Nineteen months in, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is an ongoing cauldron of death, terror and destruction. After 24 years of reigning over the Kremlin, Putin has reduced Russia to a one-dimensional society defined both at home and abroad by death.

Depending on estimates — Russian Ministry of Defense casualty counts are notoriously unreliable — more than 283,000 Russian soldiers have died in Putin’s wars in Chechnya, Georgia, the North Caucasus, Syria, Central African Republic and Mali. And if Kyiv’s estimate of the Kremlin’s losses is accurate, nearly 270,000 have died since Putin began his war against Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

The civilian death toll is equally horrific: 90,000-plus in those other conflicts, plus nearly 10,000 Ukrainians killed alongside 18,000 injured; 554 of them children. Most are the result of Russian war crimes, including genocide, heinous crimes against humanity and torture chambers according to a UN-backed investigation.

Putin’s reign of death and terror is also playing out daily inside of Russia. He orders critics and journalists to be murdered, poisons opposition leaders and ruthlessly arranges the deaths of anyone perceived to be a threat, including, most recently, decapitating Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group associates over the skies of greater Moscow.

As we noted in an interview for The Sun, Putin’s regime was, is and will always be a mafia state-like version of “Murder Inc.” People die in the most cruel and senseless ways, be they Russians, foreign nationals or Ukrainians.

Human life is merely a means to Putin’s ends, and he will not cease killing unless he is stopped. His four-hour meeting on Wednesday with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un at a Siberian spaceport is proof enough of that. Putin’s intended messaging was that space may be the next intended frontier for his Kingdom of Death.

Space will have to wait, but Kim Jong-un willingly pledged his “unconditional support” for Putin’s faltering war against Ukraine. Facing an ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Donbas and in Zaporizhzhia, Putin will likely use North Korean weapons and munitions to freeze the conflict and transform it into a “forever war.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his generals, however, are undeterred. While Putin was busy meeting Kim Jong-un, they sent greetings in the form of a devastating missile attack on the Russian naval drydocks in Sevastopol in Crimea. Early reports indicate the “Minsk” landing vessel along with the “Rostov-on-Don” submarine were severely damaged — yet another layer of Ukraine’s Multi-Domain Operation in action.

It is clear both Zelensky and Putin view the Crimean Peninsula as the “decisive terrain” of the war, control of which will decide who wins the war.

In the past month, Kyiv destroyed an S-400 anti-aircraft missile battery in eastern Crimea. As former U.S. Navy SEAL Lt. Chuck Pfarrer reported during an appearance on Michal Rachon’s Polish TV news magazine “Rock Rachon,” it was a prelude to Ukraine’s subsequent special operation forces raid that reclaimed two oil rigs Moscow had seized early in the war for use as surveillance and electronic warfare platforms.

Putin, likewise, is clear in his intentions. He now openly admits he annexed Crimea in 2014 because it was in Russia’s interest to do so. During a question-and-answer session on Tuesday at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Putin referenced a letter from Prince Grigory Potemkin — a personal hero of his, whose remains he had removed from Kherson, Ukraine in 2022 — to Catherine the Great.

Paraphrasing Potemkin, Putin said, “Time will pass and future generations will blame you for the fact that you could have annexed Crimea and did not do so, and you will be ashamed.” He emphasized his point by saying, “We are, first of all, guided by the interests of the Russian state, we are definitely not ashamed of this.”

Yet 300,000 Russian coffins later, Potemkin’s bones are nearly all Putin has to show for his would-be empire. More are coming, as Russia has reportedly deployed elements of the “newly formed and likely low-quality or understrength 25th Combined Arms Army to Luhansk Oblast.” Putin and Russia’s mothers will soon learn why the ancient Greeks described the Black Sea as the entrance to the kingdom of the dead.

Nor will they be alone. Crimea is lined with the tombs of fallen Scythian and Greek warriors of old, and now Ukrainian and Russian graves. The visuals are everywhere for Putin to see. Kurgans, ancient burial mounds, line the grassy steppes of the Crimean Peninsula. There are nearly 200 alone in and around the Russian-controlled city Kerch in the east.

In her book “Black Square,” Sophie Pinkham hauntingly notes the “most ancient ghosts in Crimea belong to Homer.” In describing the Cimmerians in “The Odyssey,” Homer presciently described the current lot of Putin’s armies: “An endless, deadly night overhangs those wretched men.”

“Wretched men” indeed. Cursed, as well, for they are Putin’s ghosts in the making. Many newly conscripted troops and old men and unprepared for modern warfare. Ukraine is coming for them, and they are fighting for Ukraine’s survival with an Odysseus-like perseverance and vengeance.

For Ukraine, however, simply retaking Crimea and putting an end to Putin’s “wretched men” will not be enough. Although the Crimean peninsula is the “decisive terrain” that wins the war, the Black Sea is the “decisive body of water” ensuring Kyiv wins the peace and survives economically.

Kyiv must regain all of its seaports in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, and forever more, ideally as a full member of NATO, militarily control its littoral waters. That includes evicting the Russian Ministry of Defense from its naval facility in Sevastopol.

Putin’s kingdom of the dead has claimed enough victims inside and outside of Russia and must be relegated to the ash heap of history. Waiting for North Korea to provide military assistance to Russia is not an option. Washington and its NATO allies must immediately do everything conventionally possible to ensure Ukraine wins and can rebuild itself and its people into a kingdom of the living.

Mark Toth is an economist, entrepreneur, and former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis. Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army Colonel and 30-year military intelligence officer, led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014.

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