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Ukraine’s strike on Russian air base sends a message: Putin is losing

If the Ukrainian strike on Saky military base in the Novofedorivka region of Russian-occupied Crimea on Tuesday can be attributed to the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), then once again, Moscow’s much-vaunted S-400 air defense system has failed. While there has been no shortage of speculation, the two most likely courses of action delivering the hit were HIMARS and/or Ukrainian special forces.

Reports suggest Ukrainian special forces have received training and equipment from U.S. Special Forces and British Special Air Service to conduct operations behind enemy lines. As a result, they have been given credit for several attacks in Russian-occupied territory.

If it was the use of HIMARS, the S-400 would have proven itself unreliable under kinetic fire, revealing a vulnerability: the inability to defend Russian air force assets at Saky, command and control centers, and ammunition and fuel depots. Equally important, it would strike at the psyche of Russian soldiers who rely on this “safety blanket” for protection. Their exposure would be yet another blow to morale.

“If” is the key word here, of course. With just a look at Google Maps, one can discern that the Crimean base is easily 200 kilometers from the nearest probable Ukrainian HIMARS position — well short of the range that U.S.-provided munitions could achieve. However, Lockheed Martin sold HIMARS to Poland in 2017 and Romania in 2018. (The Romanian HIMARS-equipped 8th Tactical Operational Missile Brigade completed training in June at the Romanian National Training Center for Anti-aircraft Defense, test-firing the three systems delivered in February 2021.) And since NATO countries supplied Ukraine with weapons when the United States initially balked at doing so, either Poland or Romania could have provided munitions to target the Russian base. With a range up to 300 kilometers, striking the base would be possible.  

Russia has used the air base in Crimea to launch airstrikes into southern Ukraine. Initial reports suggest as many as nine Russian aircraft were destroyed in the attack, while many Russian civilians were spending a sunny day at a nearby coastal beach, as if oblivious to Vladimir Putin’s war going on a couple hundred kilometers to their north — until it found them.

Mindful that any attack on Crimea would trigger massive retaliation, including strikes on the capital, Ukraine has not taken responsibility for the attack. The Russian explanation of a “mishandling of explosives” doesn’t seem to match the destruction or battle damage assessment. Their response was basically a play on the famous line from the “Wizard of Oz” — ”Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Russian civilians, however, know what they saw and felt. To them, the war just got real — or, in Putin’s parlance, the “special operation” now includes them.

Perception can be confused with reality, of course, and sometimes saying nothing adds to fear of the unknown. Ukraine has demonstrated it can win in psychological operations. Whether HIMARS or Ukrainian Special Forces conducted this attack — or even a cruise missile, as some suggest — it sent a message: Russian soldiers are not safe anywhere in Ukraine. The attack was bold, happening during the light of day.

If Russian beach-goers had found a message in a bottle that day, it might have said: “Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy still considers Crimea a part of Ukraine. Go home alive, while you can.”  

The success of the strike on Saky demonstrates what Ukrainian fighters can accomplish, given the tools they need — especially variants that can strike behind Russian lines in Ukraine. Russian soldiers felt Ukraine’s wrath, and Russian civilians in Crimea now know they are not immune to the war, one that their country is losing. The Biden administration must reconsider providing Ukraine the full complement of HIMARS munitions.

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.

Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL