Since the unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has sought to invest in and develop the peninsula, with direct subsidies from the Russian federal budget accounting for 60-75% of the local economy. This makes Crimea the most heavily subsidised oblast in the Russian Federation, with subsidies including welfare benefits, housing grants and reimbursement for the costs incurred by investment projects. 

Following the annexation of Crimea, international sanctions were levied against Russia and Crimean entities, limiting the economic opportunities for the peninsula. In order to maintain the local economy, the Kremlin has invested extensively in social infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, in addition to support via direct subsidies. 

The principal reason Russia places so much value in the occupation of Crimea is due to the peninsula’s logistical and perceived cultural significance. Sevastopol is a valuable key warm water port for both Russia and Ukraine, who have shared the port facilities since 1990 when a long-term lease was agreed following the dissolution of the USSR. The port not only provides a space for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, but also gives Russian exports another departure point on the Black Sea (in addition to Novorossiysk).

Crimea is home to multiple hot springs and mud volcanoes and has been marketed domestically as the “Russian Riviera” since the Soviet era, so its position as a holiday destination for domestic tourism is well established. Additionally, vineyards, arable land for agriculture and oil fields offer attractive economic opportunities for Russia. However, as a result of sanctions following the annexation in 2014, the economic growth in the region has stagnated, even with extensive economic injections from the federal budget.

Russia is also a major exporter of oil and grain, with 70% of their grain exports being processed through Black Sea grain terminals and approximately one third of their oil export through their Black Sea port in Novorossiysk. In the past year, Russia has sent 200,000 metric tonnes of grain and wheat to countries in Africa and Asia free of charge. Maintaining a presence in Crimea gives Russia greater access to ports on the Black Sea, not only aiding in supporting Russia’s economy but assisting with the expansion of Russian soft power to other nations. 

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Logistics

One of the largest demonstrations of Russian investment in Crimea was the construction of the Kerch Bridge. The Kerch Bridge is the longest bridge in Europe, measuring 19km, connecting the Russian Federation and occupied Crimea. Previously, the bridge constituted a main supply route for Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) and civilians in the peninsula, however its importance has diminished since the beginning of the conflict as Russia has sought to diversify and de-risk the means of supplying resources to the southern front lines and military forces based in Crimea. 

Due to the bridge’s previous significance to RFAF logistics, it has been an important Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) target, regularly struck over the course of the conflict. In response to UAF attacks against transport infrastructure in the Kerch Strait, Russia has alternated between the use of rail ferries and the bridge to supply the peninsula. 

Today, the bridge remains the lesser used option for transporting supplies across the strait, with a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Navy assessing that only “one quarter” of supplies are transported over the bridge and that its destruction is “no longer of such tactical and strategic importance.”  

In spite of this, defending the bridge remains of importance to Russia. This can be observed by the recent deployment of an S-500 air defence system to protect it. This is Russia’s newest and most advanced surface-to-air system and has likely been deployed following the reported destruction of several S-300/S-400 air defence systems on the peninsula.

The construction of a new South Coast rail line from Rostov-on-Don to Sevastopol, with stops at major port cities including Mariupol and Berdiansk, provides resilience to RFAF logistical operations. The new rail line is approximately 200km shorter than the existing rail line in the area and provides a supply route into occupied Crimea that is far more resistant to attack from UAF than transport over the Kerch Strait.

Fig 1. A map showing the new rail lines built by Russia in occupied Ukraine. Source: @Russ_Warrior

Mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boichenko, stated RFAF have already begun to use the city as a logistics base, which has caused concerns amongst Ukrainian officials. A Ukrainian Defence Intelligence spokesperson stated that the railway constitutes a “serious threat” as railway lines are far cheaper and faster to repair than the bridge, the building of which reportedly cost over £2 billion. 

Fig 2. Images published on Vadym Boichenko’s Telegram, highlighting
the presence of Russian ships in the port of Mariupol. Source: t.me/andriyshTime

The completion of the Kerch bridge in May 2018 not only cemented Russia’s presence in the peninsula, but also served to benefit Russia in other ways. Logistically, it eased the transport of resources to Crimea, whereas symbolically, the bridge became a compelling image of “reunification” – a justification later used by Putin to defend the annexation. In Putin’s speech on 13 Mar 2014, he frequently stressed the importance of a nation to protect its own citizens, alluding to his intention to protect Crimean residents as Russian citizens.

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Military

Since the beginning of the conflict, Ukrainian sabotage and long-range missile strikes have sought to undermine this declaration of protection from the Russian state, with head of the Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov announcing that the US has provisioned Ukrainian Forces with sufficient long-range ATACMS missiles to strike the Kerch Bridge. In September 2022, Ukraine struck the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, likely killing several senior military figures and dealing a high-profile blow to the Russian Navy involved in the Ukraine conflict. 

Fig 3. Image showing the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol following the September 2022 attacks. Source: @heartsteered

As of June 2024, Ukraine has reportedly disabled or destroyed over a third of Russian warships in the Black Sea Fleet (BSF). UAF seemingly conduct strikes against oil and port infrastructure at will, despite Ukraine’s clear lack of a significant Naval capability. The effective use of long-range missiles and uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs) has enabled UAF to cause maximal disruption to RFAF’s operations in the Black Sea, and more recently in the Sea of Azov. 

The most recent strike on 23 Jun 24, resulting in four casualties and 150 injured, highlights the inability of the Russian Federation to effectively protect the populace of Crimea. 

So what does this all mean?

While Crimea is an undeniable burden to the Russian economy, it remains symbolically and strategically crucial for Russia. It provides a vital warm-water port for the Black Sea Fleet, access to oil and agricultural resources, and a potential launchpad for projecting power. While the Kerch Bridge was initially a logistical lifeline, Russia has wisely diversified supply routes, reducing its vulnerability.

However, it is the bridge’s symbolic significance that remains a major target for Ukraine. Its destruction is unlikely to cripple Russian logistics, but it would be a devastating blow to Russian prestige. It would symbolise Ukraine’s ability to strike deep behind enemy lines while simultaneously highlighting Russia’s failure to protect Crimea. 

Beyond the bridge, Ukraine’s success in disrupting Russia’s superior navy with low-cost USVs and long-range missiles highlights a shift in naval warfare. Previously, dominating a region at sea required a significant and expensive fleet. Now, smaller powers can disrupt larger powers with strategic use of more affordable options. 

Fig 4. Image showing some of the defensive barges located around the Kerch Bridge. Source: @MyLordBebo

What does this mean going forward? 

While a full Ukrainian takeover of Crimea seems unlikely, Ukraine has proven its ability to disrupt Russia’s hold through successful targeted attacks. This will almost certainly continue in the short term, with key infrastructure like ports, oil facilities, and energy grids remaining prime targets. The aim of the Ukrainians at this point is to make occupation as costly and inconvenient as possible for the Russians.

In response, Russia is likely to redeploy already scarce air defence (AD) systems to protect these key targets which in turn is likely to leave gaps in coverage elsewhere. Should this AD redeployment occur alongside further relaxing of US restrictions on use of long-range (US-provided) weapons, this could create greater opportunities to have a strategic effect deeper in Russian territory. 

In the Black Sea, successful Ukrainian attacks against the BSF will likely continue to constrain Russian maritime operations to the Sea of Azov. This may be mitigated if the Russian Navy can absorb lessons from previous losses, leading to adaptations in Russia’s counter USV tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), which could see them attempting to contest the Black Sea to a greater extent.

It is a realistic possibility that Ukrainian forces will conduct attacks against key railway nodes and connections along the South Coast railway line to cause maximal disruption with minimal expenditure. While Russia can repair these disruptions faster than bridge or ferry issues, a successful Ukrainian ground incursion from Zaporizhzhia Oblast could permanently sever the rail link. However, such an incursion is a major operation, unlikely to happen before 2025.

Ultimately it is unthinkable for Vladimir Putin to lose control of the Crimean Peninsula. It would render his position untenable and as such he is committed to both investing in and protecting Crimea at all costs. This presents the UAF with an opportunity to force valuable Russian resources to be committed to its defence, potentially opening up operational opportunities elsewhere in the theatre. 

The analysis in this article is drawn from the subject matter expertise of our team who support our clients in Ukraine with timely, accurate and insightful threat-to-life reporting and operational enablement. If you are interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the Crimean Peninsula, Prevail Partners can provide valuable insights through our comprehensive analysis and expertise in military strategy. Contact us today to learn more about how we can assist your organisation in navigating complex geopolitical challenges and making informed decisions.

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