Putin’s swan song: ‘Cri-Me-A River’?

One hundred two years ago, for 10 days in November, parts of the Russian Civil War brutally played out, leaving 12,000 soldiers dead in and along the Isthmus of Perekop, a five- to seven-kilometer land bridge connecting the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine. In 1920, it was the Bolsheviks crushing the White Russians to seize permanent control of Crimea, whereas today it is Russian President Vladimir Putin and his forces who soon may be under siege along what is loosely known as the “Perekop wall” — in actuality, a series of dugout trenches dating back to the Romans and Tatars — by advancing Ukrainian brigades.

Russia’s military failures in Ukraine are rapidly mounting — first in Kyiv, then Donbas, and now with the fall of Kherson. Those are three major setbacks in less than nine months, involving more than 100,000 casualties and an estimated loss of 50 percent of formerly Russian-occupied territory. As the Russian military continues to be humiliatingly forced back to their pre-Feb. 24 battle positions, does this mark the beginning of another frozen conflict? 

Putin, likely, needs that to be the case, because it would afford him the opportunity to shore up his increasingly exposed defenses in Crimea. As it is, however, all the decisions available to Putin are bad and getting worse. He abandoned Kherson and the soldiers defending the newly annexed Russian city. His options now are largely limited to defensively falling back on the Donbas and Crimea — the start point.

If the Kremlin elects to try to stay on the offensive, the most likely course of action would be to launch a second assault on Kyiv from Belarus. The most inhumane and dangerous course of action would be to continue the militarily irrelevant rounds of drone and ballistic missile strikes on Ukraine’s civilian population and infrastructure — such as Tuesday’s cruise missile attacks on residential neighborhoods in Kyiv during the G20 summit in Indonesia. Putin’s least likely course of action would be to negotiate an end to his “special military operation.” 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is refusing to make negotiated withdrawal easier on Putin. Although said to be open to negotiations, Zelensky is set on five conditions: “Restoration of territorial integrity; respect for the UN Charter; compensation for all damages caused by the war; punishment of every war criminal; and guarantees that this will not happen again.” They are conditions that would further humiliate Putin and likely ensure his ouster as Russia’s president.

Adding to the humiliation, Zelensky has made it clear that “Crimea is Ukrainian and we will never give it up.” While Kherson is the story today, Zelensky’s sights are clearly set on the “restoration of territorial integrity,” and at the top of that list is Crimea. Absent a diplomatic breakthrough, Russia most likely will withdraw back to their pre-Feb. 24 defensive positions, while offering terms for peace to buy time and prepare their defenses. Priority would go to the Crimea peninsula. Simply put, it is key terrain, what the U.S. Department of Defense defines as “any locality, or area, the seizure or retention of which affords a marked advantage to either combatant.” 

Putin can ill afford to lose Crimea militarily or symbolically. The peninsula affords Russia critical logistical land-based access to its naval base at Sevastopol, home to the Black Sea Fleet and Russia’s primary means of projecting power throughout the Black Sea region and into the Mediterranean. Additionally, air defense assets and coastal defense units located on the peninsula guard Russia’s southern flank from NATO. 

To try to secure and further fortify Crimea, Russia likely would establish a series of defensive belts extending from the eastern bank of the Dnipro River to the border of the Kherson Oblast, culminating on the two vulnerable crossing points into Crimea along the Isthmus of Perekop — the crossroads in vicinity of Armiansk, along Highways E97 and T2202, and Checkpoint Chonhar along Highway E105, leading to the bridge over the Chongar Strait. Tactically, in an ironic twist, it would almost mirror the siege of Perekop, also known as the Perekop-Çonğar Operation.

Further east, the Donbas region likely would be left to fend for itself. Its propaganda value offered political cover in February, but it provides little strategic military value to Russia now and only drains resources required elsewhere. 

Given Russia’s abrupt withdrawal from Kherson, Putin’s pugilistic vow to “defend Russia’s territory — including the annexed regions — with any means at his military’s disposal, including nuclear weapons,” now rings hollow. This is not lost on pro-war Russian ideologist Alexander Dugin, who reportedly stated, “Russian ideology defines Russia’s responsibility to defend Russian cities such as Kherson, Belgorod, Kursk, Donetsk, and Simferopol. … The authorities in Russia cannot surrender anything else. … The limit has been reached.” 

Additional domestic pressure is being applied by Russian media figure Vladimir Solovyov, who echoed Dugin, stating, “The Kremlin and higher military command [must] fully commit to their goals in Ukraine.” Plus, as the Institute for the Study of War noted, “Wagner-affiliated channels are also turning on the Kremlin, which may further elevate the influence of the siloviki faction. Some milbloggers implied that the Kremlin has betrayed Kherson City by ‘selling out,’ while others noted that the Kremlin has consistently surrendered its territories without asking the Russian people.”

The Kremlin’s “special military operation” is now all about Russia and Putin’s survival — Ukraine is effectively lost, and Russia needs to maintain possession of Crimea to remain viable as a conventional superpower. A supporting effort from Belarus is still likely, though more as a demonstration of force intended to militarily fix Ukrainian forces in the north and away from Crimea. As many as 70,000 Belarusian and up to 15,000 Russian troops are forward-positioned in Belarus. Ukraine and the West, therefore, must maintain situational awareness on their activities. 

Putin could be facing his end in Crimea in a dystopian version of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Zelensky, in winning and playing the good sorcerer, has turned Putin into a black swan — increasingly, there is no easy escape in Ukraine or in Moscow for the Russian leader. All that likely remains is Putin’s swan song: “Cri-me-a River.” Cue the stagehands at Perekop. Putin may be nearing his final exit.

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 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.  

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