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Inside the Commando Raids Unnerving Russia in Crimea

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Late one evening this month, two Ukrainian commandos eased into a side street in Kyiv in a battered SUV. Back from a dangerous nighttime assault on Russian positions in the Crimean peninsula, they slipped into a sparsely furnished apartment where they sat at desks, weary and a little disheveled, and described their latest operation in matter-of-fact fashion.

“Very tough,” said Askold, 38. “It was our most difficult operation yet,” added Kukhar, 23. Members of a unit in the special operations forces of G.U.R., Ukraine’s military intelligence service, the men gave only their call signs in accordance with military protocol.

The two men had joined more than 30 others racing more than 100 miles across the western Black Sea on jet skis to attack critical Russian defense installations before making their getaway, the second Ukrainian amphibious raid in six weeks.

The raids were part of a series of punishing attacks on Crimea by Ukrainian forces since midsummer that have succeeded in disabling some Russian air-defense systems and damaging naval repair yards at Sevastopol. Russia later moved 10 warships from Sevastopol on the west coast of Crimea to the port of Novorossiysk on the Russian mainland, though U.S. officials say it remains unclear whether the withdrawals were tied to security concerns or just a regular rotation.

But there is no denying that attacks within Crimea are increasing, and may rise even further with the new ATACMS long-range missiles just delivered from the United States. “A dynamic, deep strike battle is underway,” British military intelligence said in a statement.

The partial retreat of the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol, its base for more than 200 years, has helped Ukraine break a Russian blockade and keep some shipping moving in the Black Sea. And it comes as a welcome success for Kyiv as it seeks to extend its counteroffensive beyond the bloody slog through Russian minefields.

Ukrainian military leaders have long pronounced their intention to regain control of Crimea, which some military analysts see as unlikely. For Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, who directed the seizure of Crimea, it is not only a vital base for Russian operations in southern Ukraine, but a jewel of the Russian empire that he has vowed to keep.

The Ukrainian campaign began a year ago with an attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge, a Russian showpiece of construction that links the Crimean peninsula to the Russian mainland. But it was ramped up with this summer’s counteroffensive, when Ukrainian forces began targeting Crimea with missile strikes deep behind the frontline.

Long-range missiles hit bridges on road and rail routes linking the peninsula to the rest of Ukraine, as well as air defenses and military bases and command posts. The aim was to disrupt the Russian military’s logistics and degrade its ability to function, a tactic that Ukraine’s top commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, had used in counteroffensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions.

In late June the Chonhar bridge on one of the main roads out of the peninsula was damaged. On July 17, the Kerch bridge was hit again, this time by an unmanned seaborne vehicle. A local nongovernmental organization, SOS Crimea, reported almost daily explosions on the peninsula over the weeks that followed.

The attacks have had a sharp effect on the Russian public. From a peak of nine million in 2019, the number of Russian tourists visiting Crimea dropped to six million last year and a little over four million so far this year, local officials said.

Thousands of Russians who settled in Crimea or bought real estate there after it was annexed in 2014 are selling their properties, and prices have tumbled, said Lyudmyla Denisova, a former Ukrainian lawmaker who has family members living in Crimea.

“Every successful Ukrainian strike complicates life in Crimea,” she said.

The most devastating blows came in mid-September, when missiles struck a Russian submarine and a landing ship in the dry docks of the port of Sevastopol. A week later, the Ukrainians fired long-range Storm Shadow missiles into the command headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, also in Sevastopol, wounding dozens of officers.

More Crimeans have come forward with offers of information to Ukrainian intelligence since that attack, said Sevgil Musaieva, the editor of the Kyiv-based daily Ukrainska Pravda, citing Ukrainian intelligence officials.

They were scared to share information before, she said, adding that now, “maybe they expect that something will happen soon and they want to help the Ukrainian armed forces.”

Alongside the missile strikes, the G.U.R. began its commando activities. In late July, its operatives took control of the Boyko Towers — a group of gas drilling rigs in the western Black Sea that Russia seized in 2014 but had since abandoned — and dismantled a surveillance antenna.

On Aug. 24, Ukrainian commandos made their first known raid on Crimea since 2016, attacking a Russian base on Cape Tarkhankut, the westernmost point of the peninsula. The base houses an antenna and systems that jam electronic communications over a wide area.

“Thanks to this antenna they see everything in the sea,” said a commander of the Bratstvo group, which carried out the raid, identified by his call sign, Borghese. “The task was to approach them at very close range and blow them up,” he added.

Bratstvo, which means “brotherhood” in Ukrainian, is a political party led by Dmytro Korchynsky, a veteran of wars in the Caucasus fighting against Russian troops in the 1990s, who is reported to have ties to former Soviet and Ukrainian intelligence services. The party has been described variously as Christian nationalist and right-wing extremist. Since the beginning of the full-scale war, which began in February 2022, Bratstvo volunteers have been integrated with the ranks of the G.U.R. and mounted the first attacks into Russia last year and on Crimean soil this year.

For the first commando raid, Borghese had bought a flotilla of jet skis to transport 20 men to a Russian base on Cape Tarkhankut. Led by a commander whose call sign is Muraha, they set off at dusk with an accompanying supply boat, riding into a complete electronic blackout because of the Russian jamming systems, relying only on a hand-held compass. Because of the discomfort of doubling up on the jet skis, half of the men rode in the supply boat for much of the way.

With the Russian Navy largely absent from the western part of the Black Sea, the greatest threat to the Ukrainian commandos was from the air. Russia has air supremacy in the area, and conventional Ukrainian vessels have come under repeated attack from Russian jets. But the small size and low profile of jet skis helped them to evade notice.

They reached the shore in the early hours of the morning, landing on a pebbly beach. Armed with four machine guns, five of the men climbed a hill and took positions overlooking the base and the antenna.

As the rest of the group came ashore, Russian machine guns guarding the base opened fire, Muraha said. But the men on the hill were ready and laid down suppressive machine-gun fire of their own.

Using shoulder-held launchers, they fired several rocket-propelled grenades at the antenna and the base before retreating. Some of the group raised a Ukrainian flag against a building, capturing it on video before making their getaway.

The group escaped without injury. But the supply boat had come under fire and retreated, so all 20 commandos had to make the six-hour return trip on the jet skis, which were specially outfitted with compartments to carry ammunition and extra fuel.

Intercepts of Russian communications indicated that the Russians had taken casualties in the attack, Borghese said, but he did not know if the main target, the antenna, had been hit.

Nick Reynolds, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, described the raid on Crimea as “tactically interesting,” but premature. “Ukraine is not yet in a position to capitalize on any weakening of Russian defenses there,” he said.

Borghese said the main achievement of the operation was to change perceptions, proving that Ukrainian forces could reach the Crimean shore and showing the Russian public that Crimea was no longer a safe place.

“It raises our Ukrainian morale and it diminishes Russian and Crimean morale,” he said. “They cannot relax on these beaches anymore.”

Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Haley Willis from New York.

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