KYIV — In Crimea, the war is drawing ever closer, and nerves are on edge.
In conversations via secure communications, people in Crimea describe growing tension across the Black Sea peninsula as they increasingly expect the advent of direct hostilities. They say saboteur and partisan groups are now readying in the territory, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.
Frustration and panic are surging, over everything from conscription to runaway prices. One person told of anger over an inability to secure hospital places thanks to the numbers of Russian wounded brought in from the fronts, while another said that the fretful Russian elite were trying to sell their glitzy holiday homes, but were finding no buyers.
When Vladimir Putin launched his all-out invasion of Ukraine in February, few people expected Ukrainian forces would nine months later be threatening to reclaim Crimea. That no longer feels like a military impossibility, however, after Kyiv’s well-organized troops showed that they could drive out Russian forces in offensive operations around Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine and Kherson in the south.
Tamila Tasheva, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s permanent representative in Crimea, has high hopes the peninsula will end up back in Ukrainian hands. “Yes, of course, it is entirely possible we will get Crimea back,” she told POLITICO.
“Our goal is the return of all our territory, which of course includes Crimea,” she said in her office in Kyiv. A 37-year-old Crimean Tatar, whose family lives on the peninsula, Tasheva is busy preparing plans for what happens after Crimea is “de-occupied” and is drafting a legal framework to cope with complex issues of transitional justice that will arise. She says while Kyiv would prefer the peninsula to be handed back without a fight, “a military way may be the only solution.”
“The situation is very different now from 2014. We have a lot of communication with people in Crimea and they’re increasingly angered by the high food prices and shortages in drugs and medicines,” she said. “And there’s been an increase in anti-war protests, especially since the start of conscription and partial mobilization.”
When asked about people forming anti-Russian partisan groups, she simply commented: “Of course they are.” The difference between 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and now comes down to the fact, she argues, that Ukraine has a strong army and a determined leadership and that is affecting and fortifying people’s thinking in Crimea.
Against the occupiers
For Putin, Crimea has long been a sacred cause — he called it an “inseparable part of Russia” — and that led many in the West to fear it could be a strategic red line. That sense was hardly helped by nuclear saber-rattler-in-chief, former President Dmitry Medvedev, who issued ominous warnings about any attack on Crimea. “Judgment Day will come very fast and hard. It will be very difficult to take cover,” Medvedev, now deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, said earlier this year in comments reported by the TASS news agency.
Undaunted, the Ukrainians have repeatedly gone after Russian targets in Crimea since August, including airbases and ships.
Tensions ratcheted up dramatically, however, after the explosion on October 8 that damaged the Kerch Bridge, a vital supply line between Russia and Crimea.
People in Crimea say the Russians are jittery and on the hunt for pro-Ukrainian sympathizers, fearing more acts of sabotage. Kyiv has never formally claimed responsibility for what was most likely a truck bombing. The people POLITICO talked with can’t be named for their own safety, but they included businessmen, lawyers and IT workers.
“There was panic afterwards,” said one IT worker. “Since then, officers and soldiers have been moving their families back to Russia. And the rich have been trying to sell their properties worth $500,000 to a million, but the market is dead,” he added.
“Because of the sanctions, a lot of people have lost their jobs and prices for everything, food especially, have skyrocketed and there isn’t much choice available either. If you were making a $1,000 a month before February, now you need to be around $3,000 to be where you were, and how are you going to do that with the tourism industry dead,” he said. Locals are fuming that they can’t receive medical attention because the peninsula’s hospitals are full of Russian soldiers wounded in the fighting in Kherson and Donetsk.
With the situation worsening, more partisan cells are forming, they say. “My group of patriots know each other well: We studied and worked together for years and trust each other — we are preparing, and we understand secrecy will determine the effectiveness of our actions,” said a former banker, who claimed to be leading a seven-man cell.
Inspired by the Kerch Bridge blast, his cell is planning to sabotage military facilities using rudimentary explosives made from ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel.
“There are many provocateurs around and the Russians are anxious, so we’re vigilant. We know other partisan groups, but we don’t actively communicate for security reasons,” he said. “We’ve a deal with a police chief who understands Russia is losing and is worried — he’ll give us key to his arsenal when needed with our promise that we will put in a good word for him later,” he added.
Whether such cells represent any kind of serious threat remains to be seen and POLITICO can’t verify the claims of would-be saboteurs, but retired U.S. General Ben Hodges, a former commanding general of the United States Army Europe, says he had expected partisan cells to form, encouraged by Kyiv and otherwise.
“I would have assumed this. Both locals as well as saboteurs who have been infiltrated into Crimea. Remember the Ukrainians, of course, did this to the German Wehrmacht throughout World War II. There’s a tradition of sabotage and insurgency,” he said.
“I would hate to be a Russian truck driver on a convoy somewhere, anywhere in the area these days. I think when it does come time for decisive action, it will be a combination of local partisans and infiltrated saboteurs,” he added.
‘Crimea is Ukraine’
Ukraine’s recent victories in northeastern and southern Ukraine are fueling confident talk in Kyiv about Crimea, and since Russian forces retreated from Kherson city, 130 kilometers from the northernmost part of the peninsula, the chorus has only been growing louder, as more of the peninsula comes into rocket and missile range of the Ukrainians.
After seizing Crimea, the Kremlin harbored ambitions to turn it into another glittering seaside Sochi — or showcase it as a Black Sea rival to France’s Côte d’Azur. Construction of condos started apace with plans to make Sevastopol a major Russian cultural center. A new opera house, museum and ballet academy were to be completed next year. Around 800,000 Russians may have moved to the peninsula since 2014. The war has ruined construction schedules.
Top Ukrainian officials have been taunting Russia, saying Crimea will soon be under Ukrainian control — by year’s end even or early next year. Zelenskyy has returned repeatedly to the theme: in October telling European and American parliamentary leaders: “We will definitely liberate Crimea.” His top adviser, Andriy Yermak, told POLITICO during the Halifax International Security Forum earlier this month: “I am sure that the campaign to return Crimea will take place.”
Ukrainian officials told POLITICO that Western European leaders had been the most jittery about pushing on to Crimea. America’s top general, Mark Milley, chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has cast doubt about Ukraine’s ability to reclaim the peninsula militarily, suggesting it would be overreach. At a Pentagon press conference on November 16, he said: “The probability of a Ukrainian military victory, defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine to include what they defined, or what they claim as Crimea, the probability of that happening anytime soon, is not high, militarily.”
But the White House hasn’t walked back President Joe Biden’s February 26 remarks when he made Washington’s position clear: “We reaffirm a simple truth: Crimea is Ukraine.”
Raising the pressure
Ukrainian forces have been increasing the tempo of military activity in and near Crimea using both aerial and innovative marine drones to swarm and strike in October and last Tuesday Russian warships stationed at Sevastopol, the home base of the Russian navy in the Black Sea. The Russian-installed governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhaev, said in a social media post after Tuesday’s attack that a couple of drones had been intercepted, later adding another three had been downed by Russian warships.
Kyiv has not commented on that attack, but last week, Ukraine’s top security official confirmed Israeli press reports that 10 Iranian military advisers in Crimea were killed by Ukrainian drones. “You shouldn’t be where you shouldn’t be,” said Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s defense council, in an interview with the Guardian. The Ukrainians say Iranian technicians and operators have been assisting the Russians with the Shahed-136 armed drones supplied by Tehran.
The attacks appear to be unnerving the Russian military — especially those carried out by maritime drones. The October attack involved half a dozen radio-operated marine drones equipped with jet-ski engines. Some of the nearly six-meter-long drones are thought to have damaged two ships, a minesweeper and more importantly the Admiral Makarov, a frigate. On November 18, the Ukrainians repeated the exercise further afield with an attack on warships in the port at Novorossiysk, a Black Sea city in southern Russia.
One Crimea resident told POLITICO that the drone strikes appear to have forced Russian naval commanders to rethink the positioning of their ships. “A group of Russian warships were until recently regularly off the coast near my house. I used to watch them and if they fired missiles, I’d contact my family in various cities in Ukraine to warn them rockets were on their way. But now the warships have moved away, they were too vulnerable where they were.” he said.
The Russians are fortifying their defenses, especially in the Dzhankois’kyi district, the northern part of the Crimean steppe near Syvash Bay, according to Andrii Chernyak of the main intelligence directorate of the ministry of defense of Ukraine.
Hodges, the former general, disagrees with General Milley and says an offensive “is possible and I believe they will be working to be in place to begin this in a deliberate way as early as January.”
“Between now and then, they will continue to isolate Crimea by going after the Kerch Bridge again and also the land bridge that originates in Rostov and runs along the northern coast of the Sea of Azov down through Mariupol and Melitopol and on to the peninsula. The Ukrainians are going to be looking to pound away at the bridge and the land link, a form of eighteenth-century siege tactics,” he added.
Those siege tactics, he says, will be accompanied by daring use of high-tech weapons. “The U.S. navy has put a lot of development effort into unmanned maritime systems and to see what the Ukrainians have been doing with swarm attacks by drones has really impressed me,” he said.
The Ukrainians, he predicts, will attempt “to fight their way across the isthmus when the conditions are right,” adding: “This is going to come down to a test of will and a test of logistics.”