It is sometimes assumed in the West that the Crimean Peninsula is somehow a negotiable element of the conflict and that the government in Kyiv might be persuaded to relinquish it as part of a grand bargain with Russia.
This is despite the fact that Ukraine has consistently stated that its liberation is a central war aim. In the summer of 2022, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy once again declared that the Russian war against Ukraine must conclude with this achievement.
The idea that Crimea, seized in 2014 by Russian forces in an early and open act of aggression against Ukrainian statehood, is somehow an optional add-on is mistaken, and not just because this is an issue of national pride and integrity.
Firstly, the significance of Crimea extends far beyond Europe. Its annexation was a serious act of enforced border change by an aggressive neighbor. The 1991 Gulf war was fought on precisely the issue of border change by force of arms; that conflict gathered an extraordinary coalition involving the armed forces of 38 countries. It was designed to send a message to future aggressors. Failing to uphold that message would mark a serious failure for the international rules-based order.
Secondly, the illegal annexation of Crimea was endorsed in a rigged vote. In May 2014, a report from the Russian Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights estimated that the actual turnout for the Crimean independence referendum may have been as low as 30%. The Russian Unity Party that had pushed for Crimean succession into Russia had received less than 5% of the vote in the 2010 regional election. In 2011, a poll was conducted in Crimea and found that more than 71% of Crimean residents considered Ukraine their motherland. Vladimir Putin, in other words, seized a part of Ukraine that had no intention of joining Russia in democratically held elections in prior years.
Thirdly, the Russian Federation has extensively mistreated its supposed new citizens. It is not for the West, or anyone else, to leave large numbers of people at the mercy of a criminal regime inflicting non-judicial sanctions and brutality on the peoples of the occupied territories. Ukraine has a duty to assist its citizens through liberation — exactly the policy that the US, the UK, or France would follow in similar circumstances.
Lastly, and most importantly, Ukraine has no choice but to fight until Crimea returns to its control. The events of 2014 were merely the opening act of a drama aimed at erasing Ukrainian statehood. But the events of 2022 made clear that Crimea wasn’t enough for the warmongers in Moscow; the area was simply a launchpad for a much bigger operation. This is intolerable for Ukraine. If the battlelines were to be frozen with the peninsula still in Russian hands, it would amount to a dagger held at the country’s throat, to be used at any moment of the Kremlin’s choosing. This is not, therefore, an issue of choice for Ukraine but of survival.
(The West might also consider the strategic advantages —the loss to Russia of the Sevastopol naval base would seriously damage the Kremlin’s efforts to make the Black Sea a Russian lake, and force its fleet to rely on the port of Novorossiysk.)
Is it possible to retake Crimea? The main objective of Ukraine's counter-offensives is exactly this. While Russia maintains a strong presence there, the war has demonstrated that it is capable of losing territory quickly and unexpectedly, as in Kherson last fall. Despite some Western leaders expressing concerns about Putin considering Crimea a "red line", the region is continuously under fire from Ukrainian forces. The arrival of new, longer-range US munitions means this bombardment of military targets is only like to intensify.
As Russia frantically constructs defensive trenches in Crimea, it becomes clear that the country is deeply concerned about the region's vulnerability to a Ukrainian invasion. Even the Russian-appointed governor of Sevastopol has taken the precaution of moving his family to Cyprus, part of a wave of elite Russians fleeing the area.
The Biden administration continues to shift in this direction; according to recent New York Times reporting, "After months of discussions with Ukrainian officials, the Biden administration is finally starting to concede that Kyiv may need the power to strike . . . [Crimea], even if such a move increases the risk of escalation.” The calculation appears to be that even if the peninsula is not recaptured, a demonstration of the Ukrainian armed forces’ ability to challenge Russia's military control will ultimately strengthen Ukraine's position at the negotiating table.
Former French President François Hollande recently expressed the idea that a Ukrainian victory, marked by the withdrawal of Russian troops from Donbas and even Crimea, would serve as a powerful deterrent to Russia and China's imperial ambitions towards their neighbors. Putin's defeat would signal the end of this temptation to invade neighbors and serve as a clear warning that aggression will not pay.
It is time to remove Russia’s dagger, to defang its aggressive capacity in the borderlands, and reassert the primacy of peaceful coexistence as the foundation of international relations. Of course, Ukraine does this for itself, but it also does this for every other menaced country. The democratic world should remember that.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.