Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.
This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.
Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.
The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.
Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.
But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.
Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”
Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?
Inability to accept losses
In reality, the specific targets struck by cruise missiles — whether it's the Black Sea Fleet headquarters, dry docks, or communication hubs — hold little strategic importance. The presence or absence of commanders or staff also makes scant difference.
The true concern is Russia's inability to intercept cruise missiles flying over northern Crimea and the Black Sea, which challenges the fundamental ambitions of a superpower. Russia, in other words, is now no longer in control across the region.
And yet Russia’s inability to accept losses is exacerbating their problems, as leaders in Moscow stick to the narrative that all is proceeding according to plan, with positive reports neatly filed, to be passed up the chain of command. (Failure to do so can result in the loss of one's pension or an expected promotion.)
Russia, Sochi, September 20, 2023: People bathe in the Black Sea.
Why the Russians are failing
Defending Crimea is, indeed, a complex task, and the Russians are ill-equiped to carry it out. Patrolling the region with MiG-31 combat jets is far from routine. While these aircraft have been upgraded to launch Kinzhal missiles against ground targets, using aircraft for air defense purposes requires skills beyond those of the average Russian pilot.
At the same time, to ensure their survival, the Russians require aircraft specifically designed for Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) missions. These aircraft play a crucial role in detecting Ukrainian air launch platforms as they approach their firing positions. This advance warning would allow Russia's military leaders to move personnel, seek shelter and take other protective measures.
I am Russian, I will go to the end!
But it’s already too late to implement these measures, the second-largest army in the world appear incapable of taking any decisive action. And the situation is likely to be aggravated for the Russian defense forces when Western F-16s arrive in Ukraine in the coming weeks.
A painful reckoning
The Ukrainian military's strikes on Crimea are part of a war of attrition, raising the question of whether there is anyone within the Russian Black Sea Fleet capable of speaking the truth, of drafting a report stating that the fleet cannot in fact defend its main base.
This situation underscores the price of the false narrative created by the Kremlin regime, devoid of any meaningful critical feedback. While thousands of propagandists confidently proclaim that Russia will swiftly reach Warsaw and Berlin, few seem to consider that even without the U.S. Navy, EU forces possess the capability to launch thousands of Storm Shadow, SCALP EG, or Taurus missiles at Russia.
Dozens of satellites and strategic drones from Sicily are poised for reconnaissance, allowing for precise strikes based on collected data.
It's important to note that this challenge will not affect Vladimir Putin, who will remain in a bunker, or Vladimir Solovyov, the Russian propagandist, who can retreat to his dacha outside of Moscow, protected by Pantsir missile systems.
Instead, it is the individuals who passionately chant, "I am Russian, I will go to the end!" and fervently sign the anthem "Legendary Sevastopol," who will bear the brunt of all these yes-men.