Rubin is a foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Rubin is a foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) meets President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, DC, on Dec. 21, 2022. File/Agence France-Presse
As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its second year, more and more Americans are asking when it will end. The morally correct response, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky insists, is that the war will end when the invaders quit occupying Ukrainian land and recognize his country’s independence. But the bigger question is whether — and when — Ukraine can prevail militarily and diplomatically, and whether the United States will back Kyiv in achieving victory. Despite admirably strong US military and political support for Kyiv, the White House is still withholding key weapons systems. Meantime, prospective 2024 presidential candidate Donald Trump and his GOP followers loudly advocate quitting Ukraine.
Yet, I believe there is one scenario that could accelerate Ukraine’s goal if President Joe Biden has the courage to help Kyiv achieve it: giving the Ukrainians the weapons systems they need to isolate the Crimean peninsula and make Russian occupation there untenable. This is the scenario most likely to bring Vladimir Putin’s war to an ignominious end this year. “Crimea is the decisive terrain that will decide the outcome of the war,” I was told by retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the United States Army Europe.
That may surprise those who have been following the battle for Bakhmut, a crossroads city in eastern Ukraine, where both sides have suffered tens of thousands of casualties, with Russian losses being far greater.
US security experts, including Gen. Hodges, view Bakhmut more as a symbolic struggle than as a strategic stronghold, with Russia desperate to finally score a victory. The Ukrainian military has used the ongoing battle in a calculating fashion to drain the Russians’ manpower and munitions and undermine their ability to take more Ukrainian land. But whether or not Kyiv’s forces can hold Bakhmut won’t make a decisive difference in the overall struggle.
Regaining control over Crimea, however, would deal the Russian military a decisive blow. To understand why, you only need to look at a map of Ukraine, including Crimea. The peninsula is home base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which has bombarded Ukraine’s mainland with missiles. The occupation of Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, permits Moscow to control nearly all of Ukraine’s coastline along the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, with its last major port, Odesa, under range of Russian guns.
This turns Ukraine, once a major exporter of grain, sunflower oil, steel, and iron ore, into a landlocked, economic basket case. A UN-monitored deal to permit some grain exports from Odesa — and ease a Russian-caused global grain shortage — has become a tool the Kremlin uses for blackmail. “If there is a negotiated settlement that leaves Crimea under Russian control, that would only delay the next war [for Russia to finish the occupation, or destruction, of Ukraine],” Hodges told me. “Moscow would restart the war in two or three years.”
“If Crimea is allowed to remain a Russian military stronghold, Ukraine will always be vulnerable,” confirmed retired four-star Gen. Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied commander of NATO forces in Europe. “It provides sanctuary for Russia to project force and to dominate the Black Sea and Odesa.”
The good news is that Kyiv is widely expected to launch a counteroffensive this spring that will attempt to cut the so-called land bridge to the peninsula. That would involve retaking Russian-held territory in southern Ukraine through which run resupply roads from the Russian mainland to Crimea. It would also require putting the Kerch Bridge from Russia to Crimea — the only other means of resupply — under Ukrainian guns. Rather than invade Crimea, Ukraine could force the Russian military and navy to withdraw by making their stay untenable. “You make it so that Russia cannot stay there,” Hodges said.
The bad news is that the White House still appears undecided over whether it wants Ukraine to win this critical victory, which would require finally supplying the long-range US precision weapons the Ukrainians need to win. That includes ATACMS (the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System) that could put the entire peninsula — and the Kerch Bridge — under range of Ukrainian fire. (Ukraine also still needs promised tanks and more air defenses.)
This hesitation appears driven by administration fears that Crimea is truly a red line for Putin, who has said Russia will never give it up. Yet, while it is true that Russia ruled Crimea for lengthy periods of time, Moscow ceded it to the Ukrainian Republic in 1954 during Soviet times. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Crimea had been an internationally recognized part of Ukraine before Russia invaded in 2014.
The administration continues to waffle over Crimea, argues Hodges, out of fear that a full Ukrainian assault would push Putin to use nuclear weapons. Yet the general, along with many other Russia experts, believe that Putin’s threat of using nukes is only useful so long as he does not have to activate it. A low-yield tactical nuclear weapon — which Putin and Kremlin aides have repeatedly hinted was a possibility — would not change the situation on the battlefield. It would also stir global opposition to Putin, even from China, where Xi Jinping has warned against any nuclear use in Ukraine.
“The administration has to say we won’t give in to nuclear blackmail,” Hodges insists, which would also signal to Iran, North Korea, and China that “we can’t be blackmailed by the threat of nuclear weapons.” So this spring, the Biden team must make a decision. When Biden says, as he did on his historic visit to Kyiv last month, that “we will be there as long as it takes,” he must spell it out: As long as it takes to do what? If the answer is to help Ukraine win, now is the moment to provide what is needed to isolate Crimea. Putting Crimea under range of Ukrainian long-range precision missiles offers the best possibility of shaking the Kremlin, and accelerating the collapse of Russia’s occupation. Will the White House have the courage to help Ukraine secure victory before it is too late?
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