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Ukraine shouldn’t try to retake Crimea: for now

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a press conference with Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, April 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)

Ukraine is widely expected to conduct a counteroffensive in the next weeks. Operational security prevents us from knowing where exactly Ukrainian forces will attempt to push the Russian line or what the territorial objective may be. Will they try to retake the eastern oblasts and perhaps the Azov Sea littoral? Or will they go deeper to reassert Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, lost in 2014?  

There is certainly a good legal and moral case for Ukraine to do the latter. Crimea has been annexed by Russia illegally, and Ukraine is right in demanding it back.  

But politically and strategically, it is not a good idea. It is risky for Ukraine, an exhausted nation dependent on tenuous international support, to direct its limited forces against the Crimean peninsula that Russia has controlled for almost a decade, and most likely girded with entrenched defensive positions. A Ukrainian counteroffensive in Crimea may be, therefore, very difficult and costly, degrading already scant and tired forces that are better used elsewhere. 

Moreover, many countries, especially in Europe, are already feeble supporters of Ukraine, trickling their weapons in hopes that a post-war era comes soon and they can resume their business with Russia. In the coming counteroffensive, Kyiv’s objective must be not only to push Russian forces back but also to do so in such a way as to maximize future Western support for its economic restoration and military strengthening. Going after Crimea may undermine this fragile assistance.  

Some Western political leaders, including in the U.S., fear Russian escalation, including a potential use of nuclear weapons. Even if they favor Ukrainian independence at least rhetorically, their overarching goal now is not to incite Moscow into a wider and more destructive war. Such views may exaggerate Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling but, wrong or not, they are there and shape how Ukraine’s actions are evaluated in the West. Kyiv can try to alter them but cannot ignore them. Even a tactical Ukrainian victory in Crimea, therefore, if feasible at all, may impose a long-term diplomatic setback for Ukraine by exacerbating these Western fears. 

Letting Russia hold Crimea, for now, has the additional benefit of leaving a target for future deterrent purposes. The Russian Black Fleet based in Sevastopol, several military airports and allegedly the Kerch Strait bridge have all been targeted by Ukraine in the last months — including last week — in mostly symbolic attacks. But they show the vulnerability of Russian assets in Crimea and have a chilling effect on Russians (so much that, two months after an explosion damaged on the Kerch bridge, Putin felt obliged to visit it, driving a Mercedes SUV, in order to reassure public opinion that Crimea was still connected to mainland Russia).  

A credible Ukrainian threat to Russian targets in Crimea can be effective in deterring the next round of Russian imperial aggression. A Ukrainian retaliation against Sevastopol, the Kerch Bridge or a Russian military airport in Crimea is less escalatory than a similar attack against a target in Russia. It would target de jure Ukrainian lands, and not Russia proper. This would make it more palatable to Ukraine’s Western partners, focused on mitigating escalation. It would also give Moscow room to save face and cease an attack — something that would be much harder to do if Ukrainian forces strike near a Russian city. 

Of course, to do so, Ukraine will need capabilities beyond what it has now. Small unmanned vessels or drones, or the small act of sabotage, are good for the occasional harassment of Russian forces in Crimea. But longer-range weapons, such as ATACMS and advanced U.S. drones, would be necessary to establish a stronger deterrent by presenting a serious threat to Russian assets on this peninsula. Kyiv should seek to develop and acquire them and reserve Crimea as a target for its future security. 

States pursue military operations not only for battlefield objectives but for long-term political purposes. This creates paradoxes. In some cases, fighting a defensive war with limited chances of success is a reasonable gamble in order to have a better seat at the post-war table. The immediate, and tragic, military loss of a valiant nation allows for the seeds of a future political resurgence and independence. In other cases, it is farsighted to eschew a target, even if militarily inviting and politically desired, to set up a more stable situation in the future. Ukraine would do well therefore to avoid an operational target such as Crimea, that, even if militarily achievable, may undermine its long-term security.  

Keep Crimea as a reserve target for now.  

Jakub Grygiel is a professor at The Catholic University of America and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Tags Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation Crimea Politics of the United States Russia Russia-Ukraine war Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine Ukraine counteroffensive US military aid to Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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