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Why Crimea Is Not a Bridge Too Far

Withholding support for Ukraine in reclaiming the territory risks undermining gains made thus far.

By , a former special assistant to the president in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.
A view of the Kerch Bridge, which links Crimea to Russia, taken near the city of Kerch on Oct. 12, 2022.
A view of the Kerch Bridge, which links Crimea to Russia, taken near the city of Kerch on Oct. 12, 2022.
A view of the Kerch Bridge, which links Crimea to Russia, taken near the city of Kerch on Oct. 12, 2022. STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

The fate of the Russian-seized Ukrainian territory of Crimea may soon become a point of divergence between Ukraine and its Western allies. Ukraine’s November recapture of the southern territory of Kherson puts Ukraine within range—both in terms of geography and momentum—of the strategic pathways into Crimea, posing a dilemma for Western policymakers. While Ukraine still has battles to fight, the West may soon have to decide whether it would support a coming Ukrainian assault on Crimea, or insist Ukraine count its blessings and settle for the return of only the territory Russia has captured since its invasion of February 2022.

The fate of the Russian-seized Ukrainian territory of Crimea may soon become a point of divergence between Ukraine and its Western allies. Ukraine’s November recapture of the southern territory of Kherson puts Ukraine within range—both in terms of geography and momentum—of the strategic pathways into Crimea, posing a dilemma for Western policymakers. While Ukraine still has battles to fight, the West may soon have to decide whether it would support a coming Ukrainian assault on Crimea, or insist Ukraine count its blessings and settle for the return of only the territory Russia has captured since its invasion of February 2022.

For the Ukrainians, the answer is obvious. Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, belongs to Ukraine. For U.S. strategists, however, allowing Russia to keep Crimea could be the face-saver Putin needs to agree to ending the war. Others worry that doing so will set a dangerous precedent and that rewarding Russia’s aggression will only make future hostilities more likely.

Of course, the desires of the people living in Crimea matter, too. But it is difficult to accurately discern what their preferences might be. A 2014 referendum on the topic was widely considered a sham, not unlike those recently staged in Russian-held Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia. This mirage of public opinion is even less reliable considering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s subsequent efforts to reshape the population of the peninsula through forced deportations, the persecution of native Tatars, and the imprisonment of political activists.

The Biden administration, whose continued military support is critical to Ukraine’s ability to keep fighting this war, seems to be opposed to Ukraine recapturing Crimea. As recently as December 2022, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated that the U.S. goal was merely to give Ukraine the means to “take back territory that has been seized from it since February 24,” not what Putin seized in 2014. On background, a senior Biden official told the New Yorker that, because at different times in history Russia ruled Crimea, to Putin, “Crimea is as Russian as St. Petersburg,” and behind closed doors, the Biden administration reportedly suggested to Congress that Putin may be willing to use nuclear weapons to keep it. While there are no restrictions preventing U.S. arms from being used in Crimea, a senior defense official told the New Yorker that the United States “has not enabled” the Ukrainians “to do so either.”

Putin considers the seizure of Crimea his signature achievement, putting his legacy on par with even the most esteemed Russia leaders. Putin has compared himself to the 18th century czar Peter the Great, whose war with Sweden was framed as a historic quest to win back Russian lands. In contrast, he regularly condemns Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for transferring Crimea to Ukraine “like a sack of potatoes.” Its loss would be humiliating to Putin, given how much of his legacy he has staked on it, and he is unlikely to negotiate it away even under the most dire circumstances.

Several commentators with varying degrees of authority—from Henry Kissinger to Elon Musk—have endorsed a “land for peace” formula, which would allow Russia to retain Crimea, or at least put off resolving the issue for post-war negotiations. But the Crimea question should not be cast in the narrow terms of how best to placate Putin. Instead, the Biden administration should consider what outcome is most likely to build a durable peace. While it is in the U.S. national interest for the war to end quickly, it should not end prematurely for the sake of expediency. If the United States is serious about securing long-term peace in the region, it should support Ukraine in its effort to regain Crimea.

Consider the downsides of a Russian Crimea. Allowing Putin to keep Crimea would reward his initiative. Supporting Ukraine in retaking the territory, however, sends a clear message that territorial acquisitions by force will be contested, which could deter other powers from similar adventurism in the future.

As a serial aggressor, Putin will leverage any time and space he is given to reconstitute and rearm the Russian military, which will eventually be used to roll back Ukraine’s recent progress and inflict further damage later on. The successful seizure of Crimea in 2014 gave him confidence that he could take the rest of Ukraine. Allowing Putin to retain Crimea would give him a strategic platform to continue Russia’s hybrid “gray zone” harassment of Ukraine, and possibly reinvade in the future. By leaving open this possibility, the United States would risk wasting the resources, efforts, and support that it has dedicated to Ukraine in fending off Russia’s latest round of aggression.

In addition to posing military dangers, Crimea’s Black Sea ports are critical for maritime trade, and thus critical to Ukraine’s economic revival. Should Russia keep Crimea and have unencumbered access to these ports, it would almost certainly use them to impede Ukraine’s post-war economic recovery.

Beyond its implications for Western strategic goals, Ukraine’s vision for its own security matters, in and of itself. The Ukrainians are winning, their morale is high, and polls indicate an overwhelming percentage of their population want Crimea back under Ukrainian control. In this war, Ukraine has shouldered the burden not only of defending its own territory and people but also preventing future Russian adventurism in Europe, and it has lost as many as 100,000 people in this fight thus far. Russian soldiers have wrecked their country and, in the process, committed war crimes and numerous other atrocities that will haunt the nation and hinder its recovery, likely for decades to come. Ukraine has made clear that it wants to fight for Crimea’s future. After a year of sacrifice, it has earned the right to try.

As for peace talks, Ukrainian battlefield momentum and the prospect of taking back Crimea may hasten genuine discussions with Russia. One frequently mooted idea is to give Crimea special status, making it part of neither Russia nor Ukraine. But today, the prospects for such diplomatic creativity are slim. Despite his failures in the war thus far, Putin does not yet feel beaten and believes he has more cards to play. Russia has mobilized tens of thousands of new conscripts and is unleashing new Iranian weapons on the frontlines. For its part, Ukraine is winning and is in no mood to compromise. But if Russia believed it could lose Crimea to Ukraine on the battlefield, it may be amenable to sincere peace talks. For this reason, at a minimum, the Biden administration must not take Crimea off the table by restricting U.S. military assistance.

It is possible to mitigate some of the inevitable challenges associated with Ukraine retaking Crimea. NATO should continue to leverage its conventional weapons deterrence and double down on its promises to strike Russian military assets in Ukraine if Russia used tactical nuclear weapons. Also, while battlefield victories can be used to elicit war-ending concessions from Putin, Russia need not be “rendered impotent” by the war for Ukraine’s efforts to be successful. The West should be prepared to outline and embrace a role for a post-war Russia if it were to demonstrate a sincere willingness to contribute to global peace and security.

It is worth asking why the United States should back a Ukrainian assault on Crimea when it declined to do so in 2014. At the time, Ukraine was caught flat-footed and ill-prepared to counter Russian aggression. Its armed forces had little in the way of training or weapons, and Russia’s infamous “little green men” were able to invade quickly and take the area without a fight. Today, however, Ukraine is wiser, more prepared, and buttressed by international support. It has a well-armed, capable military force that has proved itself in a full-scale war. Taking Crimea is is possible now in ways that could not have been in 2014.

Further, in 2014, the international community overwhelmingly elected to pursue diplomacy backed by sanctions, hoping Putin’s ambitions could be moderated. Today, after Russia’s second invasion, Putin’s imperial intentions to incorporate Ukraine into a Russian sphere of influence are now obvious. In a July 2021 essay, Putin wrote of the “historical unity” of Russians and Ukrainians, suggesting they were one people and that Ukraine does not have sovereignty as an independent state. In 2014, one could have been forgiven for believing Putin’s intentions were limited. But the same cannot be said today. Putin’s true feelings about Ukraine are now clear and unlikely to be solved by diplomatic or economic means alone.

The Biden administration often cites the rules-based international order as a bedrock principle of the international system. Embracing the sovereignty of nations, in September 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden pledged at the United Nations to end the war in Ukraine “on just terms, on terms we all signed up for: that you cannot seize a nation’s territory by force.” Failing to support Ukraine in reclaiming Crimea would not only contradict Biden’s pledge, but would also risk undermining the hard-fought gains for peace that have been made thus far.

Michael Allen was a special assistant to the president in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, the former majority staff director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and is a managing director of Beacon Global Strategies in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @michaelallenJMA

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