The Battle for Crimea: Why it could be ‘the missing piece in the puzzle’

By Allan WoodsToronto Star, May 10, 2023

On the eve of a spring offensive, Ukrainians are reiterating an almost-sacred pledge to retake, one way or another, the diamond-shaped territory of Crimea, which Russia has occupied since 2014

image of tatars dinner

A Jewish president of a mainly Christian land sat down with Muslim soldiers this month and made a solemn vow as they broke the daily Ramadan fast.

“We will return to Crimea,” he said.

These were Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s words as he supped with Crimean Tatars, the Indigenous people of the occupied peninsula — one that is linked by land and international law to Ukraine but by conquest and an 18-kilometre bridge to Russia.

Perched atop the Black Sea and serving as a historical crucible for a clash of cultures, faiths, armies and civilizations, Crimea is now one of the world’s most contested and coveted plots of mostly arid land.

On the eve of Kyiv’s spring offensive, said in leaked U.S. military documents to be planned for late April, Ukrainians are reiterating an almost-sacred pledge to retake, one way or another, the diamond-shaped territory that Russia has occupied since 2014 and has used as a key military supply and logistics hub since the 2022 invasion.

Some military analysts predict Russia could be on its heels by the end of the summer. And satellite imagery shows that Russian forces are digging in to defend Crimea with the construction of trenches and expanded fortifications.

Depending on the strength, direction and success of an eventual Ukrainian push, a decisive confrontation over Crimea could be as little as a few weeks or months away.

“It’s impossible to tell the timing of things, but … Crimea is at the heart of all of this,” said Marta Dyczok, a professor of history and political science at the University of Western Ontario.

Another Ukrainian specialist, University of Saskatchewan politics professor Bohdan Kordan, described Crimea as “the final piece in the puzzle.”

In other words, a conflict that started with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea — a breach of Ukrainian sovereignty and a violation of international law — will not be resolved until the peninsula’s fate is settled.

Already, some have cast its future as a card to be given up in return for peace in the rest of Ukraine.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was the latest to wander into the political minefield. Launching a bid to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine, he said Putin’s invasion plan had largely stalled and that Zelenskyy “cannot want everything” in an eventual settlement.

“Perhaps we can discuss Crimea,” he said.

The peninsula was already headline news after a top official in Zelenskyy’s office told the Financial Times that talks with Russia about Crimea were possible if Ukraine’s military succeeded in retaking occupied territory in the southern part of the mainland.

But in an interview with the Star, Maria Tomak, head of the Crimea Platform Department, a Ukrainian government agency that monitors the occupied territory and plans for its eventual liberation, said those comments had been misinterpreted.

“It’s not negotiable whether we are working toward the de-occupation of Crimea. There’s no alternative to that,” she said by telephone from Lviv, in western Ukraine.

The only debate is whether Russian forces leave peacefully or resist, Tomak said.

“If we have to fight, Ukraine will fight.”

A Ukrainian public opinion poll from February revealed that 87 per cent of respondents were against making any territorial concessions to Russia in order to end the war.

But when the polling firm dug a bit deeper in a subsequent survey, they found that about a quarter of the 2,007 respondents from across the country said they would be willing to give up Crimea so long as Ukraine received a security guarantee from the West to protect against future Russian invasion.

Retaking the territory by force — using ground forces, at least — is exceedingly difficult due to its unique geography.

There are only three land-entry points from mainland Ukraine into Crimea. None are ideal for transporting the sort of heavy weaponry, vehicles and supplies necessary to retake and hold the peninsula.

And satellite images show that Russia has reinforced its Crimean defences with a series of newly built trenches in key areas and the installation of pyramid-shaped concrete barriers known as dragon’s teeth to slow any Ukrainian advances.

But there is a risk for Russian forces, too.

If they are pushed back into Crimea, Ukraine could blockade the territory, dam a vital canal that feeds water from the Dnipro River into Crimea, and destroy the 18-kilometre bridge that runs across the Kerch Strait to mainland Russia — something it attempted last fall.

“Ukraine does not have an amphibious force, so doing what the Canadians did at Normandy beach in World War II is pretty challenging,” William Courtney, a former U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, said in an interview.

“The idea of a blockade is an intermediate option, if you will.”

In an article published in the Moscow Times, Courtney, a senior fellow with the Rand Corporation, a think tank, wrote that Ukraine could employ low-cost underwater drones to attack Russian ships and infrastructure and permanently destroy the Kerch bridge, turning Crimea from a military staging ground into a liability.

In such a scenario, said Kordan, “the peninsula will be like chaos.”

“But does Ukraine want that? No. What it wants is a negotiated settlement and a peninsula without Russian interference,” he said.

Russia boasted to the world after the 2014 annexation that its forces took control of Crimea without a shot being fired. In the wake of the referendum, it erected statues to honour the soldiers who, in the Russian retelling, restored order and security.

Ukraine would like to see Russian forces leave without shots being fired.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin wants a few things as well.

He has drawn on his own selective reading of history to claim Russian ownership of this valuable piece of Black Sea real estate.

Among his justifications is the Russian military’s presence in Sevastopol, the home since 1783 of the Black Sea naval fleet, and the 10th century conversion to Orthodox Christianity of Vladimir the Great, which he has repeatedly said establishes Crimea for all times as the Russian “holy land.”

In fact, control of Crimea has been claimed by many invading powers, stretching back to the ancient Greeks.

“Russia’s only been in control of the peninsula for 200 years of the last 600 years or 800 years,” Kordan said. “If we’re talking about who had historical claim to the peninsula, it’s the Crimean (Tatar) people — not Russians.”

Dyczok, who reported on Ukraine’s 1991 independence from the Soviet Union as a journalist, noted that a majority of Crimean residents voted at that time to be part of Ukraine.

And in 2010, the last Crimean election before Russian annexation, the pro-Moscow Russian Unity party, won just four per cent of the vote.

Four years later, when Russia organized a referendum on annexation that purported to show 96.7 per cent of voters were in favour of rejoining Russia, the head of that same pro-Russian opposition party, Sergey Aksyonov, was picked as Crimea’s political leader, a role he still occupies today.

“How did that four per cent become 97 per cent in four years?” Dyczok asked. “If you look at the facts you see the weakness of the Russian narrative.”

In the years since annexation, between 500,000 and a million Russian settlers have relocated to Crimea, Tomak said.

But Russian rule has been coupled with Russian political repression.

The crackdown has targeted Crimean Tatars in particular. A number of them have received lengthy prison sentences in recent months for affiliation with Islamic groups considered to be terrorist or extremist organizations under Russian law — though not under Ukrainian law, according to the Crimean Human Rights Group.

With so much invested in bringing Crimea back into the Russian fold and exploiting the territory for military purposes, one might conclude that Moscow would be loath to give it up. Or worse, that Putin might look on efforts to reclaim Crimea as the sort of existential threat worthy of being defended by everything in the Russian arsenal, up to and including nuclear weapons.

But history shows that it’s also possible that Russia could back down entirely, said Whitney, the former U.S. ambassador.

He noted that when Imperial Russia lost the Crimean War in 1850 to the Ottoman-led alliance, the Czar Nicholas I ushered in a series of reforms that led to the emancipation of 23-million serfs. The loss of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 led to the creation of a Russian parliament, the Duma. And the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which drained the peoples’ morale and the state’s finances, led to the end of communism.

“There are a number of cases when Russians have run into big problems and tried to liberalize,” Courtney said.

“They have to pull back sometimes when they overreach — and they seem to be overreaching now.”