“This war began with Crimea and must end with Crimea – with its liberation,” proclaimed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelesnyk in August. According to military analysts, this is precisely what his generals intend to accomplish.
Ben Hodges, former commander of American forces in Europe, has defined what he thinks to be the Ukrainian path to victory, which includes the cities of Kherson and Mariupol and concludes when the final Russian soldier leaves Crimea across the [Kerch] bridge.
General Hodges, who is now with the Center for European Policy Analysis, believes that Ukraine’s primary objective will continue to be the capture of Kherson in the south, where a major assault has been ongoing since early August, with a secondary attack extending through the Donbas and towards Mariupol.
When Mariupol falls, he said last week at a CEPA meeting, these troops will also descend on Crimea, bombarding the peninsula with HIMARS rockets and drive the Russians back across the border.
Dr. Mike Martin, a visiting scholar of war studies at King’s College, also suggested on Twitter the possibility of a third assault in which Ukraine uses its reserves to divide the Russian frontline and make it impossible for Putin to move reinforcements.
There are no guarantees in war, and Putin will do all in his power to thwart Kyiv, from massing conscripts on the front lines to possibly employing nuclear weapons.
However, as the path to success for Ukraine becomes clearer, MailOnline analyzes how it could play out…
General Ben Hodges, former commander of US forces in Europe, has defined what he considers to be Ukraine’s route to victory over Russia, stating that “Crimea is the prize” and that the war will finish “when the last Russian soldier walks along the [Kerch bridge, connecting the peninsula to Russia].”
Ukraine began its much-touted counterattack on the Kherson region in early August and has made modest progress ever since, with indications of a breakthrough beginning to emerge this week.
Kyiv’s stated objective is to retake the Russian-held city of Kherson. It is the only regional capital that Putin has captured thus far during the war, and it has a vital location, crossing the Dnipro River where it flows into the Dniprovska Gulf and then into the Black Sea.
Taking it would deprive Russia of its sole foothold on the west bank of the Dnieper, all but preclude an assault on Odessa, prove Putin’s phony referendums and annexation claims to be false, and pave the way for an assault on Crimea, the crown jewel of Ukraine.
Ukraine has been methodically advancing on the city of Kherson for the past two months and may have made a breakthrough this week, according to reports that Russian forces have retreated more than 16 kilometers.
Ukrainian special forces are depicted marching in the south of the country amid claims of a breach in Russian lines that may have forced Putin’s troops back more than 16 kilometers.
Ukrainian tanks begin fire on Russian positions in Kherson, as part of a significant offensive in the region aimed at recapturing the city from Russia – a big setback for Putin’s invasion.
General Hodges anticipated that it could take “weeks” to breach the pocket in Kherson. Ukraine itself has not provided a timeline. But if this win can be secured, it will be a turning point.
Russia has stationed the majority of its remaining forces in Ukraine, and nearly all of its strongest fighting units in the city – maybe as many as 30,000 troops in total – and their loss would be a setback from which the Kremlin would be hard-pressed to recoup.
And, if Kherson were to fall, Kyiv has left no doubt in the minds of observers as to what would follow.
Several massive explosions shook the Crimea prior to the attack on Kherson, destroying ammunition depots, airfields, and resupply routes. Kyiv was sluggish to declare responsibility, possibly attempting to conceal the weapon used in the assaults, which appeared to beyond its known capabilities, or perhaps fearing Putin’s escalation.
In 2014, the dictator annexed Crimea, making it a part of Russia, at least in the view of the Kremlin.
However, in a speech delivered on August 10, Zelensky declared, “Crimea is Ukrainian, and we will never give it up.” This Russian conflict must conclude with the liberation of Crimea, where it began.
Before a few weeks, this frontline looked radically different: Kharkiv, Ukraine, was fighting off Russian long-range attacks from the north, while Bakhmut, Russia, was making gradual inroads from the south.
After relocating some of its strongest battalions to the south to assist defend Kherson, Russia launched a surprise Ukrainian counteroffensive, which changed everything.
A breach in Russian lines resulted in a quick advance and subsequent outright rout of Putin’s soldiers in the Kharkiv region, returning an estimated 8,000 square miles to Ukrainian control in a matter of days.
When Ukrainians arrived at abandoned Russian encampments, they reportedly found food still sitting on stoves due to the haste of the Russian withdrawal. Hundreds of rounds of ammunition and dozens of cars were captured.
A dramatic Ukrainian counterattack east from Kharkiv has slowed but not stopped, with the city of Lyman now under Kyiv’s control and its troops advancing towards Svatove and Kreminove.
In Donetsk, Ukrainian troops are captured ambushing Russian armored vehicles with anti-tank launchers, destroying at least one of them.
Moreover, the offensive continues. Russia has regrouped, and Ukraine has halted, but not stopped, its advance.
The capture of Lyman, a vital transport hub in northern Donetsk, occurred over the weekend. Troops are currently pushing from there to Kreminna in neighboring Luhansk, as well as from Borova to Svatove in the same region.
Should these two cities fall, it would pave the way for an assault on Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, places that Russia spent weeks seizing and which are essential to its claim of having ‘liberated’ the Luhansk area.
From there, Ukraine might attack one of the regional capitals, Donetsk or Luhansk, or bypass them and advance south towards the sea and Mariupol.
Certainly, it is the conclusion General Hodges has reached.
‘My opinion is that the actions that are currently ongoing – the northern arm that is descending from Kharkiv into Donetsk – are heading directly towards Mariupol,’ he told the CEPA conference.
Mariupol was the other prize gained by Putin in less than seven months of conflict, when valiant Ukrainian forces were beaten down to the verge of capitulation – which occurred in May.
Mariupol’s recapture by Ukraine would be devastating. The Azov Battalion, which defended the city, was portrayed as war criminals and neo-Nazis by Russia. At least in part, Putin’s claim to be “de-Nazifying” Ukraine is predicated on the destruction of this unit and the capture of the city.
General Hodges believes that if Mariupol falls, Ukrainian soldiers will move only one direction: towards Crimea.
“When and where to send your reserve is basically THE decision for the theater commander,” Dr. Mike Martin of King’s College tweeted around a month ago, when the scale of Ukraine’s counterattack around Kharkiv became apparent.
The Ukraine’s reserves are largely unknown. Kyiv has maintained the size of its military forces and the number of its casualties a highly guarded secret, making it impossible to estimate the number of soldiers it may have ready and able to deploy as well as the type of equipment they may be armed with.
However, Kyiv has carried out a general mobilisation of the population, as opposed to Russia’s ‘partial’ mobilisation, meaning that every man up to the age of 65 is eligible to be called up, which would equal to millions of troops if they were all equipped and trained.
The question then becomes where, how, and when Ukraine uses these forces.
Ukraine has an undetermined amount of troops in reserve, but its entire population has been mobilized, giving it millions of potential attackers.
Today, Dr. Martin tweeted that he believes he has found the solution. Ukraine would utilize its strategic reserve to divide the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine into two components that cannot reinforce each other.
Alongside the tweet, he attached a hastily-drawn map indicating the presumed course of the march, from the central cities of Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia towards Mariupol and neighboring Berdyansk.
With the exception of clashes around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and Ukrainian partisan activity, this front has been rather quiet since Russia marched across it early in the war; nonetheless, Dr. Martin predicts that it will soon become the epicenter of the fighting.
The trust makes logical, providing Ukraine can carry it through. It would let the forces around Kharkiv to concentrate their efforts on striking Luhansk and Donetsk, therefore liberating the Donbas from Russian control. And it would prohibit Putin from withdrawing any units from Kherson to assist in defending the region, unless they were willing to break through Ukrainian lines.
The reward is in Crimea. That is what will transpire. General Hodges says that victory will be achieved when the last Russian soldier crosses the bridge Putin ordered built across the Kerch Strait to connect Crimea to the Russian mainland.
Mark Hertling, another former US commander who spoke at the same CEPA session, concurred that Ukraine’s objective is the peninsula. However, he emphasized that capturing it will be “a tough fight.”
In contrast to the rest of Ukraine, which is mostly flat and open, the Crimean peninsula is largely divided from the rest of the country by what General Hertling refers to as “marshland” – a chain of small islands with only two main highways that Ukrainian forces may use to attack it.
Even if it is assumed that Russian forces will be in poor condition by the time any assault occurs, this still renders them extremely vulnerable and restricts Kiev’s operational options.
Multiple big explosions have rocked a military installation in Russian-held Crimea this afternoon, and a mushroom cloud has prompted beachgoers to escape.
At the scene of explosions at a Russian-held airbase in Novofedorivka, Crimea, a massive mushroom cloud can be seen rising.
9 August, in occupied Crimea, smoke rises following explosions at a Russian military airstrip near Novofedorivka.
When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, primarily naval troops and special operators were utilized, according to General Hertling. Ukraine lacks ships and naval operations at present; hence, long-range [artillery] will be required to enter the area.
‘However, artillery alone cannot be used to seize territory; for that, ground troops are required. It will be a difficult fight.
General Hertling is confident that Putin will battle to retain Crimea if he remains in power.
He continued, ‘If Mr. Putin remains in power, he will consider [an attack on Crimea] as even more problematic than strikes in other Ukrainian oblasts.’ We have not yet witnessed Russia employ its strategic bomber fleet, nor have we witnessed them employ their naval forces to the extent that they could.
Given how dysfunctional their land forces have been, you would wonder if we should be as concerned about their air and naval forces. I would say most likely. However, they are still available.
General Hodges concurred, but he believes that once Ukrainian artillery – particularly the destructive HIMARS systems – comes within range of Russian bases in Crimea, they will become “untenable” and Putin will have a “option.”
General Hodges stated, “I believe the Ukrainians will leave that massive bridge standing as an encouragement to withdraw.”