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We’re Approaching the Red Line of Crimea

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Ukraine is committed to retaking Crimea, peeling back Moscow’s control from the annexed peninsula.Crimea not only has cultural and political significance, but very real military advantages.Experts say Vladimir Putin’s fate could hang on whether Moscow can retain Crimea, as well as on the outcome of the wider war.The Ukraine war began, and must end, with Kyiv retaking Crimea, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed throughout the conflict, drawing a hard “red line.”

It is a frequently-heard commitment from Kyiv. Just after the first anniversary of the start of the all-out war last month, Zelensky said that Russia’s aggression began in Crimea nine years ago.

“By returning Crimea, we will restore peace,” he said. “This is our land. Our people. Our history. We will return the Ukrainian flag to every corner of Ukraine.”

The Crimean Peninsula was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 and has remained under Russian control ever since. While not a hotspot of current fighting, Crimea has nonetheless remained a constant feature of the war, with the prospect of its recapture by Kyiv a lurking “what if?” scenario.

But some say it is a special case, to be considered separately from other annexed regions of Ukraine. Also a “red line” for Russian President Vladimir Putin, as some experts say, Crimea is firmly in the sights of Kyiv’s armed forces.

Crimea could also be Putin’s personal weakness that could “severely challenge” his position in the Kremlin, according to experts, although they agreed that the course of the war more generally will decide his fate. But with Kyiv’s determination to hoist Ukrainian flags in Crimea, it may be inevitable that the “red line” is tested.

‘Crimea Is a Festering Wound’The annexed peninsula is a “natural extension” of Ukraine’s mainland, and critical to the country’s history and culture, according to Rory Finnin, an associate professor of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Cambridge, U.K.

“It felt like a festering wound in Ukrainian society today,” he told Newsweek.

But it also symbolizes Ukraine’s “loss of full post-Soviet sovereignty and dignity as an equal member of international society,” according to Rasmus Nilsson, of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, U.K.

Perceptions of Crimea may differ within the country, but overall, there is a deep-seated sense that regaining Crimea, along with the Donbas, is necessary for Ukraine’s future, Nilsson told Newsweek.

A Newsweek photo illustration representing conflict in Crimea. Ukraine has maintained it will regain the peninsula from Russian control after it was illegally annexed in 2014.
Newsweek; Source photo by Mikhail Metzel / SPUTNIK / AFP/Getty
But the idea of Crimea being a “red line” for Putin—and one that could prompt escalation from Russia—is one that has become increasingly discussed by analysts and commentators. Experts are split on how Crimea would factor into the nuclear threats the Kremlin often resorts to around the peninsula.

“From the Russian perspective, any loss of territory it has captured from Ukraine thus far would be considered an unacceptable red line,” according to Emily Ferris, a research fellow specializing in Russia at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank.

However, Putin has repeatedly threatened nuclear action when “red lines” are crossed, Nilsson said, but still the Kremlin has not reacted. As far back as 2014, Russia alluded to its nuclear arsenal to ward off attacks on its newly annexed peninsula, according to current-affairs magazine The Diplomat.

“On the face of things, there is no reason why loss of control on Crimea would necessarily be different in that regard,” Nilsson said.

“For Putin, all of his lines are red, blood red,” Finnin said. NATO allies have expressed a reluctance to publicly support retaking Crimea, because of the nuclear posturing, but ultimately, under international law, “nobody can give any valid arguments against Ukraine recapturing [or] reconquering Crimea,” according to former NATO official Edward Hunter Christie.

The Russian annexation of Crimea is completely illegitimate, and this is the basis of all NATO states’ thinking, he told Newsweek. “They know that that caution has nothing to do with international law, but they’re just a little bit more reluctant.”

The cultural or political element is also bound up in the strategy when it comes to Crimea, experts say.

The start of the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, “changed everything,” according to Finnin, because Russia “weaponized Crimea” to turn Ukraine’s own territory into a “launchpad” to destroy its very identity as a nation.

How Moscow Sees CrimeaRussia’s leadership sees Crimea as having been part of Russia’s territory for centuries before it annexed the peninsula in 2014, according to Ferris.

Moscow believes Russia has always maintained a “strong military and cultural presence there,” she told Newsweek. But behind this idea is the forced “Russification” of Crimea’s inhabitants not just through the Stalin or Soviet decades of the 20th century. There have been centuries of ethnic cleansing on the peninsula, not least of Crimean Tatars, since the 18th century, Finnin said.

Crimea has always been seen in terms of “imperial conquest” in Russia, experts agree. The peninsula is Russia’s “most prized colony,” Finnin said, meaning it “is less important to Russian national identity than it is to Russia’s imperial identity.”

Yet before the invasion got underway last year, it was clear that the idea of Ukraine being an extension of Russia—not just an ally or in its sphere of influence—had taken hold in Russia, Ferris said. No longer a “fringe and extreme view,” Ukraine being part of Russia’s “security space” is now far more commonplace, she said.

There is a “push” to describe the newly annexed territories of Ukraine, as well as Crimea, as being “returned” to Russia—even if they “are not the same psychologically as Crimea,” Ferris said.

Crimea’s ‘Enormous Strategic Value’ To MoscowBut as well as the historical backdrop, Crimea’s military implications are crucial to understanding Russia’s desire to hold onto it. Losing control over Crimea would be a “significant military loss,” Ferris said.

Russia bases its Black Sea fleet in the Crimean city of Sevastopol—a “well-equipped port, which are hard to come by,” according to Ferris. A natural harbor and one of the “most established bases in the Black Sea,” the warm-water port of Sevastopol adds to the “enormous strategic value” Crimea holds for Putin, she said.

Experts say that Crimea also provides a key link to the Mediterranean and beyond, with quick access to other oceans. The peninsula also offers up significant offshore oil and gas resources to Moscow.

It also allows Russia to “project” its military and political power in the Black Sea region. To lose Crimea during the course of the Ukraine war would “change everything” in Moscow, according to a former U.S. Army commander in Europe, Retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges.

It would also dampen the Kremlin’s appetite for supporting separatist fighters in the Donbas region, he told Newsweek.

But Ukraine attacking Crimea could also play neatly into the Kremlin’s playbook, Ferris said. Kyiv attempting to retake the peninsula would bolster Moscow’s narrative that hostile, Western-backed forces are attacking Russia to ensure its “ultimate destruction.”

“Evidence of actual destruction are highly likely to be weaponised by the Kremlin-controlled media to serve as justification for the ongoing war,” Ferris added.

The Logistics of Retaking CrimeaOver the past nine years, Russia has embedded itself into Crimea—both militarily and politically, Ferris said. This means it would be no easy task to remove Russian forces and influence from the peninsula.

The military aspect is certainly one high up on the list of considerations around Crimea, former Ukrainian defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk told Newsweek.

Militarily, Crimea is significant because of the possibilities it serves up for Putin in southern Ukraine, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, he said. Crimea is on the “doorstep of mainland Ukraine,” meaning Russia “will be constantly threatening us,” Zagorodnyuk said.

“We cannot afford to not address that issue,” he added.

The Russian flag waves in front of the Ukrainian military ship the Slavutich moored in the bay of Sevastopol on March 22, 2014. Crimea and the port of Sevastopol are militarily key for Russia, experts say.
Indeed, Ukraine will “never be safe” or economically secure until it retakes Crimea, Hodges has long argued, calling Crimea the “decisive terrain” for the Ukraine war.

Ukrainian forces could “kill every Russian soldier in Donbas, but that would not change the outcome of the war,” he told Newsweek. “Liberating Crimea will change the outcome.”

Ukrainian forces would first need to isolate Crimea before making it impossible for Russian forces to successfully operate on the peninsula, Hodges said. Long-range precision weapons would first take out, for example, the Kerch Bridge stretching from Russia to Crimea, and then further strikes could target key operational bases.

This list would include Sevastopol, the Saky air base and the Dzankoy logistics hub in the north of the peninsula, he said. The Saky air base, on Crimea’s west coast, was targeted back in August and took out more than half of the Russian Black Sea fleet’s naval aviation combat jets, Reuters reported.

However, the idea of retaking Crimea divides U.S. citizens over how much support should be provided for recapturing the peninsula, plus the Donbas region. Exclusive polling for Newsweek last month showed that just 28 percent of respondents said that Kyiv should strive to recover all territory lost since February 2014 before seeking a peace accord. However, 46 percent of those polled said Ukraine should look to recover all territory lost only since February 2022 before this peace process starts.

Crimea Coming to a HeadNow firmly past the first-year mark of the war, Zelensky has “come to understand that the Crimean wound now needs to be cauterized,” Finnin said. Not retaking the peninsula means a continued threat to Ukraine’s statehood, identity and global security, he added.

Zelensky’s office has always been concerned about Crimea, Zagorodnyuk said, but Ukraine’s government hadn’t considered a military solution to retaking Crimea before February 2022, he told Newsweek.

With Crimea a concrete goal, it could change the face of the war as it has been fought over the past year. Russia would deploy significant resources to defend it, Ferris said, meaning Moscow would pull resources from its eastern front lines in the likes of Luhansk and Donetsk to defend Crimea.

With Ukraine’s conviction to retake Crimea—and Russia’s insistence it will defend it—it may be just a matter of time before that confrontation becomes a battlefield reality.

Source : Newsweek

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