The Future of Crimea: How Far is Too Far?

“Give us your weapons — we will return what is ours,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in his recent address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. 

President Zelensky’s comments reflect his sentiments to take back “Ukrainian historical lands,” referring here to Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. With the world focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one begins to question the extent to which Western superpowers can support Ukraine in their already year-long fight for survival against Russian hegemonic power, and what that support would look like in the post-war period.

Just about a year ago in March, in the midst of the catastrophic first few weeks of the war, President Zelensky hinted at his intentions of being open to compromise with Russia on contested regions such as the Crimean Peninsula, if that meant an immediate end to the war. By compromise, of course, Zelensky did not mean that Ukraine was ready to thoroughly give up Crimea or recognize it as Russian territory. However, with Russia being on the winning side at the time, the results of negotiations would have likely been unfavorable for Ukraine. Russia simply had too much leverage to undergo a negotiation where an outcome would result in the loss of territories that were under the Kremlin’s control well before the start of the war.

Fast forward one year, Ukrainian forces have gained tremendous momentum,  successfully pushing back Russian forces in the Northeastern region of Chernihiv and Sumy, as well as in the strategically important southern regions of Kharkiv and Kherson. These advances on the military front resulted in Russia losing one fifth of the territories it controlled at the start of the war, when Zelensky was still considering a compromise.

With Ukraine’s military advances, Zelensky is confident in his army’s ability to combat Russian aggression and potentially take back Crimea.

Zelensky’s intentions to reclaim Ukrainian land have left the international public with mixed opinions, with some fearing the potential repercussions of supporting Ukraine in regaining Crimea and how this would affect the international order. 

In order to understand the repercussions of Ukraine reacquiring Crimea, we need to look at both the Russian and the Ukrainian perspectives.

Crimea is extremely important for Russia, both for Russian President Vladimir Putin personally and for strategic reasons. According to Putin, he considers Crimea to be sacred for Russians because it was where “Count Vladimir was baptized back in the 10th century to then baptize the rest of the Rus.” According to Putin, he sees Crimea as the “Temple Mount” and the foundation of the formation of Russian identity, attempting to draw a historical pretense for his invasion of Ukraine. 

However, beyond the alleged historic significance of the peninsula, Crimea is also an important military strategic base. With the warm water ports of the Sevastopol, Russia is able to base its Black Sea Fleet at the Crimean waters, and put strategically crucial military personnel and equipment in place to protect the Kremlin’s power in and across the Black Sea.

For Ukraine, Crimea is a part of its internationally recognized sovereignty, following the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. Crimea was also a point of tremendous economic revenue for Ukraine, offering access to billions of dollars worth of oil and gas resources in the Black Sea.

With  Russia’s illegal annexation of the region in 2014, the conflicting interests of Putin’s imperialist agenda and international law surrounding the Crimean peninsula reached their peak. Since then, Russia has maintained de facto control over the region, effectively changing the status quo. Now, with Zelensky’s desires to reassert control over the territory, Western powers who have supported Ukraine to their fullest capabilities are left with a puzzling reality.

Should the United States and NATO powers continue their support of Ukraine to retake Crimea, or is that where the Kremlin draws its nuclear line?

Recent reports from the Biden administration indicate that U.S. President Joe Biden is “warming up” to the idea of reasserting Ukrainian control over Crimea. Biden has continuously pledged his support for the Ukrainian defense effort and has directed over $75 billion to Ukraine in military and humanitarian aid. 

However, supporting Ukraine’s plans to reinstate Kyiv’s control over Crimea may very well be Russia’s tipping point toward pressing the nuclear button.

Since Putin holds Crimea near and dear to his heart and to Russian national identity, in addition to Crimea being under Russian control for the last seven years, the Kremlin is unlikely to tolerate Western support of a Crimean attack. 

Considering Putin has talked about the potential deployment of tactical nuclear weapons for some time, Ukraine taking over Crimea may be the last straw for Russia.

For context, Putin’s recent interviews have been criticizing the West for its continuous antagonism,  which dates back to the Cold War.  In this vein, he justified the Ukraine attack as being partially motivated by NATO’s expansionist efforts in Ukraine. The Russian leader’s apparent irrationality may very well lead to the largest nuclear arsenal in the world being deployed to a point of no return. Additionally, Putin has suspended Russia’s involvement in the START treaty, a nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia, creating a time of great nuclear confusion on the international stage.  

The United States needs to be very careful in its approach to preventing such a catastrophe from happening — one that would change the course of history forever. 

This is not to say, however, that Biden should not continue his support of Ukraine. The West must continue supplying Ukraine with weapons and financial support, in order to send Putin a message that such Russian imperialism will never be tolerated in the international arena.

That said, Western allies need to make it clear that a Crimean invasion may be a step too far for Putin, because Crimea is simply too important for Putin to lose. 

Such a loss would signal a Russian defeat in the war and a loss of its perceived national territory. 

If we have learned anything from the world wars of the 20th century, losers need not be punished too hard by the victors — at least, not to a point where hatred bred will set a stage for another major escalation. 

Or, in the case of Russia, the threat of a full-scale nuclear war.

Image by Mathias Reding.

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