The Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, has been a staging ground for other attacks and an increasingly attractive target for Ukraine.
KYIV, Ukraine — As swarms of Russian soldiers stormed Ukrainian lines in furious assaults around two cities in the east on Tuesday, Ukraine set the stage for its own advance by making strikes deep behind Russian lines, including what appeared to be a drone attack on a vital logistical hub in the occupied Crimean Peninsula.
Russian forces have gained ground in recent days around the Ukrainian stronghold of Avdiivka in the eastern Donbas region, but the Ukrainians say Moscow is paying a heavy price in blood for every inch of ground it claims in its bid to encircle the long-battered city.
Avdiivka, Ukrainian officials say, is rapidly turning into another Bakhmut, the eastern city that Russian forces have sought to capture by sending waves of lightly trained recruits on near-suicidal attacks.
Despite suffering heavy losses of its own, the Ukrainian military has so far managed to mount a staunch defense in Bakhmut and Avdiivka, even as it holds troops and material in reserve for a looming counteroffensive. Western military analysts say such an operation may be Ukraine’s best chance to break the current deadlock.
Ukraine is seeking to replicate a pattern that worked for it in the fall, when it reclaimed thousands of square miles by using newly acquired Western weapons and its own growing fleet of long-range drones to strike deep behind the Russian lines at command centers, ammunition depots and supply lines.
In Russian-occupied areas of eastern and southern Ukraine on Tuesday, the Ukrainian Air Force said, fighter jets had launched 12 strikes on enemy personnel and military equipment clusters behind the front lines. Missile and artillery units hit three more clusters of enemy soldiers, the military said.
But Ukrainian officials and military analysts have said that to succeed in retaking the occupied parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in Ukraine, Kyiv will have to disrupt the flow of weapons and supplies in and out of the Crimean Peninsula, which dangles off the southern coast of Ukraine like a pendant connected by the thinnest of chains. Russia annexed it illegally in 2014.
In what appeared to be a drone attack in Crimea on Monday night, Ukrainian officials said an explosion in the city of Dzhankoi took out a train shipment of Russian Kalibr cruise missiles. The Russians disputed that account, saying their air defenses had shot down a drone, fragments of which landed in civilian areas. Dzhankoi is a key hub for Russian roads and railways about 50 miles south of the Ukrainian mainland.
It was not possible to verify either claim independently, but the blast refocused attention on the strategic importance of Crimea as both a hub for the Russian military and a likely target for future Ukrainian strikes.
Ukraine typically maintains a policy of strategic ambiguity about strikes in Crimea, but its military all but confirmed that it was behind the one on Monday.
The State of the War
- Xi’s Visit to Russia: President Vladimir Putin of Russia welcomed Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, in Moscow during a state visit carefully choreographed to project unity. Xi, who has presented his trip as a peace mission, is the highest-profile world leader to visit Russia since the start of the war.
- Japan’s Prime Minister in Ukraine: Fumio Kishida, who has been seeking a more active role for his country in international affairs, made an unannounced trip to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.
- A Defiant Putin: The Russian president visited the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol, a move that came shortly after an international court issued a warrant for his arrest for war crimes.
- A Crime in Progress: The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Putin over the forcible deportation of Ukrainian children highlights a practice that the Kremlin has not concealed and says will continue.
“They need to deal with what happened,” Natalia Humeniuk, the spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern command, said on national television on Tuesday, referring to the Russians. “They felt quite calm, especially at such a distance, and believed that they would have time to evacuate long before our weapons started responding to places of serious deployment.”
A city of about 40,000 people, Dzhankoi was a staging ground for Russia’s invasion force a year ago. In September, when the Russians were forced to retreat from the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine, it became the central node for much of Russia’s logistical operations in the south.
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Dzhankoi is home to the main rail lines running from southern Russia across the Kerch Strait into Crimea and on to Kherson, where Russian forces are arrayed on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River. A canal carrying fresh water from the Dnipro into Crimea runs through the town, where two major highways intersect.
Satellite photos taken by the company Planet Labs in October appeared to show dozens of Russian attack helicopters at the airfield in Dzhankoi.
Ben Hodges, a retired general and former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, has argued that one of the reasons the West should give Ukraine longer-range weapons is to enable strikes on Dzhankoi and other targets in Crimea.
A senior Ukrainian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss military matters, said recently that disrupting rail and road links in Dzhankoi would paralyze supply lines from Russia to southern Ukraine as well as to the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, which is based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
Dzhankoi has been targeted before.
Last summer, after explosions at ammunition depots outside the city that burned for hours, a senior Ukrainian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the blasts were the work of an elite Ukrainian military unit operating behind enemy lines.
Mick Ryan, a retired Australian Army major general who is a fellow at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based research group, said that Ukraine would be able to collect intelligence on the Russian response to the blast in Dzhankoi as it planned future military operations.
“It is an indication of how Ukraine will be able to conduct such strikes across Crimea,” he wrote on Twitter, adding that such attacks would probably become more frequent as Ukraine began counteroffensive operations in the south.
But even as it tries to set the stage for that, Ukraine is defending its precarious hold on two key cities in eastern Ukraine against a relentless Russian onslaught.
In Bakhmut, the battle remained perched on knife’s edge, with the confusion of fighting making it nearly impossible to tell who had the upper hand on any given day.
“Bakhmut is holding,” Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy minister of defense, said on Tuesday.
In Avdiivka, which is about 50 miles south of Bakhmut, the Russians have gained ground in recent days and are stepping up bombardment of the city center. One woman was killed and two other civilians were injured when a shell fired from a tank blasted the center of the city, which is largely abandoned, local officials said.
Soldiers described brutal battles with many of the same features as Russian offensives over the winter that brought staggering casualties.
“Russians are intensively attacking from both sides, from the south and the north,” Maj. Maksym Morozov, a member of the Special Forces regiment fighting in the area, told the Ukrainian news media on Monday night.
The Russian tactic of using waves of soldiers was having some success.
“First, cannon fodder goes to expose our firing positions,” Major Morozov said, referring to the soldiers, “and then professionals behind them quickly and accurately try to extinguish our firing lines.”
But with Ukrainian artillery and tanks firing back, he said, Russian forces “have to pay a rather high price for this advance.”