How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
For Ukrainians, 2022 was a year of both tragedy and historic achievements. Russia invaded Ukraine in February with nearly 190,000 troops, inflicting untold destruction and killing tens of thousands of people. But within a few weeks, the Ukrainian military managed to stall the offensive. Then, it began forcing the Russians back. Since August, Ukrainian troops have recaptured more than half the territory Russia had seized, upending Moscow’s hopes of success. To try to demonstrate some gains, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that he had annexed four Ukrainian provinces—Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia—at the end of September. But it was for naught. Russia had full control over none of the provinces when Putin made his announcement, and his forces have lost even more ground since then.
Yet Russia still controls one Ukrainian province: Crimea. In 2014, Russia seized the peninsula in a remarkable breach of international law. Putin actively exploits a narrative that claims Crimea’s transfer to Ukraine, carried out by the Soviet Union in 1954, was “erroneous.” In taking the peninsula, Putin believes he has both corrected what he called a “mistake” and improved Russia’s international position, restoring his country to great-power status.
But those premises are false. Crimea has a rich and unique history; it has not been a part of Russia since time immemorial. It became a rightful part of independent Ukraine after a 1991 nationwide referendum in which Ukrainians—including a majority of Crimean residents—voted for independence from the Soviet Union. It is easy to understand why Crimeans wanted out. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, whereas Ukraine was en route to becoming a pluralistic democracy. Moscow’s current rule has revitalized many of the Soviet Union’s dictatorial practices in Crimea, including oppressing minorities and subjecting citizens to a state media that peddles propaganda. Moscow turned the area into a giant, menacing garrison, which it then used to invade Ukraine. As long as the peninsula remains in the Kremlin’s hands, Ukraine—and Ukrainians—cannot be free of Russian aggression.
Western states are united in their belief that the 2014 annexation of Crimea was, and is, unacceptable. But the United States and its partners have been squeamish about endorsing any plans that would return Crimea to Ukraine. Many Western policymakers have suggested that Kyiv could not succeed in a military campaign for the province. In November, for instance, Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Ukraine’s odds of kicking the Russians out of Crimea were “not high.” Other analysts believe that reintegrating Crimeans into Ukraine might prove too tricky or that an attack on Crimea would prompt nuclear retaliation. Better, they suggest, that Ukraine not fight for the peninsula. Some even say that Kyiv should offer it up in exchange for peace.
The West’s fears are not entirely unfounded. Russia has had eight years to absorb Crimea and has built up a significant military presence in the peninsula. Crimea also has at least 700,000 Russian residents who moved in after 2014 (out of a population of 2.4 million): a fact that will complicate any reintegration effort. The world can never rule out the chance that Russia will use nuclear weapons, especially when it is governed by Putin. These are all good reasons why Ukraine should be careful in how it goes about freeing Crimea.
But they are not reasons for Ukraine to abandon the peninsula altogether. And there are plenty of reasons why Crimea must be returned. Russia’s military footprint, for example, is actually a reason to fight for Crimea, since a battle over the territory would seriously degrade Russia’s ability to wage war and terrorize Ukraine and other states. The other concerns about Ukraine’s ability to retake the peninsula and nuclear attacks are all at least somewhat overblown. After consecutive months of battlefield success, it is clear that Ukraine has the capacity to liberate Crimea. Although some Crimeans may want to remain part of Russia, many more of them would be happy to escape the Kremlin’s grasp. And Putin’s nuclear threats are likely just bluster. He did, after all, promise to use nuclear weapons earlier in the conflict, only to back down. Ukraine should therefore plan to liberate Crimea—and the West should plan to help.
One of Russia’s key narratives, pushed by Moscow for decades and repeated by many international observers, is that Crimea has a special historical connection with Russia. It is true that the Sevastopol has long been a Russian naval base and that its southern coast is home to many nineteenth-century Russian aristocratic palaces. Most of the peninsula’s people speak Russian. As a result, Putin has reasoned that in taking back Crimea, he corrected a historical error.
But Crimean history is much richer and more diverse than this narrative suggests. The peninsula became a part of Russia only after the country invaded it, in 1783; it has been ruled by multiple empires over the course of the last millennium. Crimea has thousands of unique landmarks with no connection to Russia, and it is home to many ethnic groups. Russia’s version of Crimea’s past is cherrypicked, and its justification for the occupation rests on the ridiculous assumption that past possession and linguistics give one state the right to a neighbor’s land. The United Kingdom ruled Ireland for centuries, and under London’s governance, English became the island’s most widely spoken language. But that does not mean the United Kingdom would be justified in seizing it.
An honest evaluation of history makes clear that Crimea should be part of Ukraine, not Russia. It is legally recognized and accepted as Ukrainian territory by the entire world—including, until 2014, by Russia. Crimea has been governed by Kyiv for 60 of the past 70 years, and so most of its residents know it first and foremost as a Ukrainian peninsula. During the course of that time, the region went from being economically depressed to solidly middle class, thanks to Ukrainian water supplies, energy supplies, and—after Ukrainian independence—a boom in tourist activity. Putin may be right that millions of Russians have an affinity for the territory, but so do millions of Ukrainians—because they have either visited it or lived there. There is a reason that an overwhelming majority of U.N. General Assembly members strongly condemned Crimea’s annexation and deemed it invalid.
Crimea has not been a part of Russia since time immemorial.
Russia will never permit a real referendum on the peninsula’s future, and so it is impossible to know exactly how Crimeans themselves feel today. One poll, conducted in 2019 by the Levada Center, showed that a majority of the peninsula’s residents wanted Crimea to be part of Russia. But it is difficult to trust any polls done in a totalitarian state, and Russia has criminalized opposition to Crimea’s annexation. Polled Crimeans could have been afraid of admitting that they would rather be part of Ukraine. And there are many reasons to think that a free and fair vote on Crimea’s status today would yield the same results as the one held in 1991. Such a referendum would, for starters, have to include the over 100,000 Crimean residents that Russia intimidated, harassed, and even physically assaulted until they left the peninsula. A lot of these people were made to sell their property at a loss and abandon their businesses. (Most of the territory’s large Ukrainian companies and utilities also lost their assets.) These Crimean émigrés would almost certainly opt for Ukrainian governance, giving the pro-Kyiv faction a solid starting base. Many of the peninsula’s remaining residents would also vote for Ukraine, as might some new arrivals who would prefer to live in a liberal state. Crimean residents have been known to complain about how Russia treats the peninsula’s environment, as well as the economic disruptions created by sanctions.
Ukrainian liberation would prove particularly popular among—and meaningful to—hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars, a group that has been especially persecuted by Moscow. Unlike the Russians, they have inhabited the peninsula since the early medieval era. For centuries, Crimean Tatars even had their own state on the landmass. Crimea is their only homeland. But under Soviet and Russian rule, they have been violently persecuted. In 1944, for example, they were forcibly deported, allowed to return only in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union was about to collapse. Under Putin’s rule, they have been pressed to leave again. Those who have stayed are frequently forbidden from working, arrested without cause, and detained without being accused of wrongdoing. Some have been kidnapped. Some of their cultural monuments are being dismantled. They deserve an end to Russia’s totalitarian rule.
Ukraine must retake Crimea for reasons that go beyond justice. Russia has turned Crimea into a large military base, which it used to launch its sweeping invasion. This use of the peninsula is why Russia has had much more success fighting in Ukraine’s south than in its north. Russia continues to use the Crimea-stationed Black Sea Fleet and the peninsula’s air bases to launch drone and missile attacks. This belligerence makes it clear that Ukraine cannot be safe or rebuild its economy until Crimea is out of Russian hands, and so Kyiv will not stop fighting until it regains the province.
Russian control of Crimea is not just a security risk for Ukraine. Moscow’s hold on the peninsula endangers the whole world. From Crimea, Russia projects power across both Europe and the Middle East, threatening the safety of many other states. By occupying the peninsula, Russia has gained authority in both the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, the latter of which Russian troops now completely surround. Controlling both bodies of water has been Putin’s goal for years: the two seas are a massive shipping route for all kinds of products on the Eurasian continent. By occupying Crimea, Russia can control access to many of the seas’ ports and passages, giving it power over vast supplies of many commodities, including coal, iron ore, various industrial products, and grain from Ukraine. (The Ukrainian ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol lost most of their traffic after Russia started restricting access to the Azov Sea in 2018.)
To see why Russia’s power over the peninsula is so dangerous to the rest of the world, consider the ongoing food security crisis—which was prompted by Russia’s invasion. Without Crimea, Russia would not have been able to threaten shipping in the Black and Azov Seas since the vast majority of these sea-lanes fall outside Russia’s exclusive economic zone. Moscow would certainly not be able to use Ukrainian territorial waters and ports to project power. But by occupying Crimea, Russia came to dominate these seas and their ports.
Occupying Crimea has also given Russia more control over the world’s energy supplies. The Black Sea is home to many resources, including significant natural gas deposits that Ukraine was once prepared to tap. In fact, just before Russia began occupying Crimea, Exxon Mobil signed a memo with Kyiv to drill for $6 billion worth of the sea’s natural gas deposits—one of many companies working with Ukraine to access these assets. Had the projects gone through, Europe’s energy map would have been forever transformed, and the continent could more easily have weaned itself from Russian energy. But when Moscow sent troops into Crimea in 2014, the companies all canceled their projects. As long as the province and other areas of the Black Sea remain in Russia’s hands, business will not come back.
So how would Ukraine liberate Crimea? Ideally, it would be done through diplomacy. Putin will never consider peacefully parting with the peninsula, but if he is booted from office, his successors may have a different calculus. They will inherit a severely sanctioned country with a dramatically weakened military. They will still be fighting Ukraine’s more talented armed forces—and therefore staring down more defeats. Finally, they will be facing international litigation, initiated by Ukraine, that demands hundreds of billions of dollars in damages. Moscow will likely lose in court, and Western states will make the government pay by simply transferring Russia’s frozen assets to Kyiv. Faced with such a situation, the Kremlin might offer to return Crimea as part of a deal that prevents Russia from going into bankruptcy and prevents the domestic unrest that would arise with any economic chaos.
But Ukraine cannot count on a change in leadership in Russia. It also cannot bank on Russia’s next leaders being ready for peace. Kyiv, then, needs to retain a military option, and it must start preparing to win such a fight.
Although retaking Crimea would not be easy, Ukraine has the capability to do so—a fact the West is starting to acknowledge. According to NBC News, in December, a Biden administration official told Congress that Kyiv would be able to liberate the peninsula. Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army Europe, said that Ukraine has a chance to free Crimea by the end of this coming summer.
The most challenging part of a campaign for Crimea may not be outfoxing Russia.
There is a military justification for these projections. By the time Ukrainian forces are ready to move on the peninsula, most Russian capabilities will have been severely damaged. Russia’s surviving soldiers will be exhausted, and the country’s stockpile of precision missiles will have been depleted. Its naval bases, air bases, and resupply routes to Crimea will have been damaged by Ukrainian attacks. Because Crimea is connected to the Eurasian continent only by a narrow, vulnerable isthmus and a bridge, once Ukrainian troops enter the region, the remaining Russian forces will be trapped, making Russian military sites even more vulnerable to Ukrainian strikes. And for all its significance, the Crimean Peninsula is ultimately just land: something the Ukrainian military has been very successful at reclaiming.
Of course, Ukraine will have to consider the capabilities of the Black Sea Fleet, a keystone of Crimea’s Russian military presence. It is a force for which Ukraine has no real equivalent. But although Ukraine’s small navy does not measure up against Russia’s, the Black Sea Fleet is not the obstacle it might seem. The fleet has an assault capacity of roughly 20 old ships, all of which are so vulnerable to strikes that Russia has hidden them away from the Ukrainian coastline. But Ukraine can still acquire and produce enough unmanned vehicles and missile systems to destroy them. And the fleet is smaller than it was at the start of the war thanks to Ukrainian attacks. Ukraine succeeded, for instance, in sinking the fleet’s flagship. The Ukrainians will not have trouble further chipping away at the Russian navy in forthcoming months, at least to a point where the navy cannot effectively stop them. Ukraine, after all, has a good track record of getting around the Black Sea Fleet. If the Russian navy could not defend the Black Sea’s Snake Island, which is less than 0.1 square miles, it is hard to imagine how it would stop Ukraine from crossing the isthmus.
Ultimately, the most challenging part of a campaign for Crimea may not be outfoxing Russia. It could be winning over locals who back Moscow. Despite all of the Kremlin’s abuses, Crimea is home to far more Putin supporters than are other parts of Ukraine, especially given that the population has had an influx of Russian residents and has experienced years of nonstop Russian propaganda. It would be dangerous for Kyiv to assume that Ukraine’s military will be welcomed there as it was in Kherson. Ukraine will need to substantially research what policies it should adopt, including with regard to finance, banking, and law enforcement. It must also figure out how to provide restitution to the many Crimeans who were stripped of their jobs and property by the Russian government. It will need to rework the peninsula’s state services—particularly for education, which has been conducted for years using a Russian curriculum based in propaganda. Critically, it must ensure that residents who support Russia’s dictatorship will not want to destabilize the peninsula, and it must guarantee that law-abiding citizens have a balanced, fair, and democratic government.
Although the West uniformly, and rightly, condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it effectively accepted Moscow’s act. The only tangible response that the United States and Europe could muster was a sanctions regime with countless loopholes, allowing the Russian economy to keep growing. Indeed, even the sanctioning states continued to expand their business ties to Moscow, including by increasing their dependence on Russian energy exports.
It is therefore little wonder that the Kremlin felt emboldened to invade the rest of Ukraine. Russia is bent on taking land and increasing its sphere of influence so it can restore its empire. When Moscow senses weakness, it jumps. This is why Kyiv cannot bargain away Crimea for peace, as some Western analysts have suggested. Doing so would further reward and incentivize Putin’s aggression. Additionally, such a deal would not be effective. As long as Putin runs Russia’s government, the Kremlin will never settle for a peace agreement in which Ukraine “just” gives up Crimea. It wants and will keep fighting for more. Indeed, should the West display indecision or hesitation in supporting Ukraine’s goals in Crimea, Russia will try to capitalize on the dithering by working to fracture the states supporting Kyiv.
As a result, Kyiv and its allies must press on, battling until it can make Moscow hand over Crimea via negotiations or until Ukraine has forcibly pried the peninsula from Moscow’s grasp. Doing so is the only way to inflict the kind of major defeat Russia must experience if it is to abandon its imperial ambitions and start abiding by international norms and laws. The United States and Europe should understand that they, too, will benefit from a total Ukrainian victory. It could mark the permanent end of Russian aggression, breathing new life into the liberal world order.
Liberating Crimea would also set an important historical precedent for the wider world. If Ukraine does not retake Crimea—if Russia gets away with annexation—other states will become more likely to wage wars of conquest. They will move to occupy their neighbor’s territory, reasoning that they can get away with certain kinds of land grabs. Winning in Crimea, then, is essential to preventing future conflicts and thwarting a return to conquest.