Differences are growing within the Biden Administration over what kind of victory for Ukraine the United States should support. On the outcome of these discussions could depend not only the outcome of the war in Ukraine, but even conceivably the future of humanity.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has described a Ukrainian attempt to retake not just the Ukrainian territories seized by Russia over the past year, but Crimea (annexed by Russia in 2014) as a “red line” for Russia, that could lead Moscow to widen the war. The Washington Post has reported that U.S. officials have warned Kyiv that present levels of U.S. aid to Ukraine cannot be guaranteed, and that Ukrainian ambitions may have to be modified.
On the other hand, U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has recently identified herself with the Ukrainian government position that Ukraine must regain all its territory and will not compromise on this. Nuland declared that, “[W]e will support Ukraine for as long as it takes. Ukraine is fighting for the return of all of its land within its international borders. We are supporting them, including in preparing a next hard push to regain their territory…Crimea must be—at a minimum, at a minimum—demilitarized.”
To judge by his latest speeches in Kyiv and Warsaw, President Biden himself appears not yet to have decided what the territorial goal of U.S. support to Ukraine should be. He has said that this must be a matter for the Ukrainians to decide, but has stopped short of endorsing their aim to recover Crimea.
The issue at stake here for Americans is whether this war should end in a peace that would leave Russia in de facto (if not de jure) possession of Crimea and the eastern Donbas (territory it seized in 2014) while returning (if Ukraine can recapture them) the land seized since the invasion began a year ago; or if America should give massive help to Ukraine indefinitely with a view to recapturing all the lost Ukrainian lands.
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General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stated that Russia has already lost in Ukraine, and a glance at the map and at the evident goals of the Russian invasion a year ago should make the truth of this clear. The Russian army failed to capture Kyiv and topple the Ukrainian government, and failed in three out of four of its other territorial objectives: to take the whole of the Donbas, Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, and the Ukrainian Black Sea coast. The only really significant goal that Russia has achieved is to conquer the land bridge between Russia and Crimea, and restore Crimea’s water supply from the Dnieper River, previously blocked by Ukraine.
These Russian defeats mean that whatever happens—short of exceptionally unlikely outcomes like a complete end to Western aid and a total Russian victory—the great majority of Ukraine, including four out of its five main cities, will in the future be fully independent of Russia and closely aligned with the West. This cancels out not just Moscow’s aims of a year ago, but more than 300 years of Russian and Ukrainian history.
In the centuries since Russia seized Kyiv from Poland in the 1660s, and Peter the Great defeated the Swedes and their Ukrainian Cossack allies at Poltava in 1709, Ukraine was in one way or another subject to domination by Russia. Like the Scots in the British Empire, ambitious Ukrainians entered the Russian and Soviet bureaucracies and militaries, and Ukrainian writers and filmmakers worked in the medium of the Russian language.
Rule over Ukraine was critical to the Russian self-image as the leader of the east Slavic Orthodox peoples, and to Russia’s status as a first-rank power. As Zbigniew Brzezinski famously wrote, “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.” As a result of defeat in Ukraine, this has indeed happened; and given military and economic realities, it is very hard indeed to see how Russia can reverse it. At most, Russia can take additional limited amounts of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine and then only with a very heavy loss of men and equipment.
Given the extent of the victory that Ukraine and the West have already achieved, what are the arguments for aiming at total Russian defeat and Ukrainian reconquest of Crimea and the Donbas? For many Ukrainians, the issue is— understandably—in part a question of honor and emotion. Given the suffering that Ukraine has experienced as a result of the invasion, they would like to see Russia completely defeated and humiliated. The desire to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity is also a natural one. It should however be qualified in the case of Crimea and the Donbas both by the legally complex status of Crimea and Sevastopol, and by the extreme difficulty of reintegrating the Russian-speaking populations of these areas into a Ukraine that is increasingly defined by ethnic nationalism—as Oleksiy Arestovych, a former chief advisor to President Zelensky, has warned.
The Ukrainian government and some U.S. hardliners have also put forward the argument that the complete defeat of Russia and loss of Crimea are necessary if Russia is to be prevented from regrouping and threatening Ukraine again “six months or six years from now,” as Nuland said.
This argument as it stands is deeply flawed. Russian capacity to attack Ukraine does not depend on its holding Crimea. If Russia survives as a state, it will retain a 1200-mile-long border with Ukraine. Nor could one defeat, however severe, destroy Russia’s underlying military capacity, which depends on the still significant Russian economy and population, and the state’s ability to motivate the population to fight.
And on that score, while many Russians might accommodate themselves to the loss of Ukraine (given the defeats and the appalling losses that Russia has experienced in this war), the loss of Crimea would create a permanent desire for territorial revanche, as soon as an opportunity for this seemed to appear.
For the great majority of Russians regard Crimea (which was part of the Russian Soviet Republic until it was transferred to Ukraine by Soviet decree in 1954) as a historic part of Russia. As Blinken has indicated, by far the greatest threat of extreme Russian escalation would stem from a Ukrainian move to take Crimea. At the moment most Crimeans still appear to want to be part of Russia, leading to the question of how Ukraine could rule Crimea in future, without repression or ethnic cleansing.
Given the risks of nuclear escalation, what would be the motives for U.S. support for the capture of Crimea? Firstly, the naval base of Sevastopol in Crimea is Russia’s only deep water port on the Black Sea. Its loss would largely destroy Russian ability to project power in the Mediterranean as well. This would be greatly welcomed by many U.S. strategists, even though the real beneficiaries might turn out to be Turkey and Islamist forces. Turkey would be left as the only major power in the Black Sea; and without Russian forces in Syria, Ankara and the Islamists would be in a much stronger position to take much of that country.
The second hope of U.S. hardliners and the Ukrainian government stems from the point made above, that the loss of Crimea would not in fact end the Russian threat to Ukraine. Rather, it seems, this goal seems related to the hope expressed in various Western circles that as a result of complete defeat in Ukraine, not only would the Putin regime be toppled, but the Russian Federation itself would be radically and permanently weakened or even disintegrate. Nor is this an altogether empty vision. As the examples of Iraq and Libya demonstrate, in multi-ethnic authoritarian states with weak civil institutions, regime and state can be so deeply intertwined that the destruction of one leads to the collapse of the other.
For the U.S. to aim at the crippling of a nuclear-armed state would be the most dangerous enterprise ever embarked on by a U.S. administration. When the Soviet Union broke up, it was for internal reasons, and the first Bush administration was careful not to be seen to be driving the process. For if the Russian elites see Crimea as an existential issue for Russia, then they will be willing to run existential risks to keep it. Is this a risk that Americans should take, when this is not an existential issue for America, and when Ukraine has already won a great and irreversible victory?
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