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Russia Seeks to Show Commander Is Alive After Ukraine Claimed His Killing

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In recent weeks, Ukraine has intensified its campaign of strikes against military targets in Crimea, a region illegally annexed by Moscow nearly a decade ago. It has used air and sea drones as well as missiles to blast an air base, a naval port, a warship and a submarine.

Then, on Friday, it targeted a headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, devastating a building that had become a symbol of the Kremlin’s occupation. Ukraine’s special operations forces said on Monday that the attack killed the commander of the Black Sea Fleet, though this has not been confirmed independently.

By going after Crimea, Ukraine is raising the price that Moscow must pay to maintain control of the strategically vital peninsula and making it harder for Moscow to use Crimea as a logistics hub for its hold on southern Ukraine, according to analysts.

“Any target inside Crimea is essentially fair game to demonstrate to the Russians they do not have security, they do not control skies over Crimea, they are vulnerable to Ukrainian strikes and Ukraine can get to them whenever it wants,” said Samuel Bendett, an analyst of Russia’s military at CNA, a think tank based near Washington.

Crimea is central to the expansive territorial vision that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has outlined, so Moscow’s inability to protect it from strikes is an embarrassment to the Kremlin, the analysts said.

Retaking Crimea is a fundamental objective for President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, but for years, Moscow had faced little military threat to its occupation.

The Kremlin promoted immigration from Russia to Crimea, and the region’s balmy climate and beaches made it an attractive destination for Russian tourists. At the same time, a regional administration installed by the Kremlin cracked down on dissent. International human rights groups and Crimean activists say that scores of people, mostly from the peninsula’s Tatar ethnic group, have been arrested and detained in brutal conditions.

When Russia launched its full-scale war in February 2022, it used its forces in Crimea to seize nearby territory in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, establishing a land bridge that connected to parts of eastern Ukraine occupied by Russia.

Moscow has also used Crimea and its fleet stationed there as launchpads for missile strikes on Ukraine. As a result, eliminating the threat that emanates from the region is a central military target for Kyiv.

To accomplish this goal, Ukraine has in recent weeks deployed longer range Storm Shadow cruise missiles donated in recent months by Britain and Scalp missiles supplied by France.

The strikes have exposed flaws in Russia’s system of air defenses, according to Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence. As a result, Moscow has had to to redeploy antimissile batteries from elsewhere on the battlefield to Crimea.

“We are depleting their air defense missile stocks because those are not limitless. And from the political standpoint, we’re also demonstrating the obvious inability of Russian air defense systems,” he said.

The strikes could also disrupt Moscow’s ability to use its Black Sea Fleet to threaten Ukraine’s grain exports, according to Iulia-Sabina Joja, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program.

To counter the threat and sustain its capacity to use Crimea as a conduit for supplies to its forces fighting the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, Russia has dispersed its stores of ammunition, fuel and other essential military supplies, the analysts said.

In the longer term, Moscow aims to ride out the Ukrainian attacks, aware that Ukraine cannot contemplate a ground assault on the peninsula until it defeats Russian forces further north, according to Dmitri Kuznets, an independent analyst of the war who writes for Meduza, a Russian news website.

Ukrainian stocks of longer range missiles are finite, he said, adding that, while damaging, the campaign of strikes had not yet reached a critical point for Moscow.

“The goal is to disrupt Russian logistics and control in order to gain an advantage at the front. To achieve this, strikes are carried out not only in Crimea, but also throughout the south of Ukraine. In this sense, progress has been limited so far,” he said.

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