A year into Russia’s brutal quest to conquer Ukraine, the elected government in Kyiv is standing tall and its military and civilian defenders have won the admiration of much of the free world for staving off Vladimir Putin’s destabilizing violation of the post-World War II order.
Ukrainians’ fierce defense of their independence under the leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky has fueled confidence that their country’s sovereignty can be preserved and territories seized by Russian forces in the south and east of the country recaptured.
Even in the throes of a reinvigorated Russian offensive in the Donbas industrial heartland, expectations remain high that Ukrainians’ motivation to defeat Putin’s aggression will end with Kyiv recovering at least the territory seized by Russia since its Feb. 24, 2022, invasion.
The question that now bedevils Zelensky’s government and his Western allies is whether the unexpected success of Ukrainian troops driving Russian forces into retreat after a failed attempt to take Kyiv or hold on to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s No. 2 city, indicates an ability to recover the crown jewel of Crimea.
Western diplomats, political scientists, historians and military analysts are largely divided over whether Ukraine can or should carry the fight to ultimate victory in restoring the internationally recognized borders agreed during the 1991 breakup of the Communist-ruled Soviet Union.
One thing the diverse pundits agree on is that any offensive to retake Crimea will be costly in lives, armaments and any hope for ethnic reconciliation on the Russian-dominated Black Sea peninsula. Even the most optimistic prognostications on the war’s end acknowledge that Ukraine would suffer heavy casualties on top of the more than 100,000 already sustained so far, according to British intelligence.
Russia has turned Crimea into a massive garrison since seizing and annexing it in a stealth invasion in February 2014. Amid the chaos in Ukraine after a three-month pro-democracy rebellion that drove Putin-allied Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to seek refuge in Russia, Putin dropped legions of paratroopers – “little green men”– into Crimea. His armed emissaries backed the Russian-led regional government’s sham referendum purporting to demand annexation to Russia with which it then shared no land border. Russian conscripts and mercenaries last summer created a land bridge with a scorched-earth bombardment of Mariupol and a corridor along the Sea of Azov to connect Russian territory with the narrow gateway to Crimea.
The arguments supporting Ukraine’s potential recovery of Crimea rest heavily on the premise that to do otherwise, to let Russia keep its stolen territory, would reward Putin for his unprovoked aggression and encourage him to attack other desired relics of the fallen Soviet empire like the NATO-member Baltic states and eastern reaches of Poland.
On the side of experts predicting Ukraine will have to sacrifice at least some Russian-occupied territory if it wants to end the war, it is argued that Crimea is now too militarized to be conquered, even with more powerful Western armaments. After driving out Ukrainians and Tatars opposed to the Russian takeover and relocating at least 100,000 Russians mainlanders into Crimea, Russian domination is too entwined with Putin’s vision of making Russia great again, many analysts contend while conceding Kremlin claims to the territory evoke distorted versions of history.
Peace versus justice is the conundrum Ukraine’s defenders face. Kyiv’s prevailing objective as Putin’s war enters its second year is that territorial concessions would only pause the Russian offensive and allow Moscow to rearm and resume the invasion later.
“Ukraine will never be stable or secure without Crimea,” retired Army Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS earlier this month. Concessions to the aggressor would be short-sighted and detrimental to Ukraine’s ability to rebuild its economy when the fighting ends, Hodges said, because “Russia will never live up to any agreement.”
Foreign Affairs last month published the opinions of 72 experts from all spheres of foreign policy responding to the question: Will Ukraine wind up making territorial concessions to Russia?
Few of those polled were categorical in their opinions. Many demurred from predicting the outcome of a war that has defied expectations from the first days of the invasion.
“Neither Ukraine nor the West has any reason to believe that territorial concession would satisfy, rather than embolden, Russia,” writes Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus and current editor of Strategic Survey: The Annual Assessment of Geopolitics issued by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Such concessions would be offered only if the position of Ukraine, and the countries supporting it, were so weak that rewarding Russia’s aggression – thereby accepting a gross violation of basic international norms, further war crimes, and the likely resumption of Russia’s aggression – became a more attractive option than continuing the war. This prospect seems remote.”
Timothy Snyder, Yale University professor of history and public affairs, argues that Putin would not be appeased by any concession other than total surrender.
“Moscow portrays the Ukrainian government as illegitimate and as having no right to rule any territory at all,” Snyder writes. “Russia’s avowed war aim, per Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov quite recently, remains the destruction of the Ukrainian state and the control of the entirety of its territory.”
Recent boasts by Putin about installing Russia-friendly rule in Kyiv have made clear the Kremlin’s original justification for invading Ukraine — to halt NATO expansion – was pretext for his goal of empire-building.
“This outcome will signify a serious defeat for the West, and the resources needed for achieving a better one are actually not that tremendous,” Pavel Baev, a professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, replied, saying he strongly disagreed that Ukraine would concede territory.
Many of those queried contend no negotiated settlement of the war is possible as long as Putin is in power. None ventured to predict that would be any time soon.
“Only when Russia changes from the inside and elites come to understand that the war must be terminated, and it is a goal in itself, might we see increasing readiness to talk to Ukraine without setting unrealistic conditions of capitulation,” says Tatiana Stanovaya, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
One argument put forward by several foreign policy experts cautions Ukraine against pursuing Ukrainian recovery of Crimea and facing a future of destabilizing ethnic hostility from defeated Russians.
“I have doubts that recovering all the land Russia has seized is in fact in Ukraine’s own long-term interests,” Thomas Graham, distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says of the tensions that will persist if Kyiv’s forces were to defeat Crimea’s Russian defenders. “A strong, prosperous Ukraine on the territory Kyiv controlled on February 23, 2022, is better for Ukrainians and their Western partners than what is likely to be a fragile, troubled country within Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders.”
In a separate commentary in Foreign Affairs last month by Andriy Zagorodnyuk, former Ukraine defense minister and now chair of Ukraine’s Centre for Defense Strategies think tank, disputes Russia’s claim to be the rightful ruler of Crimea. Putin’s claims are based on select moments in history and the predominance of ethnic Russians and the Russian language in the province.
“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,” Zagorodnyuk writes in The Case for Taking Crimea. “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.”
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, in What Ukraine Needs to Liberate Crimea, offers a candid view of what it could take to restore the province within Ukraine’s borders. He notes that with newly promised Western tanks and other sophisticated weapons, Ukraine’s armed forces would be able to take back more territory in the east and south, “making it possible to imagine an eventual Ukrainian campaign to retake Crimea.”
Vindman, the Ukrainian émigré and National Security Council European director fired by former President Trump for opposing the attempt to extort Zelensky into investigation Joe Biden during the run-up to the 2020 election, notes that Russian occupation of Crimea enables Putin to threaten Ukraine and gives it a forward base for carrying out long-range attacks. But Ukraine’s Western backers have been reluctant to support a campaign for retaking Crimea because they fear that would cross a Kremlin “red line” and provoke disastrous Russian retaliation, perhaps escalation to attack with nuclear weapons.
Some wars, especially those initiated by Russia, don’t end, they simply freeze the status quo. As seen in Moldova after the Soviet breakup, in Georgia in 2008 and eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russian troops hunker down in enclaves seized in short-lived aggressions.
William Pomeranz of the Wilson Center cites Putin’s vow to build four massive new prisons for his Ukrainian captives in the event of a Russian victory, foreshadowing the brutality that awaits defenders of Ukraine’s fledgling democracy and independence.
“People under Russian control are subject to deportations, torture, and mass murder. This makes the idea of abandoning territory feel like an abandonment of people,” Yale’s Snyder reminds readers of the future Ukrainians could face in ceded territory.
Historian and author Robert D. Kaplan of the Foreign Policy Research Institute declined to hazard a guess as to the fate of a post-war Crimea, citing the many contingencies of war “being life at its most intense and extreme.” He concluded his response with the opinion that Ukraine has “earned in blood the right of NATO membership, moving NATO eastward and changing NATO in the process.”