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Sensemaker: Target Crimea

Sensemaker: Target Crimea

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A Turkish expert said 180,000 people could be buried under the rubble left by Monday’s earthquakes (more below).
  • Downing Street said Ukraine’s President Zelensky would visit the UK today.
  • Castle Rock Entertainment announced a revival of Fawlty Towers with John Cleese.

Target Crimea

The latest weapons promised by the US for Ukraine don’t include F-16 jets but do include Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDBs). 

So what? So don’t be surprised if the war expands dramatically in the coming months, beyond territory occupied by Russia last year and into Crimea. GLSDBs have a range of 150 kilometres, easily enough to reach from Ukraine’s front lines to the peninsula Putin annexed seven years ago. Moreover…

  • formal recognition that Crimea is part of Ukraine has long been a precondition for any peace talks for President Zelensky; 
  • the Biden administration is said to have shifted towards backing Ukraine’s efforts to liberate its entire territory, including Crimea; and
  • Ukraine’s former head of defence intelligence, likely to become its new defence minister, said last month “Crimea will be returned to us”, by this summer if he has anything to do with it. 

Them’s fighting words. Indeed, especially given credible forecasts of a major new Russian offensive in the east, and possibly the south as well, as soon as this month. But there is a logic to the idea that Ukraine’s best defence is offence – not just to reverse last year’s losses but to re-establish its pre-2014 borders.

Stability. A year after Putin doubled down on his annexation of Crimea by invading the rest of the country, it’s clear that without resolving the Crimean problem the war will never be over.

Integrity. Continued Russian occupation of Crimea would mean a frozen conflict and a Ukrainian state unable to secure its own borders.

Security. It would also mean the continued presence of Russian military bases on the peninsula and a continued threat of Russian westward expansion. 

But how? To liberate Crimea Ukraine would first have to cut the Russian army’s supply chains by taking back Melitopol between occupied Donbas and Crimea. That would in turn would require 

  • liberating occupied parts of the Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions; and 
  • a massive build-up to cross the Dnipro river where Russian forces destroyed most bridges when retreating from Kherson.

A hellish grind. Crimea is mountainous terrain, surrounded by the Black Sea and connected to the mainland by a narrow land bridge. Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based there, backed by extensive aviation and air defence assets. 

Even so… Liberation of Crimea could take as little as 30 to 40 days, Viktor Kevliuk of Ukraine’s Centre for Defence Strategies says – provided Ukraine could field the right combination of mechanised, assault, tank and sea brigades, as well as boats, drones, rocket launchers (MLRS and HIMARS), artillery, helicopters and fixed wing aircraft.  

Reality check. Ukraine is still waiting for tanks and asking for more. The first dozen modern Leopard tanks out of roughly 150 promised by Germany and others won’t arrive until the end of March. F-16 jets have been ruled out by the US, Germany and Poland. Long-range ATACMS missiles have not been promised either, and the first GLSDBs may not arrive until October. By that time, the ground will be wet and virtually unusable for tanks, and hard to camouflage troops and machinery in open spaces. 

Meanwhile Russia is…

  • set to mobilise 500,000 more conscripts in addition to 300,000 called up in October, according to Ukraine’s deputy military intelligence chief; 
  • equipping the Wagner Group with North Korean missiles and re-stocking its own arsenal despite sanctions, including with Kh-101 cruise missiles;
  • preparing for battle in the south, where Russian ground forces are enhancing fortifications on the eastern bank of Dnipro and in northern Crimea. 

Ukraine’s army has shown it can beat Russia’s even though it is much smaller. But the same logic that compels Kyiv to plan for the liberation of Crimea dictates that Ukraine needs to be armed much faster than its allies currently envisage.


Biden’s blueprint
Three numbers to consider from Biden’s third State of the Union address last night: 800,000, 200 billion and 35. The first is the number of American jobs he claims have been created on his watch. The second is his dollar figure for “Big Oil” profits last year (he didn’t specify whether in the US or globally). The third is the monthly dollar price cap on insulin for Medicare recipients, which he wants to extend to all Americans who need it. All are part of an old-school pitch to the squeezed American middle class which he hopes won’t mind too much that he’ll be 81 at the next election. The speech was notable for his improv in response to Republican heckling – all of which he was reportedly prepped for, insofar as you can prep for such things, at Camp David.


Bing works
The WSJ’s Joanna Stern has tried the new AI-infused Bing search engine and reckons it works. The idea is to improve on Google and thereby eat into its 600-lb gorilla-ish 93 per cent market share by allowing users to type in real questions and get real answers. For instance, Stern asked Bing: “Can you recap the biggest winners of the 2023 Grammys?”. In reply, after a pause, she got a bespoke, bullet-pointed list with winners’ names in bold and a note that Beyoncé has now won more Grammys than anyone else, ever. She also got an interview with Bing’s owner’s CEO, Satya Nadella.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Quake overwhelms
More than 48 hours have passed since the first of Monday’s two calamitous earthquakes in Turkey and the chances of finding more survivors are shrinking fast. The Economist describes an apocalypse of flattened, burning towns and cites a local expert who fears the death toll – already more than 8,300 – could rise exponentially because so many were caught asleep in badly constructed buildings that pancaked when the first quake hit. It’s little consolation that in the 2010 Haiti earthquake initial estimates of 300,000 dead were revised down later, nor that a key difference between the two disasters is that in Haiti no one restricted aid workers’ access. In northern Syria, Assad has decreed that no aid gets through except by routes that he controls.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Greenhouse insurance
John Neal, head of Lloyds of London, tells the BBC Britain’s global reputation as a financial services hub took a beating last year because of its high turnover of PMs and chancellors and the September mini-budget. We knew that. More interesting is his observation that the £100 billion Lloyds paid out in 2022 because of natural disasters was 20 per cent higher than a five-year rolling average and attributable at least in part to climate change. Buildings insurance is already getting pricey in Miami. Expect sea-level premiums to go on up.


Tibet eroded
The UN has warned that about one million Tibetan children have been separated from their families and sent to Chinese boarding schools, apparently as part of a “mandatory large-scale” government programme to assimilate them into the majority Han culture. Three UN special rapporteurs said there were significantly more boarding schools in and around the Tibet Autonomous Region than seen elsewhere in China, with rural schools for local children being closed down and replaced by boarding schools where classes are only in Mandarin,  making it harder for children to communicate with their families and contributing to the “erosion” of their identity.

Thanks for reading. Please tell your friends to sign up, send us ideas and let us know what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Nina Kuryata

Additional reporting by Jess Winch, and Giles Whittell.

Photographs Getty Images

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