Crimea is shaping up to be the battleground that will decide the Russia-Ukraine war
The war in Ukraine is poised to become even more violent this year with a major Russian offensive expected and more advanced Western-made weapons pouring in to bolster Ukrainian forces. Along these lines, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg recently warned that the war has entered a "decisive phase."
This new stage of the war could bring the fight to a territory vital to Russia's military capabilities in Ukraine and cherished by Russian President Vladimir Putin: Crimea.
The Black Sea peninsula, which was invaded by Russian forces and illegally annexed by Putin in 2014, served as a launchpad for Russia's invasion last February and helped pave the way for Russian forces to occupy a significant chunk of southern Ukraine. Crimea continues to be a base of attack for Russian aircraft and warships striking Ukraine.
"The decisive terrain for this war is Crimea. The Ukrainian government knows that they cannot settle for Russia retaining control of Crimea," retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of US Army Europe, told Insider.
"The next few months will see Ukraine setting the conditions for the eventual liberation of Crimea," he added, emphasizing that the country will "never be safe or secure or able to rebuild their economy so long as Russia retains Crimea."
Russia occupies Crimea and a significant swath of southern Ukraine — including the cities of Melitopol and Mariupol — that provides it with a land bridge from its own border to the Crimean peninsula. This area serves as a pivotal supply route for the Russian military. The peninsula, roughly the size of Massachusetts, is home to a number of military bases and Russia's Black Sea fleet.
Crimea — annexed by the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in 1783 — also has major symbolic importance to Putin, who has tied Russia's war in Ukraine to its imperial past. Putin has referred to Crimea as a "holy land" for Russia. In many ways, Putin's illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 set the stage for the wider war of conquest that he launched last year.
The fight to retake Crimea could be extremely bloody, in a war that's already led to massive casualties for both sides. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who has maintained that negotiations will be necessary to end the war, in November said the likelihood of Ukraine kicking Russia out of Crimea "anytime soon is not high, militarily."
But there also appears to be a growing cohort of military experts who believe that reclaiming Crimea is imperative to Ukraine's long-term survival, and contend that Ukrainian forces have already shown they have the ability to get the job done. A threatening campaign against Crimea could also provide a boost to Kyiv's negotiation power in any future peace talks.
"As long as the peninsula remains in the Kremlin's hands, Ukraine — and Ukrainians — cannot be free of Russian aggression," Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine's former defense minister, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs.
"After consecutive months of battlefield success, it is clear that Ukraine has the capacity to liberate Crimea," Zagorodnyuk went on to say, adding, "Ukraine should therefore plan to liberate Crimea—and the West should plan to help."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pledged to expel Russian forces out of all occupied territory, including Crimea. With a new Russian offensive expected to begin in the near future and a fierce desire to retake control of occupied territories, Kyiv has pushed hard for more advanced weapons from the West.
"Crimea is our land, it is our territory, it is our sea and our mountains. Give us your weapons and we will bring our land back," Zelenskyy said via video link at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos this month.
This week, the US and Germany announced they will fulfilling a major request. Ukraine has emphasized that tanks will be necessary to regain control of occupied territories that Russians have mined and are likely to defend with trench networks.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday said the US would provide Ukraine with 31 M1 Abrams tanks. Ahead of the announcement, a senior administration official told reporters that the tanks were being provided not only to bolster Ukraine's defensive capabilities but also to give it the ability to reclaim "sovereign territory." The official said this includes Crimea.
"Crimea is Ukraine. We've never recognized the illegal annexation," the official said.
Similarly, Biden on Wednesday said, "With spring approaching, the Ukrainian forces are working to defend the territory they hold and preparing for additional counter-offensives. To liberate their land, they need to be able to counter Russia's evolving tactics and strategy on the battlefield in the very near term."
A number of top military experts contend that the West's apprehensiveness surrounding various weapons is prolonging the war and hindering Ukraine's ability to take the fight to the Russian invaders at a pivotal moment.
"The allies must simply stop the 'give them part of what they need, slower than they need it' approach to supplying Ukraine. This approach has gone on too long already. Ukraine needs more air defense systems, tanks, and long-range artillery — and rockets to do what is necessary," retired US Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, now a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote in a recent op-ed for The Hill.
Providing Ukraine with tanks is "very important," Hodges said, before adding that "they are only part of the overall effort required for Ukraine to win, to defeat Russian forces, and to compel them to leave Crimea." To successfully boot Russia out of Crimea, Hodges underscored that Ukraine will need long-range precision strike weapons
Liberating Crimea could be achieved by isolating the peninsula via air and land attacks to sever and disrupt Russia's main links to Crimea — the Kerch Bridge, which has already been sabotaged by Ukraine, and the so-called land bridge (occupied territory linking Russia to Crimea).
Once Crimea is isolated, Ukraine would need to employ a "wide array of long-range systems against the exposed Russian facilities and groupings in Crimea, making it untenable for them, and compelling them to leave," Hodges added.
That said, the Biden administration has so far pushed back on providing Ukraine with long-range missile systems that could be used to strike inside Russia or reach certain installations in Crimea. Hodges said the US government's unwillingness to provide longer-range weapons has effectively provided "sanctuary" for Russian systems in Crimea and elsewhere that are "killing innocent Ukrainians."
"Delivering capabilities which will deny Russia any sanctuary for its air, drone, and missile strikes will enable Ukraine to make Crimea untenable for the Russians," Hodges added.
If Ukraine moved to retake Crimea, it could renew concerns that Putin might turn to a nuclear weapon. Putin has made a number of nuclear threats since the war began, vowing to protect Russia's territorial integrity.
But many top military analysts have repeatedly said that Putin's nuclear threats are largely designed to deter further Western support for Ukraine, and are skeptical he would actually use such a weapon. Ukraine has pushed Russian forces out of areas Putin now claims as part of Russia, such as Kherson, without facing a nuclear response. And Russian assets in Crimea, including air bases, have already been targeted with Ukrainian attacks.
"There is more clarity on their tolerance for damage and attacks," said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, recently told the New York Times. "Crimea has already been hit many times without a massive escalation from the Kremlin."
As things stand, there's a slim chance Russia and Ukraine will hold talks or negotiations to end the war. Putin's decision to illegally annex four Ukrainian territories in September, despite the fact Russian forces do not fully occupy these regions, effectively threw the possibility of talks out the window. Ukraine has been clear it will not agree to any deals requiring it to cede territory to Russia, and it's highly unlikely Moscow would ever walk back on its new territorial claims in Ukraine.
In short, the fighting will continue, and the West's involvement in the war is so deep that it's reached a point of no return.
"Foreign policy rests on the credibility of countries and especially the credibility of the big powers. If the US and its main allies were seen as unable to defend a victim of aggression on the European continent — try to imagine, what does it mean for foreign policy elsewhere?" Araud said, pointing to the potentially reverberating consequences of a Russian victory — particularly for other places that face threats from much larger powers, such as Taiwan.
"Without saying it, and maybe without knowing it, we have crossed a threshold. Now, for the West, a defeat of Ukraine is unacceptable," Araud said. "We have done so much now that the victory of Russia will be a real defeat of the West, and I think the West will not accept it."