The next six months will witness a great deal of human tragedy. Ukraine’s armed forces will face harsh battlefield conditions, and Ukrainian civilians will continue to endure daily Russian attacks. Meanwhile, Russia’s underequipped and poorly led troops will suffer thousands of casualties, destroying the country’s remaining fighting capability. Already, the Russian military has suffered “significantly more than 100,000” deaths and injuries, according to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. And thanks to the neglect and cruel indifference of President Vladimir Putin’s regime, thousands more will perish this winter because of the Kremlin’s callous disregard for human life.

With the help of newly promised Western tanks and other weapons, Ukraine’s armed forces will also liberate more territory in the east and south of the country, making it possible to imagine an eventual Ukrainian campaign to retake Crimea. Illegally annexed by Putin in 2014, the peninsula served as a staging ground for Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Now, occupation of Crimea enables the Russian military to threaten Ukrainian positions from the south and gives Russia’s Black Sea Fleet a forward base for carrying out long-range attacks. But for the first nine month of the war, Kyiv’s Western backers were reluctant to support any military effort to return the territory to Ukraine, partly out of concern that such an attempt would cross a redline for Putin and invite disastrous Russian retaliation and partly because the peninsula is now home to a sizable number of people who identify with Russia, which could make it more difficult to reintegrate the territory into Ukraine.

For much of last year, while the idea of liberating Crimea remained academic, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was willing to set aside the question of the region’s near-term status. Ukrainian forces were focused on liberating occupied territory outside the peninsula, and the future of Crimea seemed likely to be determined after the end of the war through diplomatic negotiations. But as the war has progressed and Ukraine has liberated large swaths of its territory from occupying Russian forces, Zelensky’s rhetoric regarding Crimea has shifted. “Crimea is our land, our territory,” he said last month in a video appeal to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Give us your weapons,” he urged, and Ukraine will retake “what is ours.” And according to The New York Times, the Biden administration has begun to come around to the idea that Ukraine may need to threaten Russia’s foothold on the peninsula to strengthen its negotiating position, even at the risk of escalating the conflict.

If earnest negotiations were to start soon, Zelensky might still be open to a deal that ended the war and deferred the question of Crimea to a later date. But if the fighting drags on through the spring and summer and Ukraine inflicts enormous casualties on Russia while liberating substantial territory, it will become increasingly difficult for Zelensky to grant Putin a face-saving exit from the war and permit Russia’s continued but temporary occupation of Crimea. By the summer, Ukraine is likely to begin targeting more of Russia’s military infrastructure in Crimea in preparation for a broader campaign to liberate the peninsula. Instead of waiting for this scenario to play out, risking a longer and more dangerous war that could embroil NATO, Washington should give Ukraine the weapons and assistance it needs to win quickly and decisively in all occupied territories north of Crimea—and to credibly threaten to take the peninsula militarily.

Doing so would force Putin to the negotiating table and create an opening for diplomatic talks while the final status of Crimea remains unsettled, offering Putin a path out of Ukraine that doesn’t guarantee his political demise and allowing Ukraine to avoid an enormously costly military campaign that is by no means guaranteed to succeed. The eventual deal would require an immediate reduction of Russian conventional forces on the peninsula and outline a path to a referendum allowing the people of Crimea, including those displaced after the 2014 invasion, to determine the final status of the region.

LIBERATION THE HARD WAY

Contrary to what some skeptical analysts have asserted, a Ukrainian military campaign to liberate Crimea is hardly out of the question. The first step would be to pin down Russia’s forces in the Kherson and Luhansk regions and in the northern part of Donetsk. Next, Ukraine would free the remainder of Zaporizhzhia Province and push through southern Donetsk to reach the Sea of Azov, severing Russia’s land bridge to Ukraine. Ukrainian forces would also need to destroy the Kerch Strait Bridge, which connects Russia to the Crimean Peninsula and allows Moscow to resupply its troops by road and rail. An explosion knocked out part of the bridge in October 2022, but it may be fully restored by the summer.

Without a land bridge or road or rail links to Crimea, the Kremlin would be forced to revert to maritime resupply, but ferries and barges would not meet its logistical needs for fighting in Crimea and southern Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces would carry out weeks of strikes on Russian forces and infrastructure to degrade the enemy’s military capability. Targets would include logistics hubs, air bases, command and control centers, naval installations, and transportation nodes.

Western powers don’t need to risk a perilous and prolonged war.

If Ukraine were to succeed in this initial phase of the operation, it would need to conduct land and amphibious attacks to gain a foothold in Crimea—another herculean effort. Then it would need to build up forces in multiple locations in northern Crimea so that it could seize large strategic installations such as the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, the Crimean capital of Simferopol, the coastal city of Feodosiya, and the port of Kerch. To achieve these objectives, Ukraine would need to concentrate its forces in Kherson and in newly captured territory in northern Crimea, making them vulnerable to a Russian tactical nuclear strike. For this reason (and because the loss of Crimea could endanger Putin’s regime), the final phase of this campaign would be the most perilous.

Even with a flood of Western support, Ukraine would struggle to undertake such an operation. The German Leopard 2 tanks, British Challenger 2 tanks, and American M1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles promised in recent weeks would certainly improve the odds. But the Ukrainian military would need hundreds of these vehicles as well as an air attack capability (either a dozen well-armed combat drones or hundreds of smaller single-use anti-armor drones), thousands of HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) rounds and long-range missiles, and tens of thousands of artillery shells. It would also need greater manned airpower and engineering, amphibious, and logistics capacity to penetrate fortified Russian defensive lines, clear hundreds of miles of occupied territory, and conduct amphibious and ground assaults to cross into Crimea and dislodge Russian forces.

A RECIPE FOR DISASTER

Western reluctance to fully support Ukraine and defeat Russia—illustrated both by the enduring resistance of Washington and its allies to providing Ukraine with all the weapons systems it needs and by their drawn-out timelines for delivering what they have promised—undercuts Ukraine’s ability to conduct such an offensive and will likely cause the war to stretch deep into 2023. This is a recipe for incremental escalation. Losing Crimea militarily would strike a heavy blow to Putin’s credibility, so as the war drags on, he could resort to clandestine means to warn NATO off from supporting Ukraine, conducting deniable attacks on computer networks and infrastructure in Europe and the United States or causing industrial chemical or nuclear accidents in Ukraine to demonstrate his willingness to escalate. The West has shown little appetite for risk so far, so Putin may think he can bluff his way to an agreement with Ukraine that meets his demands.

But Western officials are less worried about Russian nuclear saber rattling than they once were. And in the face of incremental Russian escalation, the Euro-Atlantic resolve to back Ukraine will hold, as it has throughout the war. Instead of folding, the West will respond to the Kremlin’s gradual escalation with gradual increases in military support. As a result, NATO and Russia will continue to inch toward confrontation, progressively increasing the risk that an accident or miscalculation ignites a full-scale war. This is a formula for a conflagration that scorches NATO and for a potential escalation from conventional to nuclear war.

In reality, Putin has no interest in a fight with NATO. That much he has made clear by reserving no conventional military capability for such a confrontation. But that doesn’t mean the Russian leader isn’t willing to play a dangerous game of chicken with the West. And the longer that game drags on, the greater the chance it will end in tragedy.

CREDIBLE THREAT, POSSIBLE PEACE

Western powers don’t need to risk a perilous and prolonged war. They can help bring the conflict to a much swifter conclusion by delivering the weapons, equipment, and logistical support that Ukraine needs to expel Russian troops from all occupied territories north of Crimea and to credibly threaten Moscow’s hold on the peninsula.

Right now, Ukraine is winning with only moderate support from the West. The tanks and other materiel recently promised by the United States, Germany, and various other European powers will undoubtedly give Ukraine an even greater advantage. But to convince Putin that he is better off withdrawing from Crimea, Western countries will need to do much more. They will need to do away with the artificial constraints they have placed on military assistance to Kyiv and supply the long-range weapons that would allow Ukraine to play offense as well as defense. And they will need to deliver hundreds of tanks, armored personnel carriers, drones, planes, and other weapons needed to threaten the liberation of Crimea.

Instead of allowing the conflict to drag on through the winter, the Biden administration should help Ukraine bring the war to a swift and decisive end. Doing so might allow Crimea’s final status to be determined through negotiation rather than force, sparing both Ukraine and Russia the tragedy of another year of fighting. It would also secure Ukrainian democracy, dissuade authoritarian powers from considering military aggression in the future, and reduce the risk of a nuclear escalation that could spiral into an existential conflict.

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  • ALEXANDER VINDMAN, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and former Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, is a Hauser Leader at the Harvard Kennedy School and a director of the Informed American Leadership program at the VetVoice Foundation.
  • More By Alexander Vindman