January 31, 2024

Institute for the Study of War: Ukraine missiles strike Russian targets near Sevastopol base in Crimea

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian forces struck Russian targets in the vicinity of Belbek airfield in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea on January 31. Ukrainian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk amplified geolocated footage on January 31 showing a Ukrainian strike near the Belbek airfield and thanked Ukrainian forces for striking targets in occupied Crimea. Additional geolocated footage published on January 31 shows large smoke plumes rising from the airfield. ISW has yet to observe evidence indicating what Russian targets Ukrainian forces struck at or near the airfield. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claimed that Russian forces intercepted 20 Ukrainian missiles, 17 reportedly on the approaches to Sevastopol and three reportedly elsewhere over occupied Crimea. The Russian MoD claimed that missile fragments fell in Lyubimivka (northwest of Sevastopol), and Sevastopol occupation governor Mikhail Razvozhaev claimed that missile fragments damaged buildings along Fedorivska Street and the “Ust-Belbek” garden association, both in the vicinity of the Belbek airfield. A prominent Kremlin-affiliated milblogger claimed that Ukrainian forces used Storm Shadow cruise missiles in the strikes. Ukrainian forces recently repeatedly targeted the Saky airfield (north of Sevastopol) as part of a multi-day strike campaign against Russian targets in occupied Crimea in early January 2024. Ukrainian forces previously conducted a more extensive strike campaign against Russian military infrastructure and Black Sea Fleet (BSF) assets in the summer of 2023 that pushed Russian naval assets largely out of the western part of the Black Sea and that aimed to degrade the Russian military’s ability to use Crimea as a staging and rear area for defensive operations in southern Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin doubled down on his maximalist and purposefully vague territorial objectives in Ukraine on January 31. Putin stated during a meeting with his election “proxies” that pushing the current frontline deeper into Ukraine is the most important goal for Russian forces across the theater. Putin emphasized the idea of a “demilitarized” or “sanitary” zone in Ukraine that he claimed would place Russian territory – including occupied Ukraine – out of range of both frontline artillery systems and Western-provided long-range systems. Putin’s stated goal of pushing the front line so that Russia’s claimed and actual territories are outside of Ukrainian firing range is a vague goal that is actually unattainable as long as there is an independent Ukraine with any ability to fight. Putin would likely annex any Ukrainian territories Russia managed to capture in pursuit of this supposed objective (particularly in the four oblasts Russia has already claimed to have annexed but only partially controls), thus bringing the new Russian territories into range of Ukrainian systems in whatever remains of an independent Ukraine. A Russian nationalist milblogger expanded on this dilemma, noting that Russia would also have to capture Mykolaiv and Odesa cities to eliminate the threat of Ukrainian long range strikes against occupied Crimea and that Russian forces would need to capture the Slovyansk-Kramatorsk line in Donetsk Oblast to relieve the current front line. The milblogger notably suggested even further territorial expansion by asking whether Russia wants Slovyansk to ”bear the fate of an eternally frontline city.” Putin’s January 31 statements do not represent significant inflections in Russia’s stated war aims or actual military capabilities but are rather likely intended to capitalize on existing narratives in Western media that could block short and long term Western military assistance to Ukraine and compel the West to negotiate with Russia on Russian terms.

Key Takeaways:

  • Ukrainian forces struck Russian targets in the vicinity of Belbek airfield in occupied Sevastopol, Crimea on January 31.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin doubled down on his maximalist and purposefully vague territorial objectives in Ukraine on January 31.
  • Ukrainian and Russian forces conducted a prisoner-of-war (POW) exchange on January 31, exchanging 195 Russian POWs for 207 Ukrainian POWs.
  • The European Union (EU) will reportedly fall short of its promise to provide Ukraine with one million artillery shells by March 1, 2024, as European leaders call on EU member states to intensify deliveries of ammunition to Ukraine.
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that Russian-Chinese relations are at their “best period in their history” in a January 31 call with Chinese Defense Minister Admiral Dong Jun.
  • Kremlin officials and mouthpieces continued rhetorical efforts to prevent Moldova’s integration into the EU and to set information conditions to justify future Russian aggression against Moldova.
  • The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) reported that it recently conducted a cyberattack on a Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) communications server.
  • Estonian Defense Forces Commander General Martin Herem stated that Russia may be behind recent GPS jamming in the Baltic region.
  • Russian forces recently made confirmed advances near Bakhmut, near Avdiivka, and southwest of Donetsk City amid positional engagements along the entire line of contact on January 31.
  • Russian forces reportedly formed a “secret” battalion of penal recruits to conduct offensive operatio:  ns in western Zaporizhia Oblast but are reportedly disbanding the battalion.
  • Russian and occupation officials continue efforts to erase Ukrainian cultural and ethnic identity in occupied territories.

For full report:   https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-january-31-2024 

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