In a little noticed intervention the former British prime minister Boris Johnson – seen as a bosom ally of Volodymyr Zelenskiy – made the startling statement that if Russian troops were returned to lands they held inside Ukraine before the 24 February invasion that would represent a basis for reopening talks between Ukraine and Russia.
The statement implies Ukraine would have to accept that the removal of Russian troops from Crimea would not be a precondition for the start of talks.
In proposing this, in a piece last week in the Wall Street Journal, Johnson was making an admission made in private by many diplomats that a militarily enforced return of the Crimean peninsula – which was annexed by Russia in 2014 in a move rejected by the UN – to full Ukrainian control is fraught with risk.
Writing in the Spectator Henry Kissinger, the veteran diplomat, made a similar proposal, arguing Russia should only be required to disgorge territory gained since February this year. Land occupied nearly a decade ago, including Crimea, “could be the subject of a negotiation after a ceasefire”. If that negotiation failed to resolve particularly divisive territories, “internationally supervised referendums concerning self-determination could be applied”.
Historically and ethnically Crimea is different from the rest of Ukraine, the argument goes. There are also 30,000 Russian forces dug in with little available Ukrainian amphibious access. Crimea’s retention in some form is so precious to Vladimir Putin that if he felt it were slipping from his grasp some fear he may act on his threat to deploy tactical nuclear weapons, the escalation that terrifies, and holds back, Washington and Europe.
In public Ukraine opposes a ceasefire with Putin retaining any land annexed since 2014. Zelenskiy has said countless times, for example at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore: “A simple ceasefire won’t do the trick. Unless we liberate our whole territory, we will not bring peace.”
Zelenskiy has also invested diplomatically in setting up the Crimea Platform, a coordination body to put pressure on the world to keep the illegal occupation of Crimea in its sights. At the August meeting of the Platform the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, said: “Crimea is and was as much a part of Ukraine as Gdańsk or Lublin are parts of Poland.” He added: “I think many of us need to do some examination of conscience for what has happened in the last year. Was the de facto consent to the occupation of Crimea a wrong signal from many countries to Russia?”
Polls in Ukraine show 85% support for the war ending with Ukraine having reoccupied its lands seized since 2014.
The Ukrainian military clearly has a plan to push south, isolating the peninsula, and cutting off Russian supply lines, ideally by coming down from the east side of the Dnipro River, and then reaching the dam that supplies 85% of Crimea’s fresh water.
But the military campaign to undermine Crimea’s impregnability is in its infancy. On 7 October Ukrainian special forces struck the heavily guarded 19km bridge over the Kerch strait, the symbol of Russia’s annexation and a near mystical reunification of Russia with a birthplace of the Russian Orthodox church.
The bridge linking Crimea to Russia had been a huge engineering feat that Putin personally opened after three years of construction. With its accompanying railway line and water pipes, it acts as the main supply route from Russia for troops fighting in Kherson and the surrounding region. The damage has slowed but not broken Russian supply routes.
Apart from that coup, there have been other softening-up exercises. On 9 August six explosions struck Saki airbase in Novofedorivka. Russia’s largest military base in Crimea, near Dzhankoi, was hit in November. People in Crimea are said to be nervous of what ammunition dump may explode next. Judging by the number of Crimeans recently arrested for collaborating with the enemy, Moscow has also become nervous about Atesh, the Crimean resistance movement.
One Ukrainian deputy defence minister, Volodymyr Havrylov, said Ukrainian forces would be on the peninsula by the end of December. In other pieces of bravado the senior presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak suggested a war crimes tribunal should be staged there on the basis “What started in Crimea must end there”. Petro Poroschenko, the former Ukrainian president, suggested a new Yalta conference could be held there next year, replicating the 1945 summit held to plan the post-second world war order.
But is Crimea’s capture practical – or even wise? British military officials point to Crimea’s vulnerabilities including its dependence on mainland Ukraine for water. At the start of the February 2022 invasion Russia recaptured the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam in southern Ukraine. The reservoir behind the Kakhovka dam allows water to flow down the 250-mile North Crimean canal, built in the Soviet era to supply fresh water from the Dnipro River to the arid areas of southern Ukraine and Crimea.
In the eight years that followed the Russian annexation the canal dried up. Ukrainian authorities said Russia did not pay for supplies and built a concrete dam over it, causing big problems with irrigation, harvests and access to drinking water across Crimea. As much as 80% of agricultural land was lost in Crimea, and crops such as rice became impossible to grow. Once the full-scale Russian invasion started in February, Russian troops quickly reached Tavriisk, the town where the canal had been dammed, destroyed the dam and released 1.7m cubic metres of water from the Dnipro into Crimea.
British officials think the target of regaining Ukrainian control over the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant as well as the North Crimean canal is feasible and attractive.
But talk of an offensive kicking Russia’s 30,000 troops out of Crimea unnerves the US military. General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “the probability of that happening any time soon is not high, militarily”.
Privately, Ukrainian diplomats acknowledge that fear of escalation in Washington and European capitals is what holds back the supply of long-range artillery weapons needed to finish the job, including the capture of Crimea.
European diplomats acknowledge Crimea’s special status. The Soviet leadership only ceded Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, and most of its population is Russian; many residents are retirees from the Black Sea navy.
No reliable opinion polls have been carried out since the occupation. A leak of the true results on the initial annexation referendum in 2014 showed only a third of the population voted to join Russia. Since then Crimea’s economy has fared tolerably, and there has been an influx of about 300,000 Russians. Many pro-Ukrainian activists and Crimean Tatars have once again been forced out. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Olha Stefanishyna, said last month: “When we are talking about the people living in Crimea that’s absolutely different from what we had eight years ago.” Crimeans have been kept in a Russian media bubble for nearly a decade.
The prospect of a bloody prolongation of the war to free a population many of whom may not seek liberation would represent an inglorious end to the Ukrainian campaign.
Even some Ukrainian diplomats say the reality is that even if the southern offensive isolates the peninsula militarily it may be wise then to go slow. Instead of launching an invasion through the swampy Syvash or Rotten Sea, all with relatively narrow land approaches owing to the tides, it might be better to try to reopen talks with Russia.
By then it is argued Putin will be in deep domestic trouble and defending Crimea may be the least of his problems. Others say some kind of offer of special joint sovereignty status for the peninsula is possible. But trust is at a minimum. A previous joint lease agreement allowed Russia to retain its Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol until at least 2042. It was torn up by Putin in 2014.