Bridge to Peace | Why Ukraine should (and can) liberate Crimea

The West condemned but in fact tolerated the Russian annexation of Crimea. It was 2014, an illegal military operation that was the prequel of the “special” one of February 24, 2022. Nine years later, with the same myopia as then, some allies of Kyjiv persist in excluding the peninsula from the perimeter of negotiations, even if only virtual, in the zeal not to annoy Vladimir Putin. Ukraine has the potential to liberate it. The war will end like this, he promised President Volodymyr Zelensky, and that is where it began. As long as Sevastopol is occupied by the enemy, it could be the outpost for other invasions: a threat to global security.

The Ukrainian army has retaken half of the territory captured by the aggressors. In the North, he drove them back across the border. Before winter, the counter-offensive also advanced on the other fronts. The Russian hold in the South, according to some analysts, also depended on the logistic bases installed in Crimea after 2014. In a phase where long-range artillery can make the difference, while the Russians are running out of ammunition they shoot at a third of the volume of the past, today Kyjiv would have the war capabilities to take back the region. The American administration is also convinced of this he confirmed it to Congress.

Washington is cautious. There you draw one of those “red lines” you insist on in newspapers. Nobody wants aescalation, but before codifying what a “provocation of Putin” is, we should reject his schemes of historical revisionism. It is true that he has invested billions of rubles in the province – 227 ($3.7 billion) only for the nineteen kilometers of the Kerch bridge partially reopened to traffic after the October explosion – and a considerable part of its political capital. He wanted to tie an unspecified legacy of greatness to the conflict in general, to relive the surge in consensus in 2014, because for centuries Moscow outsource at gunpoint domestic insecurities.

If he did not succeed, it is the Ukrainians’ credit. However, the rhetoric of the Kremlin must be dismissed: a deteriorated colonialist vision that believes Crimea is Russian by virtue of the language. Or the trite “mistake” of 1954, when the peninsula was split off from the Soviet Union and assigned to Kyjiv. The anniversary was also imperialist, three hundred years after the federation treaty with Moscow, which never accepted the independence of a “brother people” (it persists in calling it that even under the bombs) because he failed to follow suit democratic. When the USSR collapsed, Russia was trapped in ideological ruins.

In the referendum of 1991, Ukraine chose republican independence by popular acclaim. Even Sevastopol, heir to a special status, voted for that future with conviction, because it preferred it to the corrupt obscurantism of the Kremlin. To cling to the abstention rates of the time, or to the discontent in the years of economic decline, is to repeat the propaganda. No, the peninsula has not been “Russia for ever”, but only after the Tsarist invasion of 1783. It has seen more than one empire: the Greeks, the Mongols, the Ottomans and finally the aristocracy of Catherine II.

Under Stalin, the Crimean Tatars they were deported and exterminated for the false accusation of having collaborated with the Nazis. It is not surprising to find them thickening today the international brigades, alongside Belarusians and Chechens, who are fighting against the oppression of Moscow, like their ancestors before them, because they know firsthand what it means. “An honest assessment of history makes it clear that Crimea should be part of Ukraine, not Russia,” he concluded an analysis of the journal Foreign affairs where the hypothesis of the liberation of the peninsula is explored.

It was unthinkable when our media believed the balls of tyrants and mythologized their power. Those who consider Crimea a taboo dust off the compliance that allowed the advance of the autocracies. Sevastopol is the «key to war», he wrote the Washington Post. Kyjiv is already working on a plan to reintegrate it which includes the expulsion of the 700,000 Russians who moved there after 2014. Before the conflict, in 2021, the government founded a summit annual on the conditions of the region.

It is not up to us, but to the Ukrainians to write the conditions of a negotiation and Zelensky’s line is simple: “We must not negotiate for something that is already ours”.

The problem is that the other party does not seem willing to return the stolen goods. Surveys conducted in a totalitarian regime should be read with caution, respondents may be afraid to provide answers that deviate from the official narrative. An investigation by the Levada Center Russia, together with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, found in November that most of the sample was in favor of negotiations with Kyjiv (53 per cent, 62 in the case of a truce), but clearly opposed (78 per cent) to hand back the peninsula, or the occupied Donbas (66 percent).

The imperialist ones are not Putin’s aims, at least not only his. They are shared with the electoral base, with a non-negligible part of society. Finally, the survey finds a drop, from 43 to 27 percent, among those who define aggressive warfare as “defensive”. In short: the Russians, at least those taking part in the polls, recognize the offensive nature of the “military operation” in Ukraine, are open to diplomatic mediation, but do not repudiate the Kremlin’s illegal annexations. For this reason it is legitimate to have doubts about what “concessions” they would require in order to sit down for a negotiation.

Ukrainians reject any compromise on their territory. According to one opinion poll of the Kyjiv Institute of Sociology87 percent of them believe it is unacceptable to give ground to the enemy, even if it means prolonging the conflict. At the end of September, Putin swallowed up provinces – Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia – which he does not control, with fake referendums. It would be surreal to fulfill the demands of those who are losing the war, on the altar of appeasement at all costs equivalent to a surrender, bypassing those directly involved, who are instead winning it.

The peninsula is the springboard for Putin’s armies. Severing the connections to the mainland – therefore blocking the Kerch bridge – would weaken the conflict in the South. From the naval air bases of the fleet depart the raids on the country’s infrastructure and civilian neighborhoods. As he writes Foreign affairsthat grip allows Russia to threaten the whole world: it is thanks to the dominion over the Black Sea and that of Azov that it has been able to strangle the corridors of grain (on which raw materials and other commodities also passed) and starve already suffering nations.

Without forgetting the main dish of the house: energy blackmail. There are gas fields in the Black Sea. Before the descent of the “little green men”, Kyjiv counted on extracting methane with Exxon; the project was worth six billion dollars. Europe’s energy map may be different, its winters safer. That basin is instead in the hands of Moscow, which is also in Bakhmut’s carnage he does not give up looting, if Prigozhin’s Wagner wants to exploit the salt and chalk mines.

On Crimea, the West has the opportunity to repair the mistakes of 2014. Not to repeat the hesitations. That failure emboldened Putin to invade the whole of Ukraine. We must not let him think that he does not have clear ideas, or a position on it. If Crimea does not return to Ukraine, if Moscow gets away with annexation, we will be setting a dangerous historical precedent. We would legitimize wars of conquest. Returning the peninsula to Kyjiv – just like arming it – is an investment in global security, in preventing further conflicts.

It is one thing to be cautious, and another to deny a priori the scenario of a future liberation of the region because a psychopath with a nuclear arsenal does not like it. He would mean having introjected his vision of him, a new planetary “balance” in which Moscow, China and Iran dominate in the face of the retreat of democracies. Ukrainians have shown that they are willing to die for Europe and the free world. The least we can do is listen to them, and help them by any means to win. On their terms.

Bridge to Peace | Why Ukraine should (and can) liberate Crimea