Ukraine’s ambitions in Crimea limited by US hesitance to supply heavy arms

Ukraine’s intentions to launch a renewed counteroffensive against Russia that includes the goal of retaking Crimea will depend on whether the U.S. and other Western allies overcome their hesitancy about supplying heavy arms to Kyiv.

The impasse between the U.S. and Germany over sending tanks to Ukraine has highlighted the conundrum, but Kyiv will also need increased air power for a major operation into the peninsula currently occupied by Russia.

President Biden and other top U.S. officials have held back from publicly committing to help Ukraine liberate Crimea, but are reportedly warming to the idea of giving Kyiv the ability to strike Russian forces on the peninsula to weaken Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sense of security there.

Crimea represents a key tactical and symbolic military objective for Kyiv. Putin personally sponsored the construction of a massive bridge connecting Russia with Crimea, and the Kremlin’s Black Sea Fleet has its main headquarters in the port city of Sevastopol.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that victory for Ukraine includes pushing Russian forces out of all the occupied territory, including Crimea, which Russia invaded and illegally annexed in 2014.

“I will defend my Ukraine. My unity … my Crimea,” Zelensky said in an evening address Sunday, also listing other cities and territories still under Russian occupation.

Tanks, along with infantry fighting vehicles and other Western-provided artillery and munitions, are part of the overall effort required for Ukraine to defeat Russian forces, Ben Hodges, former Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe, wrote in an email to The Hill.

“The Ukrainian Government knows that they cannot settle for Russia retaining control of Crimea. Ukraine will never be safe or secure or able to rebuild their economy so long as Russia retains Crimea,” wrote Hodges, who serves as a senior adviser with Human Rights First, a nonpartisan charity organization.

“So the next few months will see Ukraine setting the conditions for the eventual liberation of Crimea.”

The U.S. has held back on offering Abrams tanks for Ukraine, saying it has concerns over whether Ukrainian forces can operate and maintain the tanks’ jet-fuel-powered turbine engine and other advanced capabilities.

The United Kingdom has committed Challenger tanks, and Poland has said it’s prepared to send German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine, but is waiting on the green light from Berlin.

Russia holds significant territory along the southeast of Ukraine that provides its forces with a strong defense of Crimea, despite its retreat from Ukraine’s major southern city of Kherson in December.

Militarily retaking the peninsula — seized in an invasion in 2014 — is viewed by U.S. defense officials as a nearly impossible task in the short term.

“From a military standpoint, I still maintain that for this year it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from all … Russian-occupied Ukraine,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters last week at the Ramstein conference, a gathering of nearly 50 countries supporting Ukraine.

“That doesn’t mean it can’t happen; doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but it’d be very, very difficult,” he added.

While holding back tanks, the U.S. has resisted sending long-range weapons that Kyiv has said are essential to liberate all territory occupied by Russia.

These include ATACMS long-range missile systems, with a range of approximately 185 miles; the Gray Eagle armed drone, which can carry up to four Hellfire missiles; and ground-launched small diameter bombs with a range of approximately 94 miles.

Hodges said that if Ukraine had weapons such as these systems, it could launch a strike from Odesa on Sevastopol, Crimea’s port city where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is headquartered.

“Ditto for the major logistics hub at Dzhankoy in the north of Crimea,” he added.

He also said that tanks and infantry armored vehicles are meant to reinforce each other to build out a strong armored land force to follow up aerial attacks targeting Russian military positions.

“Ukraine is building an armored force, Division-size or larger, that is trained and prepared to serve as the breakthrough formation for the next major offensive phase of the Campaign,” Hodges wrote. “Western-provided tanks … Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) … and self-propelled artillery will make it even more lethal.”

Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander of Ukraine’s military, told The Economist last month that Ukraine needed 300 tanks and additional heavy arms in order to push back Russia from all of Ukrainian territory.

While Ukrainian forces have allegedly carried out strikes inside Crimea, these are viewed as isolated instances that have served to shake Russian confidence rather than signal an imminent liberation.

This includes damaging the Russian-built Kerch Bridge in October, viewed as handicapping the Russian military’s logistics channel into the peninsula and striking personally at Putin, who made a show of driving a Mercedes across the bridge two months after the attack to demonstrate its operability.

“Putin, his big popularity bump came when he seized Crimea and declared it Russian territory, and the Russian people have accepted that by and large,” said Evelyn Farkas, executive director of the McCain Institute and who served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense during the Obama administration, with a focus on Russia and Ukraine.

“If Putin loses Crimea, politically it will be a defeat for him.”

The New York Times reported last week that U.S. officials are debating how far they can go in providing U.S. weapons that Ukraine can use to attack Russian forces in Crimea.

U.S. officials are worried about provoking Putin to a point of following through on nuclear weapons threats, given Crimea’s importance to the Russian leader.

Russia’s deputy chairman of the security council, Dmitry Medvedev, rattled Russia’s nuclear saber a day before the Ramstein conference, writing on Telegram that “The loss of a nuclear power in a conventional war can provoke the outbreak of a nuclear war. The nuclear powers did not lose major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

The New York Times reported that the Biden administration has come to believe that if Ukrainian forces can show that it can threaten Russia’s military control over Crimea, it will strengthen Kyiv’s hand at any potential negotiating table.

Jeffrey Edmonds, senior adjunct fellow with the Center for a New American Security, said that the decision by the Biden administration to hold back on some of the longer-range missile capabilities is “likely trying to control escalation.”

“The Biden administration has effectively handled that shifting line of what they perceive to be escalatory or not,” he said.

Last week, Milley declined to discuss whether Ukrainians were barred from striking Crimea with U.S.-supplied materials.

American officials have earlier said that Kyiv would not use American-made weapons to strike within Russian territory, and the U.S. reportedly handicapped High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launchers provided to Ukraine to prevent it from being able to reach Russian territory.

Farkas said that the administration can strike a balance between providing Ukraine with the military might it needs to achieve its maximalist goals, even as the U.S. makes clear what actions against Russia are off limits.

“If we are afraid that Ukraine will misuse the equipment, then we should state clearly to the Ukrainians – by misuse, what I mean is hit civilian targets, conduct assassinations – we should be clear with the Ukrainians and we should test them with providing them with more capable weaponry and see how they use it,” she said.

“Yes, we should provide Ukraine with the ability to hit weapons targets from a safe distance, in Crimea, and in any place where the Russian military is conducting operations or logistically preparing to conduct operations.”

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