A focal point during the war in Ukraine has been the fear of escalation on the Crimean Peninsula. The Kremlin has made it a policy to play the nuclear bluff card, stoking fears among Westerners that if Russian President Vladimir Putin is cornered, he may use nuclear weapons — especially if Ukraine mounts an offensive on Crimea.
With Kyiv regaining large swaths of their country, a potential southern offensive could put the Ukrainian Armed Forces, or ZSU, within range of the peninsula. Debate now rages around the world on how Ukraine can reclaim Crimea — and if the price will be worth it, despite Moscow’s bluffs about what it will do if it “feels cornered.” In truth, the Kremlin is not cornered, but its myth of Russia’s right to conquest could be Moscow’s own downfall.
What Crimea Means for Russia
Crimea is the ultimate prize of Putin’s hardline rule. The peninsula is a focal point of Russian imperial nationalism, and it has long plagued the minds of a nation that still lives in a world of conquest. In the imperialist mind of the Russian ultranationalist, Russia has been cheated by post-colonial nations that are independent from the Kremlin’s will. Even anti-Putin opposition figures such as Alexei Navalny think of Crimea as rightfully theirs.
Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean peninsula thus represented a return of empire, and for nationalists, losing it would mean losing what is left of imperial glory. Russian forces in Ukraine will arguably fight harder to keep their so-called unsinkable aircraft carrier than they have fought to control other occupied areas.
Crimea Marks the Beginning of the Invasion
Before the war, Russia leased the naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea from Ukraine. The appearance of unmarked green troops in Crimea in 2014 marked the start of Russia’s first invasion as they took the peninsula.
Ethnic minorities in the region, such as Crimean Tatars, have continued to be persecuted. Tatars were already facing demographic collapse after Stalinist purges and deportations that saw ethnic Russians take their place in Crimea, and Putin continues similar policies. Crimean Tatar opposition figures have been jailed and tortured by the Kremlin, as reported by HRW, and those who were lucky enough to flee in 2014 have had their homes repossessed by Russian colonists.
Close to 1 million Russian colonists could move onto the peninsula, a violation of the international law on population transfers. Moscow claims these new populations comprise what the Kremlin considers “persecuted Russian speakers” even though many of them are in reality part of the growing contingent of military personnel, FSB, and their families who live on the peninsula.
2022 Strikes Marked a Turning Point
When Moscow consolidated control over Crimea, for years they told the Russian populace that it was untouchable — it is under Russian control, and Ukraine has no means of striking it. This all changed in the summer of 2022, when the ZSU attacked key Russian airbases.
Putin couldn’t conceal the shock these attacks caused, nor the mass panic of Russians who left the peninsula. Half of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet aircraft have been either damaged or destroyed since August of last year, as their red line over striking Crimea, a “Russian territory,” was repeatedly breached.
Kyiv also scored a major strategic and morale strike by hitting the Kerch Bridge, which is considered a symbol of Russia’s return to the region and was built illegally. By damaging the bridge, which is not expected to not be fully operational until late 2023, Ukraine took out a major supply line for garrisoned Russian forces in Crimea.
Maximum Pressure Through a Southern Offensive
Over the past several weeks, the U.S, which was originally skeptical Ukraine could regain Crimea, has said Kyiv might have the capabilities to take the peninsula. Washington has warmed to the idea of helping Ukraine in this endeavor. Now that NATO members have made a plan to supply Ukraine with modern weaponry such as tanks and jets, the ZSU might be able to use combined arms operations across the rest of the occupied territories.
Defense officials have told Zelensky’s administration to fall back into more entrenched defensive lines in the Donbas region instead of sending fresh troops into Bakhmut, as the situation at that site remains critical, and the city isn’t as strategic as Russia claims it to be. Instead, they have told Kyiv to prepare for plans for a southern offensive, the most likely target of which will be the ever important city of Melitopol.
A ZSU offensive towards Melitopol would put much of Crimea in range of HIMARS and other long-range rocket systems, which both the UK and U.S. confirmed they would send later in the year. Liberating Melitopol would also challenge the Kremlin’s invasion plans, as it would cut Russian forces in half from the south and the east, forcing Putin to prioritize either holding what his forces control in the Donbas region, or protecting Crimea.
If Kyiv can successfully liberate territory in Zaporizhzhia, they can use the shortening area of operations to their advantage. A smaller area of operations means more condensed Russian forces, which would allow for more successful strikes in Crimea, much as seen when the ZSU condensed the Russian garrison during its offensive in Kherson.
Since the strikes in Crimea, Russia’s prized Black Sea Fleet has operated less frequently toward Ukraine’s coastline. This shows the attacks have put Russia’s fleet on edge, and there is less likely to be air support for Russian forces in the south — especially after the loss of numerous fixed-wing aircraft in Crimea.
Kyiv’s strategy so far in this war includes attrition operations on supply lines, fuel and ammo depots, and command and control posts. A southern offensive that could put the ZSU within range of Crimea would enable more of these operations on the peninsula.
Pressure on Crimea — without even putting Ukrainian boots on the ground there — would put garrisoned Russian forces in a precarious situation. They can try to hold the peninsula without sufficient resupply and facing near-daily bombardment, or they can withdraw on their own accord.
The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed it maintains back channels with the Russian Ministry of Defense, and Washington says the Kremlin’s nuclear saber-rattling died down as their supposed red lines were crossed multiple times. NATO heads of state signaling they will provide Ukraine with long-range rocket systems, tanks, and potentially jets, show they believe the risk of nuclear war has died down — Russia’s threats no longer hold weight. This was confirmed by China, which expressed disdain about the idea Putin could order a nuclear strike out of desperation in an already unpopular war.
The war in Ukraine started with the invasion and annexation of Crimea, and it will have to end with the peninsula’s liberation. Moscow uses the unsinkable aircraft carrier as its main staging point of operations against Kyiv, so the country will never be safe until Russian Forces are expelled from the Crimean Peninsula.
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Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard. Julian is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”