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Russia’s Crimea problem keeps getting worse

Ukrainian commandos again clashed with Russian troops in Crimea this week, as Kyiv maintained its steady drip of attacks on the occupied peninsula, a varied campaign that has forced some of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s most modern ships to leave their home port of Sevastopol and seek safer waters.

Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence agency (GUR) posted footage of the latest raid to Telegram on Wednesday, declaring that troops had “landed on the territory of the Crimean Peninsula and inflicted fire damage on the Moscow occupiers.” The video showed teams of special operations soldiers using what appear to be jet ski-style small boats to come ashore, before posing with a Ukrainian flag.

GUR spokesperson Andriy Yusov told Ukrainska Pravda of the raid: “There was a battle with the Russian occupiers; many were killed and wounded among the invaders’ personnel. Unfortunately, there are losses among Ukrainian defenders too, though these are still not as many as among the Russians.”

If Yusov’s reports are accurate, the operation is the latest in a slew of Ukrainian victories on the peninsula. In recent months, Ukrainian attacks have destroyed valuable radar and anti-air defense systems in Crimea, and Ukrainian special forces teams took back control of strategic Black Sea oil rigs that had been in Russian military use for several years.

Meanwhile, naval drones and cruise missiles struck the main Black Sea harbor in Sevastopol, destroying two ships in their dry dock. The Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters in the city was later destroyed by cruise missiles, reportedly killing several top officers.

Satellite images published this week showed several Black Sea Fleet ships leaving Sevastopol, an apparent admission of Russia’s inability to protect the nucleus of its regional power projection, and the heart of Russian influence on the occupied peninsula. Some relocated to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, while others sailed to the smaller Crimean port of Feodosia.

Newsweek has contacted the Russian defense ministry by email to request comment.

Several of the vessels that have left Sevastopol carry long-range Kalibr cruise missiles, which Moscow has been using to wreak havoc on Ukrainian infrastructure.

“This is why they removed them from Sevastopol, which they now probably consider is under an increased level of threat,” Andriy Ryzhenko, a retired Ukrainian naval captain and now a strategic expert at the defense and logistics consultant company Sonata, told Newsweek.

The relocation of the Kalibr-capable ships does not make a significant difference to Russia’s cruise missile operational capabilities, Ryzhenko said. “It’s an insignificant change,” he said. “Increased range means additional minutes of flight time, but Russia is still able to hit any point within Ukraine using these maritime-based Kalibr missiles.”

The Black Sea Fleet had already been forced to shelve any plans of an amphibious assault on southern Ukraine, something that was much feared by Kyiv earlier in the conflict. The southern Ukrainian coast is now peppered with anti-ship missile batteries, with the wreck of the Moskva—the Black Sea Fleet flagship sunk in April 2022—testament to their potency.

“There is a very low probability” for a Russian landing operation, Ryzhenko said. “There are no operational preconditions for that.”

Russia’s recent travails in Crimea carry great political significance. Moscow’s stunning seizure of the peninsula in 2014 has ever since been lauded as proof of President Vladimir Putin‘s strategic genius, the manifestation of a revitalized Russia capable of cowing its foreign adversaries and reestablishing the Kremlin’s historic sphere of influence.

Images of Russian tourists fleeing Crimea’s beaches in droves have chipped away at the peninsula’s fortress-like image. Repeated closures of the Kerch Strait Bridge due to Ukrainian strikes have choked energy supplies to Crimea, while the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka Dam has threatened the peninsula’s water supply.

The construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge was Putin’s crowning Crimean glory. Repeated Ukrainian attacks on the structure underscore Kyiv’s public intention to liberate the entire peninsula per its 1991 borders, regardless of Western fears that threatening Crimea might prompt Russian escalation, perhaps even a nuclear response.

The isolation of Crimea is a key goal of Kyiv’s ongoing counteroffensive in southeastern Ukraine. Ukrainian troops are looking to sever the “land bridge” of occupied territory connecting Crimea to western Russia, hoping this will precipitate a regional Russian military collapse or another “goodwill gesture”—as the Russian defense ministry has described previous major retreats in Ukraine—from Crimea.

The ongoing construction of defensive fortifications in Crimea—some 60 miles from the closest portion of the front line and more than 100 miles from the areas of heaviest fighting—seem to indicate concern in Moscow.

“There is only the territory of Ukraine, including Crimea, where heavy battles are being fought to destroy the Russian occupation group and the ambitions of the Russian authoritarian state,” Mykhailo Podolyak—an adviser to the head of President Volodymyr Zelensky‘s office—wrote on social media last weekend.

“Crimea will definitely be demilitarized and liberated,” the official added in a separate post. “Merchant ships will return to the Black Sea. And the Russian warships will eventually take their rightful place, turning into an iconic underwater museum for divers that will attract tourists from all over the world.”

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