Ukraine unveiled on Sunday a 12-point plan outlining how it would reintegrate Crimea back into the country if it regained the territory militarily. Kyiv has repeatedly said that seizing the peninsula back from Russia is one of its key war aims. But Washington is tacitly sceptical.
The most telling detail in the report by Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, concerned Sevastopol – Russia’s main port on the Black Sea for the past 200 years. In this plan for Crimea’s “de-occupation”, Danilov said “the so-called ‘city of Russian glory’ is to be renamed Object 6”.
Danilov also promised tough action against Ukrainians in Crimea deemed to be collaborators with the Russian enemy: “In addition to prosecuting perpetrators for collaboration and high treason, a lustration mechanism is under development that will determine the level of responsibility and degree of involvement of Crimean residents in supporting occupation administration activities,” the report said. “Sanctions could include the right to participate in elections – to vote and to be elected.”
Posted on Facebook, the plan also calls for the demolition of the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting the peninsula to Russia, the expulsion of all Russian citizens who settled in Crimea after 2014, and the nullification of all property transactions made in Crimea under Russian rule.
This was the first indication of what Crimea would look like after Ukraine took it back. But many say Kyiv is getting ahead of itself, as the Ukrainian army is still fighting ferociously to try and repel Russian assaults on Bakhmut in the east. Planning for the aftermath of the re-conquest of Sevastopol is unlikely to be an immediate item on the agenda of Ukraine’s general staff.
‘Reassuring public opinion’
In fact, Danilov’s statements were motivated primarily by domestic political purposes. “These 12 points include many aspects of plans set out for the Donbas; they’re all policies that allow Kyiv to reassure public opinion by showing it’s serious about taking back every bit of Ukrainian territory from the Russians,” said Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in the Russo-Ukrainian War at Glasgow University.
Nevertheless, Kyiv has pushed Crimea up its agenda since the Russian invasion in February 2022. Crimea was a “taboo subject” at the start of the war when the Russian conquest of Kyiv itself was on the cards, Aliyev pointed out.
“Since the Russian attack on Kyiv failed and Ukraine had that wave of success with its first counter-offensives, the idea of retaking Crimea has become integral to the official Ukrainian discourse,” said Jeff Hawn, an expert on Russian security issues and a non-resident fellow at US geopolitical research centre the New Lines Institute.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in August that “everything started with Crimea and will end with it”, referring to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014. Asking for more Western arms, Zelensky said at the Davos summit in Switzerland in January that “our objective is to liberate all of our territories” and “Crimea is our land”.
Zelensky was trying to show just how much Ukraine’s military is “keen to retake land, strengthened by its successes on the ground”, underlined Nicolo Fasola, a specialist in Russian military issues at the University of Bologna.
Long-range weapons necessary
Rhetoric from the Biden administration’s hawkish faction emboldened Kyiv. US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said in February that “Ukraine is not going to be safe unless Crimea is at a minimum demilitarised”.
But just days before, Nuland’s boss Secretary of State Antony Blinken implied scepticism about Ukraine retaking Crimea on a private call with experts leaked to the press – saying Crimea is a “red line” for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While stressing that decisions about the war are Ukraine’s to take, Blinken told a congressional committee in March that Kyiv may want to think about using diplomacy instead of military offensives in trying to take back some parts of its territory.
Analysts say retaking Crimea is easier said than done. “As things stand, the Ukrainian army has only attacked non-fortified Ukrainian positions,” Fasola observed. “But Crimea will be completely different because Russia has had an entire defence system in place for the last eight years.”
Long-range missiles are an all-important lacuna in Ukraine’s arsenal. Kyiv has long demanded ATACM missiles, which have a range of over 300 km. Washington has refused to give them.
“Ukraine will find it extremely difficult to even approach Crimea without using long-range missiles to destroy part of Russia’s defences,” Hawn said.
But there are significant reasons why the US does not want to send ATACMs, Fasola noted: “The US fears that Ukraine would use them to hit Russian territory, while a missile of American origin striking Russian soil could provoke a serious escalation of the conflict.”
Moreover, amid broader Western concerns about depleting their own stockpiles to feed Ukraine’s war effort, Washington is also worried that it just “doesn’t have enough ATACMs to be able to send them to Ukraine”, added Glen Grant, a senior analyst at the Baltic Security Foundation.
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Experts underline that Ukrainian rhetoric about re-conquering Crimea is not just bluster: “There’s definitely going to be fighting over control of Crimea before the war is over,” Grant put it.
But analysts are equally confident that battles over Crimea are not going to happen in the immediate future.
“Before that, Ukraine wants to liberate Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces, and the army will need all the strength it’s got to achieve that – so Crimea will have to wait for at least a year,” Aliyev said.
But how the Kremlin would react to such an offensive is an entirely different question. “There’s a definite risk that Putin would use nuclear weapons to counter a Ukrainian offensive in Crimea,” Fasola concluded. “And that’s why Ukraine’s Western allies are reluctant to openly support the retaking of Crimea.