It would be a just outcome and serve America’s interests.
By Luke Coffey
April 17, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
As Russia’s war against Ukraine drags on, the risk that fatigued Western policy makers will become desperate to end the fighting at any cost will grow. There are already some suggesting that Kyiv should accept a special status for Crimea that leaves Russian troops there. Such an outcome would amount to geopolitical negligence. Any settlement that doesn’t return Crimea to Kyiv’s control signals to other belligerent powers that military land grabs will be tolerated—setting a dangerous precedent for the 21st century.
Some argue that it’s unclear if Crimea really belongs to Ukraine or Russia. Yet topographically, the peninsula is merely an extension of the Ukrainian steppes, with no natural land connection with the Russian Federation. Crimea’s history is likewise relatively clear. The peninsula has unique political, economic and cultural ties to southern Ukraine—something that various Russian leaders and other political figures have acknowledged for hundreds of years.
When the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine re-emerged as an independent state, the international community, including the Russian Federation, recognized Crimea as being part of Ukraine. In the 1991 referendum that led to that independence, every region—including Crimea—voted in favor. On the same day as the referendum, Ukraine also held presidential elections. Not only did a pro-independence candidate win, all six presidential candidates running also supported independence. The message to the world was clear: Every region of Ukraine, including Crimea, supported independence from the SovietUnion. To top it off, Russia was one of the first countries to recognize Ukraine’s independence, beating the U.S. by more than three weeks.
The political support in Crimea for independence sprang from a long history of tight political connection between the peninsula and the rest of southern Ukraine. For much of the period between 1443 and 1783, the Crimean Khanate, the local power, included not only the Crimean Peninsula but also much of the territory between the Dnieper and Donets rivers in Ukraine’s modern-day Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and western Donetsk oblasts. Even after Empress Catherine the Great first annexed Crimea in 1783, it was administratively part of the newly created Taurida Oblast, which included other land that had historically been part of the Khanate and today is part of southern Ukraine.
The peninsula’s political closeness to southern Ukraine was built on economic and cultural ties of a sort that Crimea hasn’t had with Russia. The simple fact that land naturally connects the peninsula to southern Ukraine—and not to Russia—meant that it made no economic sense to break Crimea off from Ukraine. Moscow knows this. When Nikita Khrushchev reassigned Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist
Republic in 1954, he did so because of “the commonality of the economy, the territorial proximity, and the close economic and cultural ties between the Crimean Oblast and the Ukrainian SSR,” in the words of a contemporaneous Soviet statesman, Mikhail Tarsov. Leaving the peninsula outside Ukrainian control would be a break from history, not a continuation of it.
If Moscow keeps control of Crimea, Russia’s military bases there could launch attacks against the rest of Ukraine while also using the peninsula as a convenient place to refit and refurbish damaged military vehicles for future use. In this way, a continued Russian occupation of Crimea would deter international investors from taking part in Ukraine’s reconstruction efforts because there would always be the possibility of renewed fighting, which would particularly threaten the Ukrainian economy. From the peninsula Moscow can assault Ukraine’s otherwise lucrative global commercial shipping, including the export of grain to Africa and the Middle East.
Returning Crimea to Kyiv is also in America’s interests, whether or not U.S. policy makers care about Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Russian control of the peninsula allows Moscow to launch military action outside the region. Russia already has used its presence in occupied Crimea to launch and support naval operations backing up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia has shipped hundreds of thousands of tons of grain and wheat from Crimea to Syria to help the Assad regime address food shortages. Russia has also conducted hundreds of trips between Crimea’s port city of Sevastopol and the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria, to transport military hardware and resupplies.
Ukraine has the momentum and motivation to take this important strategic position out of Russian hands. While nobody outside President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inner circle knows for sure where Ukraine’s next counterattack will hit, one possible location will be in the south, from the Zaporizhzhia region in the direction of Melitopol. Kyiv’s goal would be to drive a wedge between the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol and Crimea’s Isthmus of Perekop. Such a move could be the fastest, most direct way to cut off the Kremlin’s only land bridge from Russia to Crimea. The most northern point of the Molochnyi estuary, which flows up from the Sea of Azov, is only 10 miles south of the center of Melitopol. Between the estuary and the city center run the main roads and rail networks used by Russia to reinforce its frontlines in the south. If Ukraine takes the city, it would leave Russian forces without a land route from Russia for resupply or reinforcements.
If Ukrainians are successful at cutting the land bridge, the next step would likely be entering the peninsula itself. Russia knows this, and satellite imagery shows new anti-tank obstacles and fortified trenches being constructed across Crimea.
All Kyiv needs is Western weapons and munitions. For the sake of stability—within and outside the region—let’s give Ukraine the tools it needs to get the job done now.