or perhaps infamously, it was besieged by British, French, and Turkish troops during the Crimean War of 1853-56, when a series of engagements at the Alma, Balaklava, and Inkerman were part of the long siege of the port. It was also the scene of the Charge of the Light Brigade and where Florence Nightingale gained her renown for reorganising the British army’s appallingly poor medical practices.
It was fought over again during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and bombarded by German and Turkish warships during the First World War before German forces captured the city in 1918. Then it was fought over by White Russians and Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War in the years 1918-20. Moving on a generation, Crimea and Sevastopol were occupied by German and Romanian forces in 1941, and Hitler had grandiose plans of making it the Third Reich’s province in the southern sun, linked to Berlin by a 3,000 kilometre long autobahn and a wide gauge railway. They came to nothing, like many others of his flights of fantasy.
The Germans and their allies were finally expelled from Crimea by the Red Army in May 1944 with considerable loss, and for the next ten years it remained in Russian hands, until the Crimean Oblast was handed over to the Ukrainians in 1954 by Russian leader Nikita Krushchev. It remained in Ukrainian hands until it was annexed by Putin in 2014.
That Crimea and Sevastopol have been fought over so often is no accident, because the strategic significance of both has been recognised for centuries. The Russians will point out that its population is predominantly ethnic Russian, but this is partly because the native Tatar population was ethnically cleansed during Stalin’s time.
For Ukraine it is not just about its strategic significance but also a matter of pride. They want back what was taken from them, and if they manage to secure it again it will be a major coup. It’s just possible that Zelensky might then be prepared to give up that part of the Donbas that is essentially Russian – and which has been mainly flattened by war anyway – and come to the negotiating table.
We shall see.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a Defence Analyst and a former Army officer, author & broadcaster – sign up to his podcast at defencereview.uk
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