Is Losing Crimea a Loss?

What Russia Can Expect in Ukraine's Rust Belt

Miners walk along a railway at Panfilovskaya mine in the Donetsk region, 1998.
Miners walk along a railway at Panfilovskaya mine in the Donetsk region, 1998. (Courtesy Reuters)

By the end of this month, it is likely that Vladimir Putin’s Russia will fully control Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. And it is clear that he aspires to much more. Although a tense calm has settled over Crimea since thousands of Russian troops poured in a week ago, the chance for a Russian military push deeper into Ukraine increased markedly on March 4, when Putin declared at a press conference that he was “not worried” by the prospect of war with Ukraine. In a line that shook Ukrainians to their core, he continued that, if Russia decided to fight, it would be to “to protect Ukrainian citizens.” And it would be impossible, he hinted, for Ukrainian troops to do anything about that: “Let’s see those troops try to shoot their own people with us behind them -- not in the front but behind. Let them just try to shoot at women and children!” In one fell swoop, Putin had broadened his intentions in Ukraine from “protecting” Russian citizens (his rationale for invading and occupying Crimea) to “protecting” all of Ukraine and made clear that he would use Ukrainian civilians -- women and children -- as a shield for invading Russian forces.

It is time to imagine what once seemed impossible: Putin attacks and partitions Ukraine and, in addition to Crimea, annexes the southeastern Ukrainian provinces that are generally regarded as most susceptible to conquest -- Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, Mykolaiv, and Zaporizhzhya, which contain much of Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population and form an arc along the Black Sea and Sea of Azov from Mykolaiv, just northwest of Crimea, to Luhansk, which is farther northeast. (On March 8, there were already some reports that Russian troops had advanced from Crimea into a narrow isthmus that is part of Kherson province.)  In such a scenario, Russia would be the immediate winner and Ukraine the immediate loser. But in the medium to long term, Ukraine would end up ahead.

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