Ukraine can’t retake Crimea soon, Pentagon tells lawmakers in classified briefing

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Ukrainian forces are unlikely to be able to recapture Crimea from Russian troops in the near future, four senior Defense Department officials told House Armed Services Committee lawmakers in a classified briefing. The assessment is sure to frustrate leaders in Kyiv who consider taking the peninsula back one of their signature goals.

It’s unclear what led the briefers to that assessment. But the clear indication, as relayed by three people with direct knowledge of Thursday’s briefing’s contents, was that the Pentagon doesn’t believe Ukraine has — or soon will have — the ability to force Russian troops out of the peninsula Moscow seized nearly a decade ago.

A fourth person said the briefing was more ambiguous, but the point remained that Ukraine’s victory in an offensive to retake the illegally annexed territory wasn’t assured. All four asked for anonymity in order to disclose details from a classified briefing.

The briefers included Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, and Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, director of operations on the Joint Staff.

“We’re not going to comment on closed-door classified briefings nor will we talk about hypotheticals or speculate on potential future operations,” Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said. “In terms of Ukraine’s ability to fight and take back sovereign territory, their remarkable performance in repulsing Russian aggression and continued adaptability on the battlefield speaks for itself.”

A House Armed Services spokesperson declined to comment.

The assessment from the briefers echoes what Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chair, has alluded to in recent weeks.

“I still maintain that for this year it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from all –– every inch of Ukraine and occupied –– or Russian-occupied Ukraine,” he said during a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Germany on Jan. 20. “That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but it’d be very, very difficult.”

Russian forces have occupied Crimea since 2014, and the peninsula is bristling with air defenses and tens of thousands of troops. Many of those infantry forces are dug into fortified positions stretching hundreds of miles facing off against Ukrainian troops along the Dnipro River.

The issue of retaking Crimea has been a contentious one for months, as American and European officials insist the peninsula is legally part of Ukraine, while often stopping short of fully equipping Kyiv to push into the area.

One person familiar with the thinking in Kyiv said the Zelenskyy administration was “furious” with Milley’s remarks, as Ukraine prepares for major offensives this spring. Ukrainians also note that U.S. intelligence about their military abilities have consistently missed the mark throughout the nearly year-long war.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, Zelenskyy adviser Andriy Yermak rejected the idea of a Ukrainian victory without taking Crimea.

“This is absolutely unacceptable,” Yermak said, adding that victory means restoring Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders “including Donbas and Crimea.”

Ukraine has repeatedly asked for longer-range weapons, including rocket artillery and guided munitions fired by fighter planes and drones, to target Russian command-and-control centers and ammunition depots far behind the front lines in Crimea.

After the U.S. gave Ukraine the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System in the summer, Russia moved many of its most vulnerable assets out of its 50-mile range. The Biden administration continues to refuse to send missiles for the launcher that can reach 300 miles, which would put all of Crimea at risk.

House Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said in an interview Wednesday that the war “needs to end this summer,” placing urgency on the U.S. to rapidly supply Ukraine for a coming offensive and on Kyiv to forge a clearer outline of how the conflict ends.

“There’s a school of thought … that Crimea’s got to be a part of it. Russia is never going to quit and give up Crimea,” said Rogers, who did not address the contents of the classified briefing his committee received last week. Vladimir “Putin has got to decide what he can leave with and claim victory.”

“What is doable? And I don’t think that that’s agreed upon yet. So I think that there’s going to have to be some pressure from our government and NATO leaders with [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy about what does victory look like,” Rogers added. “And I think that’s going to help us more than anything be able to drive Putin and Zelenskyy to the table to end this thing this summer.”