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The Crimea question: Why Ukraine’s final battle might be the Western alliance’s toughest test

Retaking the peninsula would be a triumph for Ukraine and a humiliation for Russia. For military and political reasons, it won’t be easy.

In the early days of the war, a battle for Crimea seemed highly unlikely; the Ukrainians had enough to worry about simply halting the Russian advance. But now the Ukrainians are on the offensive. And now senior Ukrainian leaders are sounding optimistic about retaking the peninsula.

“The West has been a little more careful talking about Crimea compared to the rest of Ukraine,” said William Courtney, a former ambassador and White House Russia adviser now with the nonprofit Rand Corporation. “I think for two reasons: the military challenge and the risk of escalation.”

So far this year, Ukraine has repeatedly surprised the world with the effectiveness of its military campaign, and its Western allies have surprised with the steadfastness and unanimity of support for that campaign. For all the doubts expressed earlier in the war, there’s been little daylight between the messages from Kyiv and from its Western supporters. Looking ahead, the question of Crimea may pose the biggest challenge to that partnership.

A tough fight ahead

Unlike the September offensive in the eastern Kharkiv region, where Ukrainian forces broke through thinly manned and ill-supplied Russian lines, the closer the Ukrainians get to Crimea, the better-defended the Russian positions will be. The offensive is likely to look more like the slow grinding approach to Kherson, during which the Ukrainians took heavy casualties for months, in exchange for relatively small territorial gains.

“[The Ukrainians] chewed themselves up pretty badly fighting for Kherson,” Chris Dougherty, a former Pentagon wargamer who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Grid. “I know we were all kind of intoxicated by the seizure of Kharkiv and the surrounding region. But everything since then has been a lot more difficult and a lot more casualty-intensive on the Ukrainian side.”

Treacherous ground

Alina Frolova, a former Ukrainian deputy defense minister, told Grid that while she anticipates Crimea will be a realistic target for Ukrainian forces after they push the Russians out of eastern Kherson, these on-the-ground realities will make any advance very difficult. “Obviously the problem is with access to Crimea,” she told Grid. “We have very narrow access, and that’s obviously not the best position with high force rates.”

Frolova, now with the Kyiv-based Center for Defence Strategies, also noted that while the October explosion on the Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea to Russia hurt the Russian ability to resupply its forces there, the bridge is still partly operational and Russian forces in Crimea are better supplied than their counterparts in much of eastern Ukraine.

She anticipated that Russia’s naval forces in Crimea would need to be “dramatically decreased” before a major offensive could begin. Otherwise, she said, “we will face quite substantial capabilities.”

Tricky politics

Frolova has little patience for the argument that Crimea has historical links to Russia. “Many regions have historical links with other countries, not only in Ukraine,” she said, pointing out Trieste, an Italian city that was historically part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as an example. “That doesn’t mean Germany or Austria have rights to it. Crimea also has historical links with Turkey. I don’t understand how this argument can be used seriously in political life.”

“When we’re talking about the people living in Crimea, that’s absolutely different than what we had eight years ago,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna told Grid during a reporter’s roundtable at the Halifax forum.

Add to this the fact that residents have been under de facto Russian rule and consuming Russian media for the past eight years, and it’s reasonable to ask whether a Ukrainian recapture of Crimea would be greeted with the same scenes of public jubilation that have broken out in other liberated Ukrainian cities.

Still, Stefanishyna said she was “sure that our path toward the European Union and our successes on the battlefield will play a game-changing role in the transformation of thinking in Crimea. I think that Crimea will soon be back to Ukraine.”

Will the West support an offensive?

So far, despite some tense moments, the U.S.-led Western alliance has been able to pursue its sometimes contradictory goals in Ukraine: giving the Ukrainians what they need to counter the Russian invasion and avoiding an all-out war between nuclear-armed superpowers. Crimea, some suggest, could change that.

“I think the discussion of acceptable risks and escalation risks would become much more acute if it actually looks like the Ukrainians were positioning to actually take back Crimea,” Jeffrey Edmonds, a former Russia director for the U.S. National Security Council now with the Center for Naval Analyses, told Grid.

The most painful bargaining chip

For now, Ukraine has the battlefield momentum, and as long as it can maintain that momentum, Western governments are likely to continue publicly backing Kyiv, whatever their private misgivings. The fact that Crimea’s status is even a matter for discussion is a testament to how surprisingly effective the Ukrainian resistance and counteroffensives have been. The arguments between Ukraine and the West will come if and when the Ukrainians feel ready to make their move.

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