Pretending the peninsula will return to Ukraine is dangerous
Anatol Lieven is a former war correspondent and Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington DC. He has just returned from five weeks in Ukraine, interviewing civilians, military personnel and government officials. What follows is an edited transcript of his remarks to Freddie Sayers.
There is a perceptible difference in Ukraine between what people are prepared to say on the record and off the record — understandably, as a result of the Russian invasion, but also very much as a result of government rhetoric and control of the media. A public mood has been created in Ukraine whereby nothing but complete victory will do.
In the autumn, after a string of extremely impressive Ukrainian victories, the reconquest of Kharkiv and the reconquest of Kherson, the Ukrainians got the idea that they could completely defeat the Russians. But now, as we’ve seen from the latest Pentagon leaks, awareness is growing. Western military analysis now confirms that, for Ukrainians, going further and reconquering all the territory lost since 2014 will be extremely difficult. If the Russians stand on the defensive — as they now clearly intend to do — and dig their heels in and use their artillery superiority, the Ukrainians will have a very hard time.
There is also the concern that Russia would escalate very seriously were Crimea to come under threat. So even if the Ukrainians manage to recover all or most of what they’ve lost since last year, at that point they will come under serious pressure from the West to seek a ceasefire.
The argument in favour of reconquering Crimea often hinges on the belief that losing Crimea would bring down the regime of Vladimir Putin in Russia, or even the disintegration of Russia itself. It’s important to remember that, in warding off that possibility, Russia really might use nuclear weapons, so that itself is very dangerous scenario.
For many people in the Biden administration and in most Western governments, talk of reconquering Crimea is more of a posture, which they privately accept is unlikely in the real world. But some Eastern European governments like those in Poland and the Baltic states, which wield enormous influence in NATO and increasingly in the EU, are much more determined to carry on this war “to the end”. And there are certain Western figures, like Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister of Germany, who are very hardline on Crimea.
The danger is that, even if it is privately considered as a bargaining position, the public language that both the Zelenskyy government and the Biden administration have used will make the possibility of a future compromise exceedingly difficult — and that’s even if it is a compromise they then desire. Both Washington and Kyiv have, to a considerable extent, painted themselves into a corner.
Zelenskyy, in particular, has put himself in a tricky position. If he does accept a ceasefire at some point, one that freezes certain territorial issues, he is going to face massive resistance at home. There would be protests led by radical nationalists but also by the military (which is, judging by the soldiers I spoke to, absolutely committed to complete victory) and of course by the various politicians hoping to replace Zelenskyy as President. As the head of the National Security Council put it, “if Zelenskyy were to accept a peace deal with Russia he would be committing political suicide.”
Given this internal political pressure, securing any kind of ceasefire would require a very strong stance in favour from the United States and much of Europe. Zelenskyy would have to be able to claim to his own people and his own hardliners that he was absolutely forced into a ceasefire and that were he not to accept it, Ukraine would face abandonment and a complete cut-off of Western aid. Of course, to do that would require tremendous political courage on the part of the Biden administration and unity on the part of the EU and NATO — neither of which is much in evidence at the moment.
The answer may be in a change of rhetoric. Instead of saying that nothing short of reconquering Crimea would count as a victory, Western leaders could choose to emphasise the considerable victory already achieved. In historical terms, and also in terms of what the Russian government had hoped for at the start of the war, Ukraine has already won a huge victory.
Twenty or fifteen years ago in Ukraine, if you had travelled in some of the Russian-speaking areas you would have found huge amounts of sympathy for Russia and a desire for closer relations with Russia. That has now vanished as a result of the war. The Russian speakers of Ukraine really are now united with others in hostility to Russia, even if they have somewhat different ideas about what victory should mean. Russia has managed to occupy quite a small area of south eastern Ukraine, while permanently losing 85% of Ukraine. Now, that is a transformation — singular and novel in 300 years of Ukrainian and Russian history.