US President Joe Biden’s administration has handled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine very skillfully so far, but it could make a potentially catastrophic mistake. In accordance with New York Times, the administration has concluded that if Ukraine “can show Russia that its control of Crimea could be threatened, it would strengthen Kiev’s position in any future negotiations.” To that end, Biden’s team is now considering whether to supply Ukraine with weapons that would allow it to “threaten” Russia’s hold on Crimea.
Crimea must not become an inviolable haven for Russian troops, but helping Ukraine regain, or even threaten to regain, Crimea would likely not lead to productive negotiations and could even lead to nuclear war.
Leverage for negotiations?
Legally and morally, Crimea is the territory of Ukraine. As a sovereign country, Ukraine has every right to try to regain its territory, and the decision on whether this would serve Ukraine’s interests should be made by the democratically elected government in Kyiv. However, the United States is also a sovereign country. It has every right to help or refuse to help Ukraine in any attempt to retake Crimea, depending on American interests.
The laudable goal of the Biden administration is to create the conditions for productive talks between Ukraine and Russia. On paper, Ukraine’s threat to retake Crimea could help, giving Moscow a lot to lose if it doesn’t negotiate. Armed with this threat, Kyiv could credibly threaten to retake Crimea unless Russia ends the war and recognizes the four newly annexed territories as belonging to Ukraine. But the flip side is that as part of this deal, Kiev would have to be willing to officially give up Crimea, or at least openly agree to Russia’s continued occupation. If Kyiv does not want to give up its status as a peninsula, it cannot reliably use Crimea as an interlocutor.
For better or for worse, Kyiv is not interested in talks about Crimea. At the start of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky suggested that Ukraine and Russia could agree on their differences, but Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield have made him take a tougher stance. Now Zelensky says he does not want to negotiate the status of the peninsula. If Ukrainian forces are ever able to recapture it, he will be under enormous — perhaps unstoppable — domestic pressure to continue. For this reason, even if Zelensky has privately promised the United States that he will negotiate on Crimea in exchange for increased military aid, Washington should have serious doubts about this ability to provide assistance. Therefore, helping Ukraine to threaten Crimea is unlikely to lead to productive negotiations, but may just lead to nuclear war.
Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons if “the very existence of the country is threatened.” Russian President Vladimir Putin considers Crimea a part of Russia. He is wrong legally and morally. But given that he, not international law, has the right to launch Russia’s nuclear weapons, his opinion cannot be ignored. Indeed, some close observers believe that Crimea is a real red line for him. If Ukraine threatened Russian influence in Crimea, Putin could plausibly respond by ordering a limited nuclear strike against, say, Ukrainian forces on the battlefield. His ultimate goal would likely be no to stabilize the military situation. This would mean scaring Ukraine, its supporters in Europe and the US with the threat of further escalation. Putin would probably hope that this threat will force the US to pressure Ukraine to leave Crimea or at least start serious negotiations.
The use of Russian nuclear weapons would be catastrophic. Obviously, tens or hundreds of millions of lives could be lost if a limited nuclear war escalated into an all-out war. More subtly, conceding to Putin after If he had used a nuclear weapon, it would have done far more damage to international security—particularly the non-proliferation regime—than previously reluctantly acquiescing to Russia’s continued rule of the peninsula. Indeed, if Russia were to go nuclear, Western leaders could come under enormous popular pressure to cave in and prevent Armageddon.
The US government, which has been deeply concerned about the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons for most of this war, is now said to be assessing the risk as “lower”. Indeed, over the past few months, Russia has withdrawn its nuclear threats. Moreover, while Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend the four newly annexed territories, he has not done so, even if Ukraine has been successful in reclaiming them. By contrast, Putin has not explicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons over Crimea since the start of the war.
Unfortunately, none of this makes sense to conclude that nuclear escalation is unlikely. Putin’s relative silence on Crimea may be because it has not been threatened so far. This means that his official representative responded to times story of what may have been intended as a veiled nuclear threat, saying strikes on Crimea “would mean raising the conflict to a new level that does not bode well for European security.” Moreover, before the war, Putin personally indicated his readiness to use nuclear weapons to defend the peninsula.
More importantly, Crimea is different from the newly annexed territories. Russia has held Crimea for almost 9 years. Its seizure was the crowning achievement of Putin’s reign; its loss could threaten his internal legitimacy and even undermine his grip on power. Providing access to the Black Sea, Crimea is more strategic for Russia than other parts of Ukraine. Finally, Putin must now be clear that occupying the newly annexed territories would be difficult and expensive; in contrast, most Crimeans want to be Russian.
Of course, the use of Russian nuclear weapons in Crimea would be incredibly dangerous, and Putin would certainly not take it lightly. Nevertheless, the consequences no the use of weapons could be so harmful from his point of view that he might conclude that for him personally starting a nuclear war was the lesser of two evils.
While it is not in the United States’ interest for Ukraine to threaten Russia’s influence over Crimea, neither is it in its interest for Crimea to become a haven for Russian forces. How to times notes the story, Russia uses bases in Crimea to support its operations in the rest of Ukraine. U.S. officials have said part of the reason they are considering increasing American arms supplies to Ukraine is to allow Kiev to strike those bases and bar Russian troops from leaving Crimea.
Such operations would likely only accelerate Russia’s use of nuclear weapons if Moscow saw them as part of an effort to retake Crimea (after all, Ukraine has already conducted operations deep in Crimea without triggering a nuclear war). Therefore, the United States should adopt a policy of supplying Ukraine with more and better equipment, but only in ways and quantities that would prevent Ukraine from reliably retaking Crimea.
Admittedly, such a policy is easier to formulate than to develop. This should be done based on detailed analysis by the US military, which can assess the potential impact of US supplies on Ukraine’s ability to retake Crimea, as well as by the US intelligence community, which can assess their potential impact on Russian perceptions. . Such an analysis could consider, for example, whether to supply Ukraine with longer-range missiles, such as land-launched small-diameter bombs, only in small numbers (with a commitment to replace missiles used in combat on a one-for-one basis). basic) so that Ukraine could attack some high-value Russian military facilities in Crimea, but not launch a large-scale missile strike. U.S. officials could also consider supplying additional armored vehicles only on the condition that Ukraine agrees to limit the number deployed some distance from the border with Crimea.
This approach is not without risk. There would still be some possibility of nuclear escalation. US ratings may turn out to be wrong. As mentioned above, Ukraine may not comply with any restrictions imposed by the United States, although it is better to have such restrictions than not. However, the risk would be much lower than if the US actively sought to help Ukraine threaten Crimea.
Of course, the Ukrainian government would be disappointed by the decision not to help it threaten Crimea. However, such a policy would reflect the reality that the interests of the United States and Ukraine are closely but not completely aligned. Although the US rightly recognizes Crimea as Ukrainian, Biden’s risk tolerance for reclaiming it should be lower than Zelenskaya’s. Recognizing this real divergence of interests, Biden should now direct his team to ensure that military aid to Ukraine cannot threaten Russia’s influence in Crimea. Disappointing as it is, resolving the peninsula’s status should wait another day.
James M. Acton is co-director of the Program on Nuclear Policy and holds the Jessica T. Matthews Chair at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.