There is no need for a diplomatic solution. Russia’s war could soon be brought to a humiliating end
By BEN HODGES
21 April 2023
Some Western politicians believe it is impossible, or perhaps undesirable, for Ukraine to retake Crimea, and are instead chasing a false peace whereby Kyiv agrees to keep the peninsula in a grey zone. They may even want the status quo, with Crimea remaining under complete Russian control. Such politicians do not understand military strategy and cannot read a map.
Underlying this problem is the fact that our leaders have not yet established whether they genuinely want Ukraine to win. If they had, there would be no question that Ukrainian forces should be supported this summer in their endeavour to take back Crimea, which would lead to the total collapse of Russia’s campaign.
No amount of political sophistry will change the fact that Crimea is the decisive terrain in this war. You can kill many hundreds of Russians on the outskirts of Bakhmut and have little strategic effect. But if you remove hundreds from Sevastopol, the Russian navy base in Crimea, you will have changed the course of history and effectively ended the war.
In recent months I have pushed a three-point plan to do just that. The first task – isolating Crimea – can be achieved imminently with a successful Ukrainian offensive beginning this summer. Kyiv’s forces can easily break the Russian-occupied land bridge.
The second task is to make Crimea untenable for Russian forces. This can be done with long-range precision missiles provided by the West, which can target the Sevastopol navy base and the dozen or so other bases at places like Saky, and the logistics hub at Dzhankoi, and the main Russian headquarters at Heniches’k. The final task would be to liberate Crimea itself, occupy the peninsula and complete the destruction of the Kerch Bridge connecting it to Russia.
The Ukrainians have the will, manpower and military competency to do all of this. Western politicians just need to agree that this is the quickest way to end the war and give Ukraine the weapons it needs.
There is no need to travel the world looking for a “diplomatic solution” – which has come to mean a division of Ukrainian land – when this much simpler solution is ready for the taking. In a matter of months, not years, it would bring peace. The Russian navy would lose its greatest hub, and Putin and his evil aides in the Kremlin would be humbled to such an extent that their administration would fall into deep peril. Is this not a better path for the rules-based international order?
The Russian people themselves are losing the will to defend Crimea. It used to be said that even the Russian leaders we liked – those, like Alexei Navalny, who stood up to Putin’s oppressive rule – believed Crimea deserved to be annexed. For a long time, Navalny refused to publicly support the immediate return of Crimea to Ukraine. Yet the failure of Putin’s full-scale invasion has changed matters. In February, the Russian dissident published a 15-point plan outlining his vision for post-war Russia. It states that Ukraine’s borders should be those “recognised and defined in 1991” – which include Crimea.
The same shift can be observed in broader society. Putin’s annexation of Crimea was extremely popular when it was easy and bloodless. Less so when Russian lives are at stake. Remember the sight of vacationers fleeing the peninsular as soon as the first rockets hit? They showed no attachment to that supposedly “sacred” land.
Russia is not what it was, having lost confidence and military esteem. Its last hope is to wait desperately for political winds to change in the West. Are we going to give it that opening? Or shall we finally send a message to the world that Europe will be defended?
Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges is the former commander of US Army Europe