Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is reportedly thinking of using Crimea as a bargaining chip for Putin. But the question is, are they willing to give it up?
Putin is currently facing serious domestic issues, and defending Crimea may no longer be his greatest problem. Some believe that a joint special sovereignty status for the peninsula might be offered, but there is little trust. A joint lease arrangement that allowed Russia to keep its Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol until at least 2042 was terminated by Putin in 2014.
Boris Johnson, a close ally of Volodymyr Zelensky, made a little-noticed intervention in which he stated that if Russian troops returned to the territories they occupied before the February 24 invasion, it would provide a foundation for resumed negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.
The statement does not mention a precondition for starting talks, implying that Ukraine would have to accept that Russian troops would not be removed from Crimea.
Many diplomats have privately admitted that returning the Crimean peninsula to Ukrainian control, which Russia seized in 2014 in defiance of the UN, is risky. Johnson made that point in his piece in the Wall Street Journal last week.
Smoke rises over the Kerch Strait bridge linking Russia to Ukrainian-controlled Crimea, where Ukrainian special forces seized part of the crossing in October.
Senior diplomat Henry Kissinger, writing for the Spectator, made a similar suggestion, suggesting that Russia should be forced to return territories gained since February this year. After the ceasefire, he said, the occupation of land seized more than a decade earlier, including Crimea, might be negotiated. Then, if the negotiation was unsuccessful, internationally supervised self-determination referendums might be used.
In addition to being geographically and ethnically distinct from other parts of Ukraine, Crimea is said to have 30,000 Russian troops entrenched with little chance of amphibious Ukrainian access. Some fear that if Vladimir Putin felt he was losing control over Crimea, he might act on his threat to use tactical nuclear weapons, which would terrify and hinders Washington and Europe, resulting in an escalation.
The most recent Russian advances, which occurred in early March, are shown on the map as areas where Ukraine regained control before February 24. The red zones show areas controlled by Russia since before February 24. The blue zones show areas controlled by Ukraine. The orange line shows where Ukraine and Russia clashed in 2014. The Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric dam is in the red zone on the Dnipro River. The Azov Sea is in the blue zone. The Kerch Strait is marked in the red zone. Russia occupied Crimea in 2014, and the Sea of Azov is marked in the blue zone. The Black Sea is kept in the blue zone, showing where the Russian border is. The red line is the Ukrainian border. It is 200 km long and runs from Odesa to the Sea of Azov. Russia occupied Crimea in 2014, and the Sea of Azov is marked in the blue zone. The border is 200 miles long and runs from Odesa to the Kerch Strait.
According to Zelensky, more than a simple ceasefire with Putin would be needed to satisfy the public. However, he clarified his position at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore, saying, “A simple ceasefire won’t do the trick. Unless we liberate our whole territory, we will not bring peace.”
In diplomatic terms, Zelensky has also established the Crimea Platform, a consortium dedicated to pressuring the world to keep Crimea occupied illegally on its radar. At the August meeting of the Platform, Polish president Andrzej Duda declared, “Crimea has and continues to be an integral part of Ukraine as Gdansk and Lublin are parts of Poland.” But, he added, “Has the occupation of Crimea in the last year been a bad signal from many countries to Russia?”
85% of Ukrainians want the war to end with Ukraine regaining control of the territory seized in 2014.
The plan of the Ukrainian military is to push south, cutting off Russian supply lines, by coming down from the east side of the Dnipro River and then reaching the dam that provides 85% of Crimea’s fresh water.
The military effort to undermine the impregnability of Crimea is still in its infancy. However, on October 7, Ukrainian special forces struck the heavily guarded 19-kilometer Kerch Strait bridge, a symbol of Russia’s annexation and a near-mystical reunification of Russia with the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox church.
With its railway line and water pipes, the bridge connecting Crimea to Russia was a significant engineering feat that Putin completed after three years of labor. Because of the damage, Russian supply routes have slowed but not been terminated. Kherson and surrounding areas are supplied primarily by Russia via this route.
Saki airbase in Novofedorivka was struck by six explosions on August 9. In November, blasts hit Russia’s most extensive Crimean military base near Dzhankoi. The people of Crimea are concerned about what ammunition dump will blow up next, based on the number of people recently arrested for aiding the enemy. Moscow is also concerned about Atesh, the Crimean resistance group.
The Kakhovka dam provides 85% of Crimea’s water supply and is a critical Ukrainian target.
Senior presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak suggested that a war crimes tribunal should be held in Crimea to commemorate the fact that the troubles in Crimea started and should also finish there. Ukrainian forces should be on the peninsula by the end of December, Volodymyr Havrylov, a deputy defense minister, said.
Petro Poroshenko, the former Ukrainian president, suggested a new Yalta conference might be held there in 2019, replicating the Yalta conference of 1945, which laid the groundwork for the post-World War II world order.
So, is the capture of Crimea feasible or even wise? British military officials also point out Crimea’s vulnerabilities, including its reliance on mainland Ukraine for water. In early February 2022, Russia captured the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam in southern Ukraine. The reservoir behind the Kakhovka dam allows water to flow down the 250-mile North Crimean canal, built in the Soviet era to supply fresh water from the Dnipro River to arid southern Ukraine and Crimea.
Between 2014 and 2018, the canal went dry. The Ukrainian government said that Russia had constructed a concrete dam across the watercourse, significantly hindering irrigation, crop production, and drinking water across Crimea. Due to the Russian invasion in February, Tavriisk, where the dam had been erected, was reached by Russian troops, who then destroyed the dam and released 1.7m cubic meters of water from the Dnipro into Crimea. As a result, over 80% of Crimean agricultural land was lost, making it impossible to grow rice and other crops.
British officials believe regaining Ukrainian control over the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant and the North Crimean canal is feasible and desirable.
The US military is unnerved by talk of an offensive that would expel Russia’s 30,000 troops from Crimea. General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that “the probability of that happening any time soon is not high, militarily.”
Ukrainian diplomats privately acknowledge that fear of escalation in Washington and European capitals are holding back the supply of long-range artillery weapons needed to finish the job, including the capture of Crimea.
European diplomats acknowledge that Crimea has a unique status. The Soviet leadership transferred Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, and most of its people were Russian; many were navy retirees from the Black Sea.
No reliable opinion surveys have been taken since the occupation. According to a leaked document, only a third of the population voted to unite with Russia in the initial annexation referendum in 2014. The economy in Crimea has fared well since then, and over 300,000 Russians have moved there. Many pro-Ukrainian activists and Crimean Tatars have once again been forced out. Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna of Ukraine stated, “Crimeans are now a totally distinct people than they were eight years ago.” Crimeans have been sealed off from the world media for almost a decade.
Rather than ending in glory, a bloody prolongation of the war to free a population who may not seek liberation would represent an inglorious end to the Ukrainian campaign.
Some Ukrainian diplomats say that, even if the southern offensive militarily isolates the peninsula, it may be beneficial to proceed slowly. As an option, it might be better to try to reopen negotiations with Russia rather than invade through the swampy Syvash or Rotten Sea, both of which have relatively narrow land approaches owing to the tides.