Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt! Are you enjoying the dog days of summer?
Matthew Kroenig: Like many Washingtonians, I am doing my best to avoid the swamp this month. I am currently in La Jolla, California—technically for work, but I hope to make it to the beach at some point.
Although you and I generally take a different approach to foreign policy, I suspect you were also savvy enough to escape the city this month?
EA: I tried, but it’s heating up everywhere: including in Crimea, once a favorite summer vacation spot for Soviet elites and now a conquered territory and a springboard that helps Russia sustain its intervention in Ukraine.
In fact, it is so hot that things are going boom. Reports are saying that Ukrainian special forces are responsible for the massive explosion in Crimea that took out a Russian airfield. It marks a significant escalation in the war: Thus far, the Ukrainians haven’t really been able to stage attacks that far behind Russian lines.
MK: It is a notable development indeed. And I think a positive one for the Western war effort. The Russians reportedly lost at least eight aircraft. It won’t be easy for Russia to replace that much military hardware anytime soon.
I think it is also good for the Ukrainians to strike into territory that Moscow considers to be part of Russia. It never made sense for the Ukrainians to refrain from striking Russian military power in Russia while Russia was actively attacking Ukraine. It was like fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. It’s partly America’s fault of course; the Biden administration was reluctant to provide the Ukrainians with longer-range weapons from the start of the war.
I also hope this attack brings the war home in the minds of the Russian people. They may pay more attention to foreign policy with billowing clouds of smoke getting in the way of their sunbathing. Don’t underestimate the psychological impact of this attack, with wealthy Russian vacationers fleeing clogged roads in a panic with explosions in the background. Maybe the Russian people can finally put pressure on the Kremlin to end his invasion.
EA: In all fairness, despite some folks talking about the escalation risk of hitting Russian territory, until this point, it has largely been a question of capability: For the most part, the Ukrainians haven’t been capable of striking back into Russian territory proper. Certainly, there have been some fires at Russian ammunition dumps and fuel depots in recent months, perhaps as a result of sabotage, but this incident is the first the Ukrainians have claimed openly, marking what I suspect will now be a trend.
I’m less sure that this strike will have a significant military impact. You are probably right about the psychological impact—disturbing Russians’ vacations in Crimea and making them feel unsafe—but in military terms, it’s not as important. Air assets have been relatively less useful in this war, and the Russians have massive stockpiles of old Soviet equipment and ammunition to draw from. Some of the other strikes that have taken place, like using the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System to attack Russian supply lines, are probably more militarily significant.
That said, it does all raise the question of where the war in Ukraine goes from here. We are now six months in, and an endpoint looks further away than ever.
MK: Well, speaking of endpoints, this week’s attacks provide more evidence of what the combatants might want. In debates over a final political settlement, some argue that Kyiv should trade land for peace. They say the pre-Feb. 24 borders would be an acceptable outcome—with Russia essentially keeping the territory it took since 2014 in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Maximalists like me think the goal should be to push Russia out of all the territory it took by force since 2014, including Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea.
Of course, it will be up to the Ukrainians to decide how much they want to fight and for what objectives, but on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seemed to come down on the side of the maximalists, saying, “This Russian war … began with Crimea and must end with Crimea—with its liberation.
I think this is the right goal, but I suspect you see it differently.