Ukraine’s liberation of the city of Kherson at the beginning of November was more than just a dramatic military victory. In its battlefield win, Ukraine called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bluff. Just two months earlier, Putin had publicly declared Kherson and other Ukrainian territories to be a part of Russia, implicitly placing them under Russia’s nuclear protection. Putin had hoped that the fear of nuclear attack would compel Ukraine to tread lightly and make its supporters back off. His plan did not work.

Kherson is unlikely to be the end of Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive. The greatest prize lies farther to the south: the Crimean Peninsula, where the war began in 2014. A Ukrainian deputy defense minister has declared that the country’s military could enter “Crimea by the end of December.” Such remarks may be subterfuge intended to frighten Russia. Or they may be serious. With the liberation of Kherson, Crimea has certainly fallen within Ukraine’s sights. Russia may well be dug in around Crimea, but if the war has demonstrated anything so far it is that Russia can lose territory, and lose it quickly. The battle of Crimea is certainly possible.

Ukraine’s international partners have committed themselves to defending its territorial integrity. They have an interest in containing Russia’s military power and in preventing a renewed invasion of Ukraine. If Crimea remains in Russian hands, it threatens Ukraine’s security. Russia’s invasion in 2022 was staged in part from Crimea. The Crimean peninsula is a dagger pointed not only toward the Black Sea but toward Kyiv. An annexed Crimea was not the limit of Russian imperial ambitions, as many Western leaders had hoped in 2014. Rather, it was the steppingstone for these ambitions.

Crimea is not Kherson. It occupies a different place in the war, and many Western allies have serious escalation concerns over Crimea. Putin could lose in Kherson, or elsewhere in Ukraine, and accept his losses. He could even lose the Donbas, part of eastern Ukraine that Russia has occupied since 2014, and make do politically. But Putin surely regards losing Crimea and surviving as president as irreconcilable. He will go to great lengths to hold on to Crimea.

That could be a tall order. Ukraine has already demonstrated Crimea’s vulnerability with attacks on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and strikes on the bridge over the Kerch Strait, connecting Russia to Crimea. It should continue to pressure Crimea militarily and to advance in the southern Kherson region. Ideally, Kyiv would regain control over the freshwater canal that supplies Crimea with most of its water. At every moment, Ukraine should make Russia fear an invasion of Crimea.

For the time being, however, it is wise to pin and isolate Russian soldiers in Crimea without seeking to reconquer the peninsula. This strategy would give Kyiv a strong position in future negotiations with Russia, possibly convincing the Kremlin to enter such talks in earnest. It would help maintain unity among Ukraine’s Western partners worried about escalation risks. More immediately, Ukraine can try to break up the land bridge to Crimea, separating Russia’s forces in the south from its forces in the east and regaining access to the Sea of Azov. A costly and dangerous campaign to retake the peninsula now might put at risk the counteroffensive Ukraine has been so brilliantly waging since September.

THE DILEMMA OF CONQUEST

Crimea is a hub of world history. During the reign of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century, her military won control of the peninsula from the Ottoman Empire, and it was incorporated into the Russian Empire. In the nineteenth century, the Ottomans allied with Britain and France to fight Russia in the Crimean War. In the twentieth century, it became Soviet after the Bolshevik Revolution and witnessed heavy fighting in World War II. Discussions between Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt were held in the Crimean city of Yalta, in 1945. In 1954 Crimea ceased to be a part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, when the Kremlin reassigned it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea at gunpoint. Its conquest became the keystone of Putin’s political legacy, the marker of Russian intransigence vis-à-vis the West, and Putin’s evidence that Russia’s post-Soviet age of humiliation was over. The annexation of Crimea was popular in Russia. Outside Russia, Crimea’s status is unambiguous: it is internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory. Ukraine’s sovereignty will be compromised until Russia withdraws from Crimea. Festering problems in Crimea will hurt Ukraine’s chances of joining Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union. Both organizations are hesitant to accept new members with unresolved territorial questions, which is one reason why Putin wants to hang on to Crimea in perpetuity. But none of this may prevent a battle for Crimea, a battle that Russia is hardly guaranteed to win. Should such a battle come to pass, three threats will emerge.

The most important is the prospect of nuclear escalation. Since the invasion in February 2022, Putin has had to reconfigure his war aims, contradicting himself along the way. The so-called special military operation to consolidate territory in the Donbas was actually a maximalist war against Ukraine. Putin has since ordered a mobilization, announced a war with the West, and tried to annex four southern regions in Ukraine, a theatrical gesture that cannot obscure the fact that Russia has surrendered much of the territory it took since February 24. A masterpiece of unrealism, Putin’s annexation was followed by implicit nuclear threats. Ukraine exposed these threats as empty by regaining large swaths of the recently annexed territory, to which Russia did not respond with nuclear escalation.

What was a bluff in Kherson may not be a bluff in Crimea. Crimea has a particular standing in Russian history and culture for Putin and for many Russians. It figures in the World War II narrative that Putin’s Russia has fervently embraced. For generations of Russians, it has been a vacation idyll, analogous to Florida and California in the United States. The region also looms large in Russian literature, in particular in Tolstoy’s Sebastopol Sketches (1855) and Vasily Aksyonov’s Island of Crimea (1981). Politically, Crimea was the region of Ukraine closest to Russia before 2014, and many of its 2.4 million inhabitants have pro-Russian views. Since 2014, Russia has persecuted pro-Ukrainian activists and Crimean Tatars, forcing many of them to leave Crimea.

Crimea is more than just a symbol for Putin’s Russia.
 

Annexing Crimea is Putin’s signature achievement, meant to demonstrate Russia’s post-Soviet reassertion of power, the scope of its military might, and the luster of Putin’s strategic acumen. He bragged to the Russian people about outfoxing the West on Crimea. Having constructed this narrative, Putin would become the victim of it were Ukraine to retake Crimea. He would be the one outfoxed.

Crimea is more than just a symbol for Putin’s Russia. It is of great strategic value to whichever country possesses it. It has enabled Russia’s naval blockade of Ukraine, a major economic pressure point in the war, and Crimea has been home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet for over two centuries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia and Ukraine created an arrangement whereby Russia leased the port of Sevastopol from Ukraine, an arrangement that lasted until the annexation in 2014. Consolidating Russian control over Sevastopol—for the sake of the fleet—was a key reason for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Unlike Kherson, Crimea may be a genuine redline for Putin.

Second, even if Crimea’s 10,000 square miles were easy to conquer, the region would not be easy for Kyiv to administer. The peninsula has been occupied since 2014. What effect this occupation has had is hard to judge. Living under Russian law, many of Crimea’s residents are and consider themselves to be Russian citizens. Ukrainian soldiers might be treated as liberators, but they would not be universally welcomed by Crimea’s population, which is larger than Latvia’s or Estonia’s. Kyiv would have to decide whether to put collaborators and political leaders on trial or to provide amnesty. Either option would be politically divisive. The complexities of restoring Crimea to Ukrainian rule during war could adversely affect Ukraine’s global image at a time when Ukraine relies on its positive reputation to win military and economic support.

The third threat is the potential fracturing of the alliance that supports Ukraine. Throughout the war, Ukraine and its Western partners have achieved a remarkable degree of cohesion, though there are of course differences. Ukraine is fighting for its survival and wants greater Western involvement in the war. The West is concerned about escalation with a nuclear armed Russia and has chosen not to involve its own troops.

Crimea would be a major test for the coalition. Most central and eastern European allies would support Ukraine all the way. They are inclined to see Putin’s nuclear threats as fundamentally insincere. Other countries backing Ukraine have a different calculus and are more perturbed by escalation risks. These include France, Germany, and the United States. Brazil, China, India, and other countries in the global South are seeking a quick end to the war and to its many global ripple effects. They are agnostic about Crimea, unwilling to recognize it as part of Russia but eager for the whole problem to go away.

A GRAND ALLIANCE

So far, the coalition supporting Ukraine has wisely steered clear of declaring specific war aims, giving Ukraine maximum room for maneuver. The G-7 released a communiqué in October calling for “a just peace” and Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. Left unsaid was whether this just peace was to be achieved by pushing Russia out of Ukraine (including Crimea) through military means or by negotiating a settlement that would involve compromises with Putin.

In theory, the quick takeover of Crimea could secure Ukraine against Russia’s future use of the peninsula as a staging ground, ending the war on Ukrainian terms. In practice, it would risk nuclear escalation, and it would be very costly to Ukraine while the war continues in other parts of the country, as stocks of ammunition available to Ukraine diminish and Russia mounts a vicious attack on its supplies of water and electricity.

Ukraine should keep Crimea vulnerable by continuing to attack military targets. It should push farther south in the Kherson region, demonstrating that Crimea and its water supply are within reach of the Ukrainian military. The threat of invasion should never be off the table. It gives Ukraine real power over Russia and leverage in potential talks. Given Putin’s fixation with Crimea, this may be the greatest power Ukraine has. Stopping short of retaking Crimea while pressuring it militarily might not forestall Putin’s use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but it would lower the risk.

In the meantime, bolstering Ukraine’s antimissile and antidrone defenses and assisting its advance in the northeast and southeast are important short- and mid-term objectives. Ukraine should aim to break up the land bridge to Crimea that Moscow had long coveted and for which it has brutally fought. If Ukraine’s military succeeds, it can drive a wedge between Russia’s forces in the south and in the east by advancing to Melitopol and on to the Sea of Azov. Crumbling Russian control of these territories in the east and the south would add to the overall instability of the Russian army’s position in Ukraine and to the unpopularity of the war in Russia.

Ukraine and its supporters should approach the question of Crimea with confidence. Russia has already dealt itself a strategic defeat with its decision to invade Ukraine last February. It has shown its military to be weaker than many had predicted before the war. It has been the author of its own diplomatic isolation, which it can reverse only by ending the war. It has hobbled its economy and slowed its military modernization by incurring sanctions. It has fostered a strong sense of national belonging in Ukraine, and it has dramatically strengthened the transatlantic alliance, of which Ukraine is now a de facto member. Over time, Russia’s built-in weaknesses and the West’s and Ukraine’s assets will have their effect. When they do, new options to address the question of Crimea will open up.

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