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9 January

Why Ukraine’s designs on Crimea could split the West

Some allies fear threatening to retake the peninsula could provoke a nuclear attack.

By Jeremy Cliffe

As the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches, Western unity on the fundamental issues of the war remains impressively firm. Yes, there have been differences of degree and tone in Nato states’ provision of military aid to Ukraine, but with the partial exception of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary they are agreed that Vladimir Putin’s forces must not prevail and that Ukraine must be supported to retake territory seized by Russia from 24 February 2022 onwards.

That common baseline has been reinforced in recent days by a new wave of weapons-export announcements. France, Germany and the US will send Ukraine what are essentially light tanks. That raises the prospect of them soon delivering heavier battle tanks, too, like the Challenger 2s that it was reported today (9 January) the British government is now consider sending. Momentum is building behind providing Ukraine with the tools needed to make further major advances following those around Kharkiv and Kherson in the second half of 2022. And that raises the prospect of Ukraine first cutting off, and then potentially retaking, the Crimean peninsula.

In an interview with NPR on 2 January Ben Hodges, the US army’s former commanding general in Europe, described the military scenario. Two roads connect occupied Crimea to Russia. One links its isthmus to the Russian-held land corridor running via the cities of Melitopol and Mariupol to the Russian-held territories in the Donbas on the Russian border. The second is the Kerch Bridge, already damaged in a blast in October. Hodges said he anticipated Ukraine “over the next couple of months” severing both of these connections and thus being in a position “to liberate Crimea by the end of August”. The question is: should the West support and encourage Ukraine to do so?

On the one hand, Crimea is not like the other territories retaken so far. Russia illegally occupied and annexed it not after 24 February 2022 but in 2014. It holds a particular place in the Russian historical and national imagination. The humiliation of its liberation by Ukraine has the potential to be a regime-ending event. Might this prospect prompt Putin to use nuclear weapons? This perspective – most common in western European capitals like Paris and Berlin – sees ongoing Russian control of Crimea as a potentially crucial bargaining chip in any talks to end the conflict. 

The counter-argument is that such an outcome would bring its own risks. Crimea rightly belongs to Ukraine; along with every other region of the country it voted for independence from Russia in the country’s 1991 referendum. To accept Russia overriding this through military force would create a dangerous international precedent. Putin’s control of Crimea would also enable him to continue undermining Ukraine’s security and its vital access to the Black Sea. Better, then, to back its liberation. This outlook dominates in eastern European states and significant corners of Washington.

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Ukraine’s supporters are thus divided on the Crimea question in a way they have not been on any other major topic of the war to date. It has the potential to split the coalition. And therein lies the paradox that may well come to define the next stage of the conflict: the more Ukraine advances from here onwards, the more the international support enabling it to do so will be at risk of fracturing. Over the past 11 months Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, has proven himself a brilliant leader and global voice for his country in times of adversity. He may soon face different perils: those of success.

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[See also: Nato’s taboo of not sending tanks to Ukraine is slowly being broken]