For any government interested in the outcome of Ukraine’s coming counteroffensive, few issues loom as large as Crimea. Kyiv’s leaders say they are determined to regain all territory lost in last year’s Russian invasion, as well as those areas—like Crimea itself—that were seized by Moscow’s “little green men” in 2014. Washington policymakers routinely insist that Ukraine’s war aims are for Ukraine alone to decide, yet they suspect that such grand aims exceed the country’s military capacity. They worry too that Russian President Vladimir Putin might even be ready to use nuclear weapons to hold on to the Black Sea peninsula—his single biggest foreign policy trophy.
How Crimea fits into the next round of warfare will depend on how the main players read the broader military, political, diplomatic, and even demographic landscape.
Is retaking Crimea a plausible military goal for Ukraine’s armed forces?
It would be an ambitious undertaking. Only two roads connect the Ukrainian mainland with Crimea; one crosses a narrow isthmus and the other could easily be cut by knocking out a vulnerable bridge. Satellite photographs recently published by the Washington Post indicate a major Russian buildup of defensive fortifications on Crimea over the past year. These would hamper the forward movement of Ukrainian units and prevent any quick breakthrough.
Crimea’s military significance, however, is not merely as a prize to be claimed. It is also a staging area for Russian operations on Ukraine’s southern front, where the fate of Kyiv’s counteroffensive may well be decided. With these battles now looming, Ukraine’s military leaders seek longer-range weapons that can keep the peninsula from serving as a Russian sanctuary. Such extra reach would hardly make it easy to retake Crimea, but could contribute significantly to the success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive on the mainland.
How strong is Ukraine’s political commitment to regaining control of Crimea?
Public-opinion polls show near-unanimity in favor of restoring the country’s pre-2014 borders. Political leaders rarely challenge such support, least of all in wartime. Yet Ukrainian officials also know that re-integrating this territory would not be easy. (Former defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk recently called it “a rather problematic story”). Before its illegal annexation by Russia, Crimea was a consistent outlier in Ukraine’s politics. It remained a center of residual Communist Party votes for a decade after independence, and in the decade after that was a bulwark of support for the Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovych (the Ukrainian president who fled to Russia in 2014).
Recent demographic changes would further complicate Crimea’s re-absorption. Hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have settled in the region during the nine years of occupation. (A careful Finnish study puts the number above 350,000; Ukrainian estimates exceed 600,000, roughly a third of the population.) Reflecting this transformation, some Ukrainian officials have begun to call for large-scale expulsions and “detoxification” of Crimea—a process with real potential to put Kyiv at odds with Western governments.
So is all the Ukrainian rhetoric about retaking Crimea just empty talk?
Not necessarily. It has a purpose—and a payoff. When Russia invests massively in Crimean fortifications and deploys scarce manpower to defend the peninsula, it diverts resources from the rest of its war effort, directly serving Ukraine’s interest in other areas of the battlefield. If public pronouncements about retaking Crimea help cement Ukrainian national unity, that too is a positive. And by reiterating territorial claims that the overwhelming majority of the world’s governments recognize, Kyiv’s leaders make Crimea into, at a minimum, a major bargaining chip in any negotiations down the road.
The fact that rhetoric about Crimea has a purpose does not, however, mean it is risk-free. Talking so much about full reunification has clearly made Western governments more reluctant to send Ukraine longer-range weapons. Making Crimea a patriotic litmus test may also limit Ukrainian flexibility in future talks. It may also make Russians who favor a fight to the finish even more influential.
Can Ukraine limit the risks that its Crimea rhetoric creates?
A Ukrainian counteroffensive that focuses on breaking the so-called “land-bridge” to Crimea along the Black Sea coast, rather than on retaking the peninsula outright, will reduce the operation’s risks and costs; it will also allay Western worries about nuclear escalation. Ukraine’s backers are unlikely to object to attacks on rear areas in Crimea; they recognize their military logic.
Domestic political constraints will keep any Ukrainian leader from formally agreeing to give up all legal claim to Crimea. In that respect, current rhetoric does constrain future diplomacy. Yet it leaves considerable room for maneuver (perhaps by deferring final-status talks about Crimea to a later date). A successful counteroffensive will create a wave of national confidence and reduce feelings of national exhaustion at the same time. The challenge for Ukraine’s leaders will be finding a way to harness these powerful sentiments to obtain an outcome that looks like victory but stops short of the country’s maximalist aims.