Could Ukraine Retake Crimea? Not Easily
Difficult approaches and dug-in Russian forces would likely mean a long and difficult effort, experts said.
The striking success of the counter-offensive against Russian forces has led many to speculate that the Ukrainian military might keep rolling in a bid to retake Crimea. But experts caution that such a campaign would be far more difficult than Ukraine’s retaking of Kharkiv or the hard-won territory of Kherson.
Ever since it illegally annexed the Black Sea peninsula in 2014, Russia has worked to fortify Crimea militarily—installing bases, missile launchers, and more; building a bridge to Russian territory—and diplomatically, warning that any arrival of NATO troops might draw a nuclear response.
Is an attempt to retake Crimea in the cards? In June, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov called that a “strategic objective for Ukraine because it's Ukrainian territory.” But Reznikov in June also said his government would consult with allies and partners on how to do so.
U.S. officials have made few overt attempts to dissuade Kyiv, although Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday in a Pentagon press conference that the probability of Ukraine retaking all of its pre-war territory from Russia, including Crimea, “anytime soon is not high.”
At the same briefing, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “Crimea is an issue to be thought through and sorted out by the Ukrainian leadership.” Like other Biden administration officials, Austin avoided publicly pressuring Ukraine’s leaders in any direction.
“We're going to do everything within our power to make sure that they have the means to accomplish their goals and objectives,” the secretary said. “And along that line, the goals and objectives of this fight are the Ukrainians. They're not—they're not ours. And so we won't —haven't prescribed to the Ukrainians what they can and cannot do.”
Analysts said retaking Crimea would not be easy, nor even possible in the near term. The difficulties start with putting troops onto the peninsula, which is connected to mainland Ukraine by a narrow isthmus.
“There's only a couple of ways you can go to Crimea,” said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian Army major general. “You can go by air, but that would take a fairly significant airborne force, which I don't think Ukraine has….You could do an amphibious operation. But once again, they don't have a significant [amphibious assault vehicle] capability. So whilst any invasion of Crimea might feature those things, it will be predominantly be a ground operation.”
A storm-the-beaches amphibious landing is pretty much out of the question, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Russia operates a powerful naval force out of Sevastopol, although its surface warships have been hit and harrassed by Ukrainian missiles and drones.
“In terms of Ukrainian naval strength, they really don't have enough to try like an amphibious landing. The Russians have some surface combatants plus they have a bunch of submarines. It would just be very difficult to try to launch an amphibious operation,” Cancian said. “Amphibious operations are really hard anyway, and if you don't have air and naval superiority, which they would not have, it's essentially impossible.”
If Ukrainian forces were to try to retake Crimea, Cancian believes they would most likely start in an area called the Syvash, whose shallow lagoons can allow forces to cross at low tide, which happened twice during World War II, he said.
“Using a lot of artillery on the far shore, HIMARS…and then go across in boats, establish a beachhead, and then push on into the interior,” he said.
Such a flotilla might be assembled of military and civilian craft, making the force “look like [a] Dunkirk fleet,” he said.
Cancian said the Ukrainian navy could support such a move with harassment or guerrilla tactics, perhaps including another waterborne drone strike on Russian warships.
The other invasion route is by land, proceeding from newly won territory in the Kherson province over the 3-mile-wide Isthmus of Perekop. Ukrainian forces could start with barrages of GMLRS rockets, said Michael Kofman, who leads Russia studies at CNA.
“If Ukraine is able to progress further south they may be able to put Crimea, or parts of the peninsula, under fire control in order to make the Russian position there increasingly precarious,” Kofman said. “But I am skeptical that Ukraine intends a large-scale military operation to invade Crimea. That said, at the end of the day this is speculative."
Progressing further south now that Russian forces are able to use the Dnipro River as a natural barrier will be much harder than earlier advances, he cautioned. If Ukraine were to attempt such a move, they may try to first sever the line between Russian forces in the Donbass and the Russian forces dug in to the east of the Dnipro, said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“I personally think they're going to try and advance in different directions,” Lee said.
The strategy would likely involve continuous testing along the Russian front line to find areas that are weaker and then converging on those spots as quickly as possible. But, he said, now that Russian forces are concentrated to the east of the river, “that should make it easier for Russia to move some of these forces,” and thwart a Ukrainian advance.
But not every analyst was so pessimistic. Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general who commanded of U.S. Army Europe and now advises the Human Rights First group, said he had recently met with members of the Ukrainian military’s general staff and came away greatly impressed by their plans for a methodical approach to retaking Crimea.
New positions near Kherson give Ukraine a fire-base to hammer forces dug in on the eastern side of the Dnipro.
“This will be terrible for [the Russians]. And it's wide open steppes and crappy weather and even relatively easy for the Ukrainians to hit them—but more importantly, to hit the logistics that are in that area,” Hodges said.
He said Ukraine would likely make further attempts to destroy the Russian bridge over the Kerch Strait, which was partially destroyed in October. They’ll also be able to attack Russian resupply lines along the southern portion of the country. He said that the Ukrainians would be in position to make those attempts in January and, perhaps, to liberate Crimea by the summer.
“I'm optimistic. I mean, think of Crimea almost as a trap” for Russia, he said.
But Hodges cautioned that Ukraine’s chances for success would be improved by longer-range missiles such as ATACMS, which can hit targets out to 300 kilometers.
“I mean, they could get Sevastopol from Odesa,” he said, and start “immediately if they had that capability.”
Despite many reassuring statements in support of Ukraine, U.S. officials have signaled no interest in giving Ukraine weapons of that range.