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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


We have been hearing about Ukraine’s spring counter-offensive since what seems like time out of mind. As spring arrived, reports claimed the ground remained iced-over. Then muddy conditions, reports said, were delaying operations. One could not help but begin to note that spring is fast running out.

In recent days Ukrainian state officials have been trying to lower expectations for the counter-offensive, and yesterday Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, told the media that more time, and more military aid, is needed before launching it. Whatever is planned for the counter-offensive remains a tightly-guarded secret, but Crimea is never far from discussions.

It affords me an opportunity to address something where my thoughts have shifted over the past year – the prospects for Ukraine of regaining Crimea.

The Russian annexation

The Ukrainian authorities’ rhetoric since 2014 has remained committed to recovering Crimea. Indeed, it would be domestically quite tricky for Zelensky to concede the territory as part of any peace settlement. At the same time, in the years after 2014 and until last year, this, to many of us, always seemed an improbable goal for Ukraine, and western platitudes about not recognising Russia’s sovereignty felt a little hollow.

Like it or not, Russia had taken the peninsula relatively easily and Vladimir Putin’s domestic approval ratings soared to almost 90%. That approval slipped, slowly, and the annexation did bring problems for Russia in terms of economic support and logistics for the peninsula. In the early days Crimea suffered repeated electricity blackouts and water supply, dependent on the Ukrainian mainland, became troublesome. The hastily constructed Kerch Bridge was an effort to clutch the peninsula more firmly in Russia’s grasp.

After 2014, relations between Russia and western states went into freefall, with sanctions and efforts to isolate Russia internationally. But Russia clearly prized Crimea, where its Black Sea Fleet has long been based, and it was very difficult for many of us to imagine the peninsula returning to Ukraine’s control. Russian officials were not shy to threaten to use nuclear weapons in response to any prospective efforts by Ukraine to regain the peninsula.

Now I am not so sure: the possibility of Crimea returning to Ukraine’s control has, at least, become imaginable in a way it previously wasn’t.

The Vaunted Counter-Offensive

The counter-offensive plans remain a secret. Taking Crimea itself in the counteroffensive probably exceeds what is plausible, though I note that there has been recent Ukrainian positional manoeuvring close to Kherson (to the northwest of Crimea). At the same time, satellite images have shown Russian forces digging defensive trenches in northern Crimea.

With a 900-mile-long front line, there is a wide range of possible scenarios for the counter-offensive. It might focus on the area around Bakhmut, or farther north round Lyman, where there has been on-going and fierce fighting. Just yesterday reports suggested Ukrainian troops had broken through the Russian defences on this eastern front.

Still, among the more widespread suggestions for the counter-offensive is that Ukrainian forces will try to regain the territory between Zaporizhzhia in the south and the Sea of Azov coastline, which would sever the land link between Russia and the Crimea. Russian supply lines would be cut, leaving the Kerch Bridge the only direct connection from Russia onto the peninsula.

This scenario, therefore, still raises the question of retaking Crimea itself. In the early days after the invasion, if my memory is correct, the Ukrainian side seemed open to negotiations about the status of the peninsula. The Russian side, convinced it would prevail in the war (it wouldn’t have invaded if it didn’t believe it would prevail), did not care to negotiate. In its eyes, Crimea was Russia – and that was final.

Ukraine, on the other hand, is determined to restore its sovereignty over the territory, as it has been ever since Russia’s ‘little green men’ fanned out across the peninsula in the spring of 2014 and Russia oversaw a blatantly sham referendum. There are several reasons to think Ukraine might yet attain its goal.

What has changed my mind?

First of all, strikes against Crimea last summer caught attention. Ukraine destroyed ammunition stores and hit airfields on the peninsula with its missiles; strikes far behind enemy lines. The headline event was the bombing of the Kerch Bridge in October. This was one of the signal moments in the war so far – up there with the aborted occupation of Snake Island and, especially, the sinking of the Moskva warship. (These symbolically important moments will, I think, be remembered in future history books alongside the atrocities committed in Bucha or the long siege of Mariupol and its Azovstal Plant.) And more recently drone strikes against oil depots and other targets in Crimea have succeeded; Russia has not looked all that capable of defending this piece of treasured territory.

Secondly, very much the corollary, Ukraine has been remarkably successful again and again over the past year. The battle for Bakhmut has been highly illustrative of its forces’ resilience and the ‘heroic’ leadership of its generals. It already seems a long time ago that Russian forces claimed to have captured Bakhmut and western military analysts were advising Ukrainian forces to pull out, despite which battle still rages round the town. According to the Institute for the Study of War, in the whole of April Russia took less than seven square miles of territory in Ukraine and did so at great loss of life. Unimpressive progress for an invasion of a country amounting to more than 200,000 square miles.

Thirdly, Russian morale – which has been lacklustre from the beginning of the invasion – looks to be deteriorating further. The most obvious sign of this has been the public criticisms by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group of mercenaries fighting in Ukraine, who has very publicly criticised Russian military commanders. There is a sense of disarray among the Russians fighting.

These points noted, it should be acknowledged that demographics ostensibly favour Russia in the long run: the fact that Russia’s population is several times larger than Ukraine’s cannot be escaped unless western states commit their own troops. Moreover, many of the Russians fighting in Bakhmut are mercenaries, many taken from prisons on promises of a pardon if they survive the war; they are probably not the fittest and best-trained troops Russia has.

Similarly, Russia has used conscripts and only a partial mobilisation. Putin could yet mobilise the nation, the youngest and fittest Russia has, and we can’t be confident that would prompt rebellion rather than acquiescence among them – even if, really, it is hard to see a full mobilisation going smoothly. Really, the scales are tipped heavily in Ukraine’s favour on morale, leadership and resilience.

A responsible conclusion

Part of me still urges caution. The notion that Ukraine could take back Crimea militarily does not sit easily with me. Severing the southern corridor between Russia and the Sea of Azov would be a logical first step in such an operation. Although I also suspect that won’t be the focus of Ukraine’s vaunted counter-offensive, because surprise is a good element of any military strategy and there will hardly be any surprise in this scenario. Russia will be as prepared as it can be despite its obvious weaknesses.

At any rate, a successful counteroffensive by Ukraine – irrespective of which territory is retaken – might force Russia into talks about the terms of its withdrawal, as Ukraine’s optimistic supporters hope. But it could just as likely lead to an escalation. Just because Russia’s huffing and puffing about nuclear weapons has so far come to naught doesn’t mean it won’t resort to them in the future.

In this context, the UK’s recent shipment of long-range missiles to Ukraine, which would in theory allow the Ukrainian military to strike Crimea, carries risks. The UK is insistent that the missiles cannot be used to target Russian territory, and must only be used against ‘Ukrainian sovereign territory’, but we know that the Russian side interprets the sovereign status of certain parts of Ukraine differently from the rest of us. (It may have claimed to have annexed four other regions of Ukraine, including those encompassing the Donbas, but it continues to view the status of those territories and Crimea differently in practice).

But I am coming round to thinking that Ukrainian flags will be flying over Crimea again one day soon.

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