Ukraine’s strikes on Russian air defenses in Crimean air bases paved the way for F-16 to strike Crimea

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen sit in a F-16 fighter jet at Skrydstrup airbase in Vojens, Denmark, on August 20, 2023 [Ritzau Scanpix/Mads Claus Rasmussen via Reuters]

Ukraine’s sustained attacks against Russia’s air defenses could make occupied Crimea untenable as a military staging ground, war analysts said.

In an assessment on Thursday, the Institute for the Study of War think tank said that Ukraine’s repeated strikes on military targets in the region were forcing Russia to commit new air defenses.

But further strikes, it said, could make it impossible for Russia to prepare or launch attacks from the annexed peninsula.

Ukraine has repeatedly hit Russia’s air defenses in Crimea over the last few months, with attacks intensifying this week.

According to reports, one Russian S-400 “Triumf” and two S-300 air-defense missile systems were targeted overnight on Sunday into Monday, with suggestions that Ukraine used US-supplied Army Tactical Missile Systems, known as ATACMS.

Two days later, Ukraine launched another missile strike, hitting an S-300 missile system and two S-400 missile systems in Crimea, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said.

It declined to say what type of missiles were used, but the Institute for the Study of War said they were “likely” ATACMS.

The strikes seemed to show that Ukraine’s older, Western-supplied missiles can get around even Russia’s most sophisticated air defense systems, experts told BI this week.

Forbes reached a similar conclusion on Wednesday, saying Russia’s S-400 missile systems can’t defend nearby Russian troops or even themselves.

The development could be a major problem for Russia, which has used Crimea as a supply route for bringing troops and gear to the front lines in Ukraine.

There are already signs that the country is looking to other routes.

Russia has lost an S-500 missile system in Crimea, which was placed to protect its air bases. But despite Ukraine’s recent successes, its campaign of long-range air strikes won’t be the silver bullet that ends Russia’s occupation of Crimea, military experts told BI.

Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme, told BI that Ukraine’s “slow-motion successes” with air and naval operations make the peninsula “less and less” tenable for Russian forces.

However, Giles said limited information from open sources makes it difficult to gauge Russia’s air defense capabilities and the extent to which Russian troops are exposed in the region.

“You get the impression that Russia is continuing to deliver new systems to Crimea, and they’re being knocked down as swiftly as they’re being set up,” he said. “But it takes a much more detailed assessment of what’s going on to actually establish the real picture.”

Matthew Savill, director of military sciences at the UK-based Royal United Services Institute, said that Crimea is mostly out of range of Ukrainian artillery, and even rocket artillery like HIMARS.

He said Russia may have to make some tough decisions if it needs to replace lost air defenses, which might mean thinning out defenses elsewhere, but air strikes alone won’t be enough to push Russian forces out of Crimea.

“It would take a significant Ukrainian ground push,” he said, “to create the kind of pressure.”

And given Crimea’s tactical and political significance, Russian forces “aren’t going to withdraw without a major fight,” he added.

“The kind of casualties they would need to suffer to consider this can only really be inflicted on their ground forces by a Ukrainian ground assault and a large volume of artillery or close-in fire,” he said.

James Black, assistant director of defense research at RAND Europe, made a similar point, saying Russian troops are unlikely to withdraw from Crimea unless their position is rendered untenable.

“Crimea is clearly a major strategic and political priority for the Kremlin, and any withdrawal of Russian forces from the peninsula would be a serious embarrassment for President Putin and his military leadership, both domestically and abroad,” he said.*

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