Crucial Crimea: Why the illegally occupied territory must be returned to Ukraine

After a hesitant beginning, the West has rallied to provide Ukraine the military assistance it needs to check Russian aggression. Longer-range rocket systems should be part of a comprehensive strategy.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin understood from the outset the importance of  the Black Sea. In the face of a catastrophic world food crisis, all eyes have now turned to the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports. The ultimate key to winning the war is the return of occupied Crimea. He who controls Crimea controls the Black Sea, and that’s important for several reasons.

Russia may be losing the land war, but it’s winning the war at sea. The tale of Russian maritime dominance comes in two parts: destruction and denial. It started in 2014, when Russia raced to annex the Crimean peninsula in less than 48 hours. Moscow destroyed, or seized, most of the Ukrainian navy, making Kyiv defenseless in the Black Sea. As soon as roads and wires to mainland Ukraine were cut, Moscow started adding submarines, frigates, missile defense and other anti-access area denial capabilities to the region.

Power projection from the Black Sea permitted Russia’s Syria intervention. Long-range Russian military capabilities capable of striking NATO territory made this maritime domain a no-go zone.

Since 2016, Putin has poured billions of dollars into building the “Crimean bridge.” For years now, Moscow has used the excuse of the illegal bridge to restrict or at times block Ukrainian industry exports from Mariupol. But Putin never intended to stop here. The Azov Sea blockade was one indicator. And in only three months of war, Russia has already obliterated the key port city of Mariupol. What’s left is the jewel, the Port of Odessa.

Moscow has not been able to decimate and capture Odessa. Russia proceeded with missile terrorism and blockade: It deploys its Black Sea fleet – including an estimated 20 warships – plus the placement of mines (perhaps as many as 400 mines already) to own this space. None of Russia’s maritime warfare is possible without Crimea and Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Russia can lose the war on land but still cripple the Ukrainian economy and wreak havoc around the world.

The U.S. and UK are now onto proposals to create a humanitarian corridor to allow grain shipments out of Odessa. This is complicated, to put it mildly. Commercials ships need escorts. Escorts must navigate mined waters. Moscow must grant permission for passage. No surprise that Putin is willing to consider granting permission in exchange for lifting sanctions.

In the short term, we must find ways around the current blockade, if we’re to avert starvation this summer. But the ultimate key to solving the problem and winning the war is getting occupied Crimea back to Ukraine.

It’s become a mantra that direct conflict with Russia must be avoided at all costs. But the proxy war is already on. It’s finally time for the U.S. and its allies to develop a proper strategy to win. It involves risk. But placing Crimea now at the center of our deliberations is a must.

Recovering Crimea will require additional and robust Western military support. The newly approved $40 billion from Congress helps Ukrainians in the Donbas. Recovering Crimea will entail different kinds of assistance. The Danish Harpoon anti-ship missiles on their way now are a good start. Putin’s bridge must be destroyed (something Ukrainians have already called for). Once the peninsula is cut off from re-supply, Ukraine can launch a major ground counter-offensive to neutralize Russian military capabilities.

We know by now that Ukrainians will fight fiercely. They’ll need to be equipped to take out Russian air defense systems. This will have to include long-range rocket systems. We should prepare for a long siege.

There’s a war still to be won on land. But a crucial element of any lasting peace is Ukrainian victory in the Black Sea. For this to happen, Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea must be ended. Without this, the war will drag on and the world will feel its effect.

Iulia Joja teaches at Georgetown and George Washington Universities and runs the Black Sea Security program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

Tags Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation Crimea Crimea annexation Crimea standoff Russia Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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