The Case for Caution on Crimea

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has handled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with skill so far, but it may be about to make a potentially catastrophic mistake.according to New York Timesthe administration concluded that if Ukraine “can demonstrate to Russia that its control of Crimea may be threatened, that would strengthen Kyiv’s position in any future negotiations.” To that end, Biden’s team is now considering Whether to supply Ukraine with weapons that would enable it to “jeopardize” Russia’s control of Crimea.

Crimea should not be an inviolable safe haven for Russian troops, but helping Ukraine retake — or even threaten to retake — Crimea is unlikely to lead to productive negotiations, and possibly even nuclear war.

Negotiating chips?

Crimea is legally and morally part of Ukraine. As a sovereign state, Ukraine has every right to try to reclaim its territory, and it is up to the democratically elected government in Kyiv to decide whether it is in Ukraine’s interests to do so. However, the United States is also a sovereign country. It has every right to assist or refuse to assist Ukraine in its retake of Crimea based on U.S. interests.

The laudable goal of the Biden administration is to create the conditions for productive negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. In theory, Ukraine’s credible threat to retake Crimea could cost Moscow a lot if it doesn’t negotiate. With this threat, Kyiv could credibly threaten to take back Crimea unless Russia ends the war and recognizes the four newly annexed territories as Ukrainian. The downside, however, is that as part of this deal, Kyiv would have to be willing to formally cede Crimea, or at least publicly acquiesce to Russia’s continued occupation of Crimea. If Kyiv is unwilling to make concessions on the status of the peninsula, it cannot use Crimea as a bargaining chip.

For better or worse, Kyiv has no interest in negotiating Crimea. At the start of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine and Russia could agree or disagree, but Ukraine’s success on the battlefield led him to take a harder line. Now, Zelenskiy says he is unwilling to negotiate the status of the peninsula. If the Ukrainian army can retake it, he will face enormous — perhaps unstoppable — domestic pressure to move on. For this reason, even if Zelensky privately promised the United States that he would negotiate Crimea in exchange for increased military aid, Washington should have serious doubts about its ability to deliver. So helping Ukraine threaten Crimea is unlikely to advance productive negotiations, but it could spark nuclear war.

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nuclear risk

Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons when “the survival of the country is at stake”. Russian President Vladimir Putin considers Crimea part of Russia. He was wrong both legally and morally. But given that he, not international law, has the authority to launch Russian nuclear weapons, his views cannot be ignored. In fact, some close observers see Crimea as the real red line for him. If Ukraine threatened Russia’s control of Crimea, Putin might respond logically by ordering a limited nuclear attack on Ukrainian forces in the field.His main goal may be no Stabilize the military situation. It will intimidate Ukraine, its European backers and the US with threats of further escalation. Putin may have hoped that the threat would force the United States to pressure Ukraine to abandon Crimea or at least to negotiate seriously.

Russia’s use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic. Most obviously, tens or hundreds of millions of lives could be lost if a limited nuclear war escalated into an all-out war.More subtle, concessions to Putin rear His use of nuclear weapons would do far more damage to international security—especially the nuclear nonproliferation regime—than grudgingly acquiescing in advance to Russia’s continued possession of the peninsula. Indeed, should Russia use nuclear weapons, Western leaders could come under intense pressure from their own populations to make concessions and avoid Armageddon.

The U.S. government, which has been deeply concerned about the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons for much of the war, has now reportedly assessed the risk as “diminished.” In fact, over the past few months, Russia has reduced its nuclear threat. Moreover, despite Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons to defend the four newly annexed territories, even as Ukraine made progress in reclaiming them, he did not do so. By contrast, Putin has not explicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons against Crimea since the war began.

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Unfortunately, none of these provide a reason get conclusion Nuclear upgrades are unlikely. Putin has remained relatively silent on Crimea, possibly because it has not been threatened so far.That said, his official spokesman responded with Second-rate An attack on Crimea “would mean escalating the conflict to a new level, which does not bode well for European security,” the report said. Moreover, before the war, Putin personally expressed his willingness to use nuclear weapons to defend the peninsula.

What’s more, Crimea is different from the newly annexed territories. Russia controlled Crimea for almost nine years. Its capture was the crowning achievement of Putin’s reign. Its loss could threaten his domestic legitimacy and even weaken his grip on power. By providing access to the Black Sea, Crimea holds greater strategic importance to Russia than the rest of Ukraine. Finally, it must now be clear to Putin that capturing the newly annexed territories will be difficult and costly; by contrast, most Crimeans want to be Russian.

What is certain is that Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in Crimea will be very dangerous, and Putin will certainly not order it lightly.Nevertheless, the consequences no From his perspective, the use of weapons could be so detrimental that he might conclude that, personally, waging nuclear war is the lesser of two evils.

constructive pressure

While it is not in the U.S. interest for Ukraine to threaten Russian control of Crimea, it is also not in the U.S. interest for Crimea to become a sanctuary for Russian Second-rate The story goes that Russia uses bases in Crimea to support its operations in other parts of Ukraine. U.S. officials said they were considering increasing supplies of U.S. weapons to Ukraine in part to allow Kyiv to strike the bases and prevent Russian troops from leaving Crimea.

If Moscow sees these actions as part of an effort to retake Crimea, these actions will likely only prompt Russia to use nuclear weapons (after all, Ukraine has already operated deep in Crimea without sparking a nuclear war) . Therefore, the United States should adopt a policy of supplying Ukraine with more and better equipment, but not in the kind and quantity that would enable Ukraine to reliably retake Crimea.

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Admittedly, such policy is easier to express than design. It needs to be implemented on the basis of a detailed analysis by the U.S. military, which can assess the likely impact of U.S. supplies on Ukraine’s ability to retake Crimea, and the U.S. intelligence community, which can assess the impact of their perceptions of Russia possible impact. Such an analysis could consider, for example, whether to supply Ukraine with long-range missiles, such as ground-launched small-diameter bombs, in small quantities (a commitment to replace missiles consumed in combat on a one-for-one basis) so that Ukraine Individual high-value Russian military installations in Crimea could be attacked without launching a massive missile barrage. U.S. officials could also consider whether to provide additional armored vehicles only if Ukraine agrees to limit the number of armored vehicles deployed within a certain distance of the Crimean border.

in conclusion

This approach is not without risk. The possibility of nuclear escalation remains. The US assessment may prove to be incorrect. As noted above, Ukraine likely will not abide by any restrictions imposed by the United States, although some such restrictions are better than nothing. However, the stakes are much smaller than if the United States were actively seeking to help Ukraine threaten Crimea.

Of course, the Ukrainian government will be disappointed by its decision not to help it threaten Crimea. But such a policy would reflect the reality that U.S. and Ukrainian interests are closely—but not completely—aligned. Although the U.S. rightly recognizes Crimea as Ukrainian, Biden should have a lower risk tolerance than Zelensky in retaking Crimea. Recognizing this real difference of interests, Biden should now instruct his team to ensure that any military aid to Ukraine does not threaten Russia’s hold on Crimea. Although unsatisfactory, the resolution of the status of the peninsula will have to wait another day.

James M. Acton is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Project and serves as the Jessica T. Mathews Chair at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Image: Kremlin


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