Crimea Is a Powder Keg

Whether the Ukraine war brings on a global catastrophe will hinge in large part on whether Washington decides to back a Ukrainian effort to retake the Crimean peninsula.

Antonovski Bridge, allegedly demolished to stop Ukrainian forces from crossing, is seen after the Russian retreat from Kherson, Ukraine on November 14, 2022. The only transportation road from Kherson to Crimea was the Antonovski Bridge. (Metin Aktas / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The greatest threat of nuclear catastrophe that humanity has ever faced is now centered on the Crimean peninsula. In recent months, the Ukrainian government and army have repeatedly vowed to reconquer this territory, which Russia seized and annexed in 2014. The Russian establishment, and most ordinary Russians, for their part believe that holding Crimea is vital to Russian identity and Russia’s position as a great power. As a Russian liberal acquaintance (and no admirer of Putin) told me, “In the last resort, America would use nuclear weapons to save Hawaii and Pearl Harbor, and if we have to, we should use them to save Crimea.”

In the eyes of all the participants in the war, Crimea is freighted with crucial strategic significance.

For the Ukrainian government, the recapture of Crimea and the naval base of Sevastopol would not only mark Ukraine’s total defeat of Russian aggression, but would also eliminate Russia’s ability to blockade Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, and make any future Russian invasion of Ukraine much more difficult.

The latter belief seems on the face of it flawed, since Russia would retain 1,200 miles of border with Ukraine to the east and north. However, it is tied up with the belief that the Russian loss of Crimea would mark victory over Russia in this war, and would be a humiliation so crushing that the Putin regime would fall — and that from this would follow the drastic weakening or even complete disintegration of the Russian Federation.

This is also the hope of the Polish and Baltic governments and of hardliners in Western Europe and the United States. They hope for the elimination of Russia as a significant factor in global affairs, leading to the isolation of China and the strengthening of US global primacy. Hence the increasing language (cynically borrowed from the Left) of the “decolonization” of Russia, a transparent code for the destruction of the existing Russian state.

US strategists also have a more specific reason to hope that Russia can be driven from Crimea. Sevastopol is the only Russian deepwater port on the Black Sea. The others would take immense effort, time, and expense to be turned into viable naval bases. The loss of Sevastopol would therefore virtually eliminate Russia as a significant power not only in the Black Sea but in the adjacent Mediterranean as well.

Then again, perhaps these US strategists should be careful what they wish for. A glance both at the map and at the policies of the Erdoğan government in Turkey should make clear both that Turkey, not the United States, would probably be the greatest beneficiary of this, and that a steep rise in Turkish power would by no means necessarily be to the benefit of the West.

It should also be noted that many Russian goals in the Middle East and Mediterranean have not in fact been contrary to the interests of the United States. If the Bush administration had listened to Russia (and France and Germany) and not invaded Iraq, it would have spared the United States losses of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, and the people of the Middle East infinitely greater losses and sufferings.

If the Obama administration had listened to Russia and not overthrown the Gaddafi state in Libya, it would have avoided more than a decade of civil war in Libya, the spread of civil war and Islamist extremism across much of western and central Africa, and a great increase in illegal migration to Europe. If the Obama administration had destroyed the Ba’ath state in Syria, it would almost certainly have found itself mired in another catastrophe along the lines of Iraq, but without Iraq’s Shia majority to provide some sort of basis for state reconstruction. These actual or potential disasters were all the work of forces in Washington — not Moscow.

As to the Biden administration, it seems divided on the subject of how far to defeat Russia. On Crimea, a line leaked to the New York Times and other outlets has said that the administration wants to strengthen Ukraine sufficiently to be able to credibly threaten Crimea (presumably by recapturing the “land bridge” between Crimea and Russia proper, through the Russian-occupied territories of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia), but like the Pentagon, does not believe that Ukraine could in fact recapture it and thereby risk nuclear war.

The Biden administration appears to believe that if the Ukrainian army could break through to the Sea of Azov, this would frighten Moscow so much that it would agree to a deal (which Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky indeed offered back in March) whereby Russia would return to the lines it held between 2014 and last February, and the issues of the formal status of Crimea and the Donbas would be deferred for future negotiation.

This strategy is however extremely risky, because it requires a strong degree both of military fine-tuning and of control over Ukrainian actions — and neither is guaranteed. Moreover, without a full recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea, it would be very difficult for Russia to withdraw completely from the “land bridge” to the peninsula that it seized last year, because that would put Ukraine in a far stronger position to start a new war to capture Crimea at some stage in future. For the loss of the land bridge to Crimea would leave only the bridge across the Kerch Strait as a means for Russia to supply Ukraine by land — and Ukraine has already demonstrated its ability to destroy that bridge.

Furthermore, one of the reasons for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year was that Ukraine had been blocking the canal from the Dnieper River to Crimea, thereby gravely damaging Crimean agriculture. As long as a renewed war remains a possibility, if Russia wishes to hold Crimea, it must fight to hold or retake the land bridge.

An understanding of the importance of Crimea to Russians can be drawn largely from the goals of Western hardliners, mentioned above. The Russian establishment, and most ordinary Russians, are determined to maintain Russia’s position as a great power. Three other factors are however also present. The first is Crimea’s emotional significance, stemming from memories of the heroic defense of Sevastopol against the French, British, and Turks in 1854–55, and the Germans and Romanians in 1941–42. The Red Army lost more men in Crimea than the US army lost on all fronts of World War II put together.

The second is that between Crimea’s 1783 conquest by Catherine the Great from the Ottoman Empire and its Crimean Tatar allies, and its 1954 transfer to Ukraine by Soviet decree, Crimea was part of Russia. Until the latter date, at no point in Crimea’s history had it been part of Ukraine. Russians say — not without reason — that if the situation were reversed, and Crimea had been transferred from Ukraine to Russia, then much of Western public opinion would have sympathized with Ukrainian demands for its return.

The third is that Crimea has an ethnic Russian majority. In January 1991, an overwhelming majority (94 percent) of Crimeans voted to become a separate “Union Republic” of the USSR, which would have led to Crimea becoming an independent state alongside Ukraine and Russia when the Soviet Union dissolved. In December of that year, a slim majority (54 percent) of Crimeans voted for an independent Ukraine, but on condition of Crimea’s autonomy, which the Ukrainian government unilaterally abolished four years later. Throughout the period of Ukrainian rule, a majority of Crimeans repeatedly expressed the desire for autonomy within Ukraine.

After the Russian seizure in 2014, an (internationally unrecognized) referendum and a series of opinion polls indicated that annexation to Russia had solid majority support. How things stand today is difficult to say given the level of repression now prevailing in Russia. But as former Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovych has pointed out, the intense anti-Russian cultural measures introduced by the Ukrainian government — including the banning of the Russian language and the burning of Russian books — are unlikely to have increased support for Ukraine in Crimea.

It is impossible to say for sure if Russia would in the last resort use nuclear weapons to hold Crimea. It seems likely that they would begin by a less dangerous unconventional attack — for example the disabling of US satellites — that could begin escalation toward nuclear war. There are no grounds at all, however, for reasonable doubt that the Russian state would be willing to run colossal risks, for itself and for humanity. This being so, we should remember the words of President John F. Kennedy in his “Peace Speech” to American University in June 1963, reflecting the lessons that he had learned during the Cuban Missile Crisis:

Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy — or of a collective death-wish for the world.