Under a cold haze, the Black Sea turned a wintry gray. The rugged Crimean coastline, which Russia illegally seized from Ukraine nearly nine years ago, lies far from this southern stretch of seashore – and yet, for many here, the strategic peninsula seems impressively close.
Ukraine’s recapture this month of Kherson, the capital of the province north of Crimea, has revived longstanding hopes of somehow regaining control of a peninsula the size of Massachusetts, which the government in Kyiv – and most of the world – still considers part of Ukraine.
Long-range weapons that Ukraine does not possess would be crucial to such an effort, and Moscow has tried to make it clear that attacks on its forces in Crimea, including the key warm-water port of Sevastopol, amount to crossing an explosive detonating wire. However, the fate of the peninsula, which is home to 2.4 million people, is increasingly becoming part of the wartime discourse.
“Kherson has changed things,” said Aleksandr Babich, a local Ukrainian historian in the Black Sea port of Odessa. “Now people say:” To the Crimea! “
Even before Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, which is about to enter its tenth grinding month, Crimea—a coveted prize for centuries, changing hands again and again—has been a staging post for both sides in this war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin often returns to the peninsula’s imperial history, portraying it as an integral part of the peninsula’s imperial history. Russian Mir – Russian scientist. This construct, supposedly based on the common Slavic culture, was in turn presented by the Kremlin as an all-encompassing pretext for trying to subjugate all of Ukraine, a once Soviet republic that had been a sovereign state for more than three decades.
As the war drags on, Ukrainians are impatient with Russian nostalgia for the symbols of the empire.
And shrugged when Moscow-backed officials stole in then-occupied Kherson the bones of 18th-century Russian general Prince Grigory Potemkin — revered by Russians for his role in annexing Crimea from the Ottoman Turks in 1783. In Odessa, a statue of Potemkin’s lover. She, Empress Catherine II, is on board and ready for removal.
In a sense, Crimea is at the center of the current conflict. Many here argue that the less resolute global reaction to Russia’s seizure of the peninsula in 2014 helped set the stage for Putin’s invasion this year. Western countries, including the United States, imposed sanctions and denounced the annexation of Crimea at the time, but ruled out a military response.
Now, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has added the return of Crimea to his list of war goals, along with returning Russian forces to their pre-February positions and retaking the four other provinces on the mainland that Putin annexed in late September.
Putin is betting heavily on the West becoming more war-weary in the coming months, especially among cash-strapped European allies. If Zelensky eventually faces calls to consider territorial concessions to end the conflict, the status of Crimea could be a major diplomatic pressure point.
The Russian leader has already shown his anger at challenges to Moscow’s dominance in Crimea, particularly last month’s dramatic attack on the Kerch Bridge to the Russian mainland, a 12-mile stretch that Putin opened personally in 2018.
Ukraine never officially claimed responsibility for the massive Oct. 8 explosion that destroyed a bridge road and railway line, but days later, Russian forces embarked on a campaign to destroy Ukraine’s civilian energy infrastructure, using language that hinted at payback. The largest barrage of missiles of the war targeted Kyiv and other cities, plunging millions into cold and darkness.
With about 40% of the country’s power grid out, Ukrainian authorities have begun helping people in recently liberated parts of the country’s south – where energy facilities have been destroyed by retreating Russian forces – leave voluntarily to avoid further straining their faltering energy supplies. Last month, Kyiv’s municipal government raised the high possibility of an evacuation of the capital if the city’s electrical capacity were to fail completely.
Ukraine scored a series of important battlefield victories in the fall — recapturing Kherson and, before that, defeating Russian forces from a vast area of Kharkiv province in the northeast — and some prominent Ukrainian political security figures are sanguine about the idea. Kyiv can regain the Crimea militarily. So are some Western experts, including Ben Hodges, the former commander of US forces in Europe, while other analysts are more nuanced in their views.
Ukraine is already using newly recaptured areas in the south as a springboard to attack Russian forces. Oleksiy Khrumov, deputy commander of the army’s Main Operations Directorate, said during a briefing last week that Ukrainian forces were “doing everything they can to strike the enemy at the maximum range of our weapons” – which now includes areas close to the peninsula.
While Crimea itself is beyond range of Ukrainian missiles and artillery, Russia’s primary supply routes — the “land bridge” established when Russian forces captured the southern cities of Mariupol and Melitopol earlier in the war — are newly vulnerable. The water supply carried by the canal on the peninsula is also threatened.
In response, Russia strengthened land fortifications, including deepening trenches on the northern edge of Crimea, a British Military Intelligence Assessment he said last week.
Russian military installations on the peninsula have occasionally been subjected to stealth attacks during the war, carried out either by drones or by suspected Ukrainian saboteurs. In September, Ukraine claimed responsibility for a raid a month earlier on a Russian air base that destroyed at least nine planes and sent plumes of thick black smoke into the air, in full view of Russian tourists who favored Crimean beaches — or did, at least. .
Other serious setbacks for Russia occurred in the waters off Crimea. Back in April, in one of the war’s most striking military achievements, Ukraine sank the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, with shore-to-ship missiles. In late June, Russian forces were forced to abandon Snake Island, a point of land 22 miles off Ukraine’s coast on the Black Sea, after it came under repeated Ukrainian attacks.
Putin-watchers say the acrimonious and mystical language the Russian leader uses to describe Moscow’s attachment to Crimea fuels anger – and calls for revenge – whenever Russia suffers a setback there.
Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, wrote on Twitter over the weekend that the potential danger of Crimea “annoys even the most hardline voices” within Russia. He pointed to warnings from an influential lawmaker, Andrei Gorolyov, who declared that Moscow should guard against a treacherous joint Ukraine-NATO attack on the peninsula.
Meanwhile, Zelensky’s government is reminding citizens in ways big and small that Ukraine never stopped calling Crimea its own.
Almost every day, a mobile app used by millions lights up with warnings of Russian missile strikes in different parts of the country. When the alert is nationwide, the peninsula is considered “the only part of Ukraine” that is not under threat.
Ukraine’s intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, who grew up in Crimea, told the news outlet Ukraine’s Pravda last month that retaking the peninsula could come as early as next year.
He said, “We’ll be back there soon.” “Yes, with weapons.”