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Crimea attacks point to Ukraine’s newest strategy, official says

Smoke from an explosion at a Russian army ammunition storage depot near the village of Mayskoye, Crimea, on Aug. 16. (AP)

A previous version of this article misidentified Mykhailo Podolyak as an adviser to Ukraine's defense minister. He is an adviser to the president. The article has been corrected.

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces are pursuing a new strategy of attacking key military targets deep inside Russian-occupied territory in hopes of undermining Moscow’s ability to hold the front lines ahead of an eventual Ukrainian counteroffensive to reclaim territory, Ukraine’s defense minister said Wednesday.

Ukraine’s conventional forces lack the weapons and ammunition needed to launch a full-scale ground offensive to retake territory from the Russians, Oleksii Reznikov said in an interview. He said he expects that sufficient quantities will eventually be delivered in line with commitments already made by Ukraine’s Western partners.

In the meantime, Ukraine is seeking to erode Russia’s capabilities by attacking its most sensitive military installations from within.

“We’re using a strategy to ruin their stocks, to ruin their depots, to ruin their headquarters, commander quarters,” he said. “It’s our answer to their meat-grinder tactics.”

To that end, Ukraine is activating a “resistance force” under the command of Ukrainian special forces to carry out attacks far behind Russian lines, Reznikov said. The force was formed in January in accordance with a law passed last year, and in recent weeks it has been activated in Ukrainian territory held by the Russians.

Some spectacular explosions in the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula over the past week have drawn attention to the emerging strategy and to the role of Ukrainian special forces in implementing it. Ukrainian officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have told The Washington Post that those forces were responsible for the Crimea blasts, at a Russian air base last week and at an ammunition depot and an air base on Tuesday.

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Reznikov reiterated the Ukrainian government’s official position that it can neither confirm nor deny Ukrainian involvement in the Crimea attacks. But striking such targets does form a part of Ukraine’s current military strategy, and Ukraine lacks weapons systems with the range to reach targets in Crimea from Ukrainian-controlled territory, he said.

Crimea serves as Russia’s main supply route for weapons and ammunition reaching the front lines across the swath of southern Ukraine that was occupied by Russian troops in the first days of the invasion. It is also used as a base for war planes launching missile attacks on Ukrainian towns and cities, making it a valid military target, he said.

“They have their full depots of ammunition in Crimea, and they deliver them to the south of Ukraine, the mainland. So we need to destroy them, like we did in the Kyiv campaign, to cut their logistics lines,” he said. He was referring to the way Ukrainian forces interrupted Russian supply lines and eventually forced a Russian retreat from the Kyiv area in the first weeks of the war.

Until last week, Russian troops — and even beach-going tourists — had assumed they were safe in Crimea because it was out of range of Ukraine’s existing arsenal. Ukraine has been seeking longer-range weapons from the United States, but U.S. officials have balked, citing fears that Ukraine could use them to attack Russian territory and perhaps trigger a wider war. Russia occupied and annexed Crimea in 2014 following street protests in Ukraine that ousted a pro-Moscow president.

But Ukraine is not using U.S.-supplied weapons in the attacks, mitigating potential concerns in Washington that Ukrainian attacks on Crimea, which Russia regards as Russian territory, could lead to escalation.

“For our American partners it’s an absolutely convenient situation, because we didn’t use American weapons,” Reznikov said.

However, Ukraine’s Western backers have been involved in training the special forces that are responsible for the attacks, said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky. NATO partners have provided trainers to show the Ukrainians how to operate behind Russian lines, he said.

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He and other officials call the new strategy “de-occupation.” Podolyak said its goal is to counter Russia’s “shock fist” strategy of slow advances on the ground, using artillery to pulverize towns and villages, then moving in only after Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been forced to flee.

The main targets, he said, are ammunition and fuel warehouses and headquarters housing the Russian officers who command front-line troops. By hitting those, he said, “we break the active operational support and bleed the Russian army.”

Podolyak said the strategy also includes U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) delivered by the United States starting in late June. They are being used to strike similar targets but are confined by their maximum 50-mile reach.

They have nonetheless played a major role in recent weeks, blunting Russian advances in the eastern Donbas region that is the current focus of Russia’s military offensive. Since they arrived, the HIMARS have been used to destroy ammunition depots and command-and-control headquarters positioned behind Russian lines that had previously been out of range.

Taking the fight to Crimea will further impede Russia’s ability to sustain military operations in the south of the country, and notably the Kherson region, which Ukraine has indicated will be the first target of a counteroffensive, Reznikov said. The HIMARS have already succeeded in disrupting Russian supply lines to the city of Kherson, which depend on just three bridges across the Dnieper River that have been heavily bombarded by the high-precision rocket systems in recent weeks.

In Wednesday’s attack, Ukrainian media reports said at least 10 Russian soldiers were killed in a strike on a Russian command post in Nova Kakhovka, a town at one of the key bridges. The reports did not say what weapon was used.

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