By Mariia Zolkina
Atlantic Council, Ukraine Alert
April 20, 2023
As the world waits for Ukraine’s widely anticipated spring offensive, debate continues to rage over whether Ukrainian military objectives should include the de-occupation of Crimea. Some skeptics question if Ukraine has the military capabilities to successfully liberate the Russian-occupied peninsula; others claim Crimea’s personal importance to Putin make it a red line for the Russian dictator that could spark a nuclear escalation. These concerns are understandable but shortsighted. Crucially, they fail to recognize Crimea’s status as the decisive battlefield in the current war. Put simply, there can be no lasting peace with Russia until Ukraine liberates Crimea.
Today’s debate over Crimea reflects the success of Russian efforts since 2014 to convince the international community that the occupied Ukrainian peninsula is a “special case” and not directly related to Russian aggression on the Ukrainian mainland. Indeed, prior to last year’s full-scale invasion, long-running international efforts to resolve the war in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region had excluded any discussion of Crimea, fueling perceptions that the ongoing occupation of the peninsula was a separate issue entirely.
In the years following the military occupation of Crimea, Putin regime officials frequently declared the issue to be closed. Meanwhile, Kremlin propagandists insisted that the occupied Ukrainian province was now an indivisible part of the Russian Federation. These efforts proved effective. Even after the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, many international observers have persisted in affording Crimea a different status to other occupied parts of the country.
Those who view Crimea as a red line for Vladimir Putin often stress the symbolic importance of the peninsula. They note that the seizure of Crimea ranks as by far the most significant achievement of Putin’s entire reign and therefore plays a key role in his claim to a place among Russia’s greatest rulers. Many also believe continued Russian control over the peninsula is necessary in order to soften the blow of looming military defeat on mainland Ukraine. As long as Putin has Crimea, they argue, he can still convince domestic audiences in Russia that the core objectives of his invasion have been reached.
The other most frequent argument against the de-occupation of Crimea is fear of provoking a Russian nuclear response. Since launching the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin has frequently engaged in nuclear saber-rattling. This has included specific threats to use nuclear weapons in defense of Russian territory, with Putin stating in September 2022, “I’m not bluffing.”
While the impact of this saber-rattling appears to be diminishing, Putin knows Western leaders cannot completely ignore his nuclear blackmail, particularly as Russia has repeatedly
emphasized that it views Crimea as Russian sovereign territory. If the possibility of a Ukrainian military campaign to liberate Crimea becomes more realistic in the coming months, the Kremlin is likely to dramatically increase its nuclear rhetoric.
At present, there appears to be a lack of consensus among Ukraine’s Western partners over how best to react to Russia’s nuclear intimidation tactics. While senior figures from NATO, the US, and the EU have all publicly warned Moscow of grave consequences, separate statements from various European capitals indicate some Western governments are eager to avoid a further escalation in nuclear tensions at almost any price. This is a fundamental miscalculation that risks legitimizing nuclear blackmail as a foreign policy tool. If Russian nuclear threats succeed in preventing the liberation of Crimea, the Kremlin will inevitably employ the same approach to consolidate control over other regions of Ukraine currently under Russian occupation. A dangerous precedent will have been established with disastrous consequences for the future of international security.
Ukraine’s political and military leaders have been extremely clear that without the liberation of Crimea, no sustainable peace with Russia is possible. They argue that as long as Crimea is under Russian occupation, it will serve as a base for future military operations and pose a threat to the whole of southern Ukraine. Even if Ukraine succeeds in de-occupying all of the regions currently under Russian control in the south and east of the country, Russian-occupied Crimea would continue to represent a dagger pointed at the heart of Ukrainian statehood.
Furthermore, free navigation of the Black Sea cannot be restored while Crimea is under Russian occupation. Using Crimea as its base, the Russian Navy has imposed a Black Sea blockade that has had a devastating impact on the Ukrainian economy. This blockade prevents the resumption of vital merchant shipping from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, while also undermining the security of other Black Sea countries. Moscow’s current efforts to manipulate the terms and conditions of the UN-brokered grain agreement illustrate the futility of negotiating any compromise deals with Russia while the Kremlin retains the ability to impose its will by force. As long as Russia occupies Crimea, Black Sea shipping will be severely restricted and Ukraine will remain trapped in economic crisis.
It is worth noting that the de-occupation of Crimea could take a number of different forms and may involve a combination of military and diplomatic tools. One of the possible alternatives to a large-scale Ukrainian land operation would be the methodical destruction of Russian logistical chains and military infrastructure in Crimea along with precision strikes on military storage facilities and bases across the peninsula. This could render the continued occupation of Crimea unfeasible and force Russia to retreat. Similar tactics have already succeeded in forcing Russia to withdraw from Kherson and the right bank of the Dnipro River, despite Putin’s loud declarations that Russia had come to the region “forever.”
If Ukraine’s international partners are serious about securing a lasting peace, they should first acknowledge the central importance of de-occupying Crimea and provide Ukraine with the tools to do so. This is the only way to decisively defeat Russia and end the war. It is also the best way to prevent further reckless nuclear blackmail.
Kyiv is determined to complete the de-occupation of the whole country including Crimea, and Ukrainian military planners are convinced this is a realistic objective. However, a bloody land campaign to liberate the peninsula could still be avoided if Ukraine’s spring offensive achieves its immediate goals on the mainland, and if the Ukrainian military receives long-range missile capabilities from its international partners that would enable them to strike targets throughout occupied Crimea. This would leave a weakened Russia with little choice but to begin serious negotiations. At present, that is not the case. Until Russia recognizes the need to withdraw from Crimea and the rest of Ukraine, peace will remain elusive.
Mariia Zolkina is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science and head of regional security and conflict studies at the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kyiv.