Crimea: the End of a Taboo

After the incident, Washington made clear it has a right to fly in any international airspace, including in the Black Sea, and will continue to do so. Moscow said that Russian pilots will continue to do their duty and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu awarded medals to the Su-27 pilots who “prevented the violation by an American drone of the zone of temporary regime about the use of the airspace”. In the meantime, both capitals’ reactions showed that none of them wanted to inflame the situation. The management of the crisis made clear that channels are kept open, between pairs, and that in this specific case, it allowed direct contacts between the defence ministries and the general staffs. The Ukrainians were quick to seize this incident to call for further arms deliveries, beyond what was promised the day earlier at the “Ramstein format” 10th meeting that president Zelensky had declared “fruitful”. But the undertone was one of frustration that Washington handled the incident so diplomatically.  For obvious reasons, Ukrainian officials had to be cautious, leaving more robust wording to commentators who concentrated on two arguments: first, that the incident demonstrate the need for a quick decision to provide Ukraine with aircraft, particularly F-18 fighter jets; secondly, that  the drowning of the drone into international waters, accessible to a Russian recovering operation, has dashed Western arguments that they cannot deliver drones to Ukrainian forces because of the fear that high technology might fall into Russian hands.

Territorial integrity

In the background, there was a frenzy of information/disinformation concerning the preparations for a Ukrainian offensive to the South and the East, down to Crimea. Since the spring 2022, the West had paid lip services about Crimea, speaking of the right of Ukraine to regain its “territorial integrity” without much precision. Washington was afraid that Ukraine would repeat the scenario used by Georgian president Saakshvili in 2008, when his forces bombed Russian peacekeepers barrack in South Ossetia, hoping that Russia would over-react, prompting NATO to intervene and sealing Georgia’s membership. In 2022-23, the White House put in the balance the risk of direct confrontation with Russia and the chances of Ukrainian forces to take the peninsula over.

The taboo has been lifted at the beginning of 2023, during the weeks leading to first anniversary of the invasion. In his televised message on 24 February, president Zelensky declared that he will settle for nothing less than the complete expulsion of the Russian army from all Ukrainian lands, including Crimea. Soon after, on 6 March, he ordered his army to defend the city of Bakhmut at any cost, with such a conviction that he rallied his commanders and his Western allies who doubted that the control of the city was worth the losses of lives and equipment. For the Ukrainian president, such an attrition war will bleed Russian forces and fix them on the frontline, the time it takes to launch a counter-offensive sustained by the new Western weapons’ deliveries.

First anniversary

This was a sharp turn from the West as Crimea was concerned. To remember, after 8 October, when the Ukrainians attacked the bridge connecting Russia to Crimea, Washington pushed on the braking pedal and decided to limit the range of weaponry it was ready to provide for Ukraine’s defence. Since then, Kherson had fall back under Ukrainian control, but the expected counter-offensive did not materialise. Now, time is suspended, waiting for a late spring operation, which thanks to offensive arms deliveries, would allow Ukraine to roll back Russian forces in direction of the South, to the occupied Black Sea Ukrainian coast and cut the Russian forces from land communication with Crimea.  In the meantime, the West has adopted president Zelensky’s arguments that Ukrainians were ready to fight up to the end and “total liberation of its territory”, which cannot be won without more ammunitions and sophisticated weaponry deliveries, including tanks and planes. Instead of the predicted Ukraine’s fatigue, the proximity of the first anniversary gave place to a fatigue of the war, which has to be ended by a  Russian defeat and a regime change in the Kremlin.

But, during the intensive diplomatic activity taking place during the weeks preceding the first-year anniversary, the Western Crimea taboo seemed to be lifted as it became part of a larger picture, in which only the battlefield situation will lead to successful peace negotiation. According to Wesley Clack, a retired four stars general and former Nato supreme Allied Commander, this “would probably requires going after Crimea in a serious way to convince Putin that he can’t win». For Ben Hodge, a retired lieutenant general and commander of Army Forces in Europe “I think we have just deterred ourselves” by talking of Russia, and it is a lesson to be taken from the recent open rivalry by China. Here again, Crimea was plainly part of the picture. According to Hodges “right now, what’s decisive is Crimea. With the right support and long-range precision weaponry, Ukraine could cut the land and sea bridge that connects Russia to Crimea, even liberate Crimea itself by the end of the summer”.

Unofficial offensive

The West has been even discreetly salute actions by Ukrainian unofficial groups to “give Russians a taste of destructions and insecurity” as long as they do not used Western equipment. Shelling, explosion, even targeted assassination multiplied in occupied territories or on Russian soil. By mid-March, the governor of Belgorod Region declared that a total of 25 people has been killed and 100 injured by Ukrainian attacks, without Ukrainian revendications, probably by small autonomous groups. There are now rumours that some hardened soldiers will attack Crimea, from Ukraine itself, using sabotage and targeted killings. And Olexei Danilov, national Security and Defence Council, simply declared “our tanks will be parked on Moscow’s Red Square”

Ukrainian analysts believe that Russia will defend Crimea up to the last, because of political and security issues, but also because, trapped on the peninsula by Ukrainian counter-offensives towards Mariupol and Zhaporija, Russian forces will have no way to retreat but under fire, or to surrender. According to this scenario, civilians would be happy to leave or to enjoy a return to Ukrainian motherland – in contradiction with the result of the 2014 referendum that, even hasty and falsified, shows that a majority of Crimeans preferred to be part of the Russian Federation than living under Kiev’s rule. In any case, the situation of Crimea has been turned into an international dimension, involving the military balance in the Black Sea, naval regulations and the location of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sebastopol.

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