In the main, most Russians appear to be unaware of the true horrors of the Ukraine conflict. A combination of a pliant Russian media happy to peddle Kremlin-inspired propaganda and the Putin regime’s willingness to tell bare-faced lies about the setbacks it has suffered seems to have left the majority of Russians broadly supportive of what is still termed a “special military operation”.
The sinking of the Russian warship the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, in April is a case in point. While many Russians are inclined to believe the Kremlin’s claim that its demise was caused by an onboard munitions explosion, all the evidence points to two Neptune anti-ship missiles fired by Ukrainian forces causing the loss of the largest Russian warship since the Second World War.
The Kremlin is even trying to conceal the enormity of Russia’s combat losses during the six month-long conflict. According to the latest Western intelligence estimates, the Russians have lost around half of the 150,000 combat force, killed or injured, originally sent to “liberate” Ukraine. Moscow has gone to extreme lengths to hide the exact number, with reports of mobile crematorium units being used to dispose of its fatalities.
This week’s attack on a major Russian military air base in Crimea, which was witnessed by crowds of holidaymakers sunning themselves at a nearby beach resort, will therefore have provided an unwelcome reminder of the ferocity of the conflict Vladimir Putin has initiated against Ukraine.
Large plumes of smoke were clearly visible to alarmed Russians as a series of explosions rocked the air base, destroying a significant number of Russian warplanes. While the initial indications were that the attack against the Novofedorivka air base near the Black Sea resort of Saki involved a number of long-range missiles, it may in fact have been carried out by Ukrainian special forces operating within Russian-controlled territory.
The air base is located about 125 miles inside occupied Crimea, and is a particularly sensitive target for the Russian military. It is where Russian pilots are trained to fly from aircraft carriers, even if Moscow’s sole carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, has been tied up in Murmansk since 2017 undergoing extensive repairs.
The Crimean attack will give a significant morale boost to Ukrainian forces. They have been targeting a number of critical Russian military and ammunition bases ahead of an expected assault to recapture the strategically important city of Kherson on the Dnipro River, a key gateway to the Crimean peninsula.
Moreover, from Ukraine’s perspective, attacking Crimea will be seen as fair game, as it was an integral part of the country until its seizure by Putin eight years ago. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking shortly after details of the attack emerged, indicated that it was Kyiv’s ultimate goal to retake the peninsula. “This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea – its liberation,” he declared in his nightly address.
However, a Ukrainian attack so deep into Russian-controlled territory represents a significant escalation in the conflict. While Russia has regularly fired cruise missiles at civilian targets across Ukraine – including Kyiv – the Ukrainians have reserved their missile strikes for Russian forces in the Donbas region. So this latest attack will have alarmed the Russian high command, as they now have to concentrate their efforts on increasing protection at key strategic locations far from Ukraine’s borders, adding further pressure to their already depleted forces.
It also raises questions about how the Kremlin might respond to this highly provocative act – assuming, that is, it still has the means to do so.
Crimea holds a special place in Putin’s heart, which is why he risked international opprobrium to occupy and annex the territory in 2014. Just a few weeks ago, Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and a close ally of Putin, promised to unleash “Judgment Day” if Ukraine ever attacked Crimea.
Whether the Russian military has the ability to follow through on this threat is another matter entirely. Admittedly, the Russians can still fire cruise missiles indiscriminately at Ukrainian targets, but their ability to make tangible gains becomes more difficult by the day.
The arrival of sophisticated Western weaponry has turned the tide of the conflict in Ukraine’s favour, and the Russians no longer can rely on air superiority to achieve their objectives. To this must be added the drastic recruitment problems the Russian military is experiencing in its efforts to maintain its offensive in Ukraine, with reports that they have resorted to recruiting the dregs of society to maintain numbers, including prisoners.
Now that ordinary holidaymaking Russians have seen with their own eyes the military setbacks Russia is suffering, we can only hope that they will soon realise that Putin’s war aims are not going to plan – whatever the Kremlin’s propaganda machine would like its citizens to believe.