The ‘Crimea Dilemma’? There is No Dilemma
Many appear to believe it would be reasonable to offer the peninsula as some sort of final settlement of the war in Ukraine to Russia – why? asks Paul Niland
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With Ukraine gearing up for a stunning counter-offensive against the occupying Russian forces, there are many commentators who are wondering how much of a win it is reasonable for Ukraine to achieve. This seems to me to be the wrong approach.
There is the constant recurring notion that the status of Russia’s de facto control of the Crimean Peninsula cannot be challenged. That this, somehow, is a ‘red line’ for Moscow that must be given credence. Not only is this wrong in international law (Crimea is part of Ukraine and it was seized illegally) but it is also wrong from a moral and a security standpoint.
Yet, many appear to believe that, in some kind of final settlement of the war in Ukraine, trading the peninsula for an end to the bloodshed and violence might be reasonable. Or that challenging Vladimir Putin’s hold over the region might lead to catastrophic consequences.
That people fear the use of nuclear weapons is completely natural. Writing in these pages previously, I have discussed the different nuclear scenarios that may unfold. But mutually assured destruction is not one of them.
The notion of Crimea being a kind of special place for the people of Russia is born of one factor: propaganda.
It is the after-the-fact justifications of Putin’s actions in February and March of 2014 that have led to widespread acceptance of claims that Crimea was always really a part of Russia, that Khrushchev mistakenly ceded this territory to Ukraine only a few decades ago, and that the peninsula is largely home to ethnic Russians and/or Russian speakers. None of this, in fact, is real or relevant.
In September last year, Putin held a lavish ceremony in the Kremlin to ‘formally’ announce that the region of Kherson, though not fully controlled by Russia, was now a part of the Russian Federation. During the ceremony, he declared that Russia would use “all the forces and means at their disposal” to “protect” this newly acquired territory.
Ukraine rightly ignored the bluster and, when push came to shove, Russia abandoned the regional capital of Kherson city just 40 days later. Putin’s purported justification for annexation was that “the people have made their choice, an unequivocal choice, this is the will of millions of people”. He referred to a completely staged poll of the residents of the region. Prior to 24 February 2022, there had been no local talk of the people of this region wanting to join Russia.
In March 2014, Putin held a lavish ceremony in the Kremlin to ‘formally’ annex Crimea. His insistence since then, that he would use “all means necessary” to maintain control of that territory, was a ploy that he doubled-down on in Kherson – and we saw what happened then. Another similarity between the two cases is the strange reliance Putin has – despite Russia not being a democracy at all – on demonstrating popular local support for his actions. Just as the ‘referendum’ in Kherson was a scam, so was the ‘referendum’ in Crimea.
It is also worth noting that, prior to 27 February 2014, there had been little local talk of the people of Crimea wanting to join Russia.
When Ukraine was reeling from a national revolution that drained the country over a 93-day period, five days after President Viktor Yanukovych – who retracted plans to sign an association agreement with the EU and opted to accept a Russian trade deal and loan bail-out – was removed to Russia, Putin took advantage of the power vacuum in Kyiv to take Crimea because of the strategic military value of the peninsula.
When the all-out invasion of Ukraine began last year, the occupied parts of the Donbas and Crimea were the spring-boards from which Russian troops moved into action. It is for this reason that the return of Crimea to Ukraine is a matter of national security – because leaving Russia there means there will always be the threat of renewed war, however long it will take for Russia to recover militarily from this one.
There are also international security ramifications of Russia being allowed to remain in de facto possession of Crimea – it is the vantage point from which Putin can, and does, threaten to block Ukrainian agricultural exports to the world. For global food security, Russia must be removed from not only Crimea, but also from the Azov and Black Seas.
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There is also the moral perspective to consider.
Russia will lose its war against Ukraine. Its troops are panicking at the prospect of Ukraine’s counter-offensive and it remains to be seen how much resistance it will offer when it sees echelons of Leapords, Challengers, Bradleys, Strykers and Bushmasters coming towards it – followed by infantry soldiers in their thousands.
But any resistance will ultimately be futile – the Ukrainians have better troops, better equipment, higher morale and a clearly stated mission. These are all things the Russian occupiers are short of.
So why is there talk of Russia being offered some kind of compensation?
There is also the key issue of human rights on the peninsula while it is under the rule of what is a fascist state. The indigenous population of Crimea are the Crimean Tatars – for reasons historical and recent – despise the imperial Russian approach to them. Many were deported from their homes and sent to Siberia in the wake of the Second World War. Many have been persecuted during the last nine years of occupation, the most recent case being a young Crimean Tatar sentenced to 77 years in prison on phony charges of financing terrorism (the basis of the charge was that individual having sent $12 to a friend).
But is it not only the Tatar residents of Crimea that are affected by totalitarian rule by a police state – everyone there (ethnic Russians, ethnic Ukrainians alike, who used to live there side by side) is subjected to the restrictions of movement, thought and democratic rights that are all hallmarks of what it is like living under the boot of the Kremlin.
Crimea is not a dilemma. Crimea is not a red line. Crimea is Ukraine. Not only does Russia have to accept those facts – many other people do too.
Paul Niland is an Irish journalist based in Ukraine. He is the founder of the country’s national suicide prevention hotline, Lifeline Ukraine