The Case for Caution on Crimea
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has handled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with consummate skill so far, but may be on the verge of making a potentially catastrophic mistake. According to the New York Times, the administration has concluded that if Ukraine “can show Russia that its control of Crimea can be threatened, that would strengthen Kyiv’s position in any future negotiations.” To this end, Biden’s team is now considering whether to supply Ukraine with weapons that could allow it to put Russia’s hold on Crimea “in jeopardy.”
Crimea should not become an inviolable sanctuary for Russian troops, but helping Ukraine to recapture — or even threaten to recapture — Crimea would be unlikely to lead to productive negotiations and could even spark a nuclear war.
Leverage for Negotiations?
Legally and morally, Crimea is Ukrainian territory. As a sovereign state, Ukraine has every right to try to take back its territory, and the decision about whether doing so would serve Ukrainian interests is for the democratically elected government in Kyiv to make. However, the United States is also a sovereign state. It has every right to assist or decline to assist Ukraine in any attempt to recapture Crimea, depending on American interests.
The Biden administration’s laudable goal is to create the conditions for productive negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. On paper, a credible Ukrainian threat to retake Crimea could help by giving Moscow a lot to lose if it doesn’t negotiate. Armed with this threat, Kyiv could credibly threaten to take back Crimea unless Russia ends the war and recognizes the four newly annexed territories as Ukrainian. The flip side, however, is that as part of this deal, Kyiv would have to be willing to formally cede Crimea, or, at least, openly acquiesce to Russia’s continued occupation. If Kyiv is unwilling to make concessions over the peninsula’s status, it cannot credibly use Crimea as a bargaining chip.
For better or for worse, Kyiv has no interest in negotiating over Crimea. At the start of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy indicated that Ukraine and Russia could agree to disagree, but Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield have led him to take a harder line. Now, Zelenskyy says he is unwilling to negotiate over the status of the peninsula. If Ukrainian forces are ever in a position to retake it, he will come under huge — perhaps unstoppable — domestic pressure to push on. For this reason, even if Zelenskyy has privately promised the United States he would negotiate over Crimea in return for increased military aid, Washington should have serious doubts about this ability to deliver. Helping Ukraine to threaten Crimea is therefore unlikely to advance productive negotiations, but it just may spark a nuclear war.
Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons when “the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” Russian President Vladimir Putin considers Crimea to be part of Russia. He is wrong, legally and morally. But given that he, and not international law, holds the authority to launch Russia’s nuclear weapons, his views can’t be ignored. Indeed, some close observers believe Crimea to be a real redline for him. Should Ukraine threaten Russia’s hold on Crimea, Putin could plausibly respond by ordering a limited nuclear attack against, say, Ukrainian forces on the battlefield. His primary goal would likely not be to stabilize the military situation. It would be to terrify Ukraine, its European supporters, and the United States with the threat of further escalation. Putin would probably hope that this threat would compel the United States to pressure Ukraine into abandoning Crimea or at least negotiating seriously.
Russia’s use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic. Most obviously, tens or hundreds of millions of lives could be lost if a limited nuclear war escalated into an all-out one. More subtlety, making concessions to Putin after he had used a nuclear weapon would do much greater damage to international security — the nonproliferation regime especially — than reluctantly acquiescing to Russia’s continued possession of the peninsula beforehand. Indeed, were Russia to use a nuclear weapon, Western leaders could come under enormous pressure from their populations to make concessions and avert Armageddon.
The U.S. government, which has been deeply concerned by the possibility of Russian nuclear use for much of this war, now reportedly assesses that the risk has “dimmed.” Indeed, in the last few months, Russia has dialed back its nuclear threats. Moreover, although Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons to defend the four newly annexed territories, he has not done so even as Ukraine has made progress in recapturing them. By contrast, Putin has not explicitly threatened to use nuclear weapons over Crimea since the war began.
Unfortunately, none of this provides grounds to conclude that nuclear escalation is unlikely. Putin’s relative silence about Crimea may be because it has not come under threat so far. That said, his official spokesperson responded to the Times story with what was probably intended to be a veiled nuclear threat, saying strikes on Crimea “will mean raising the conflict to a new level that will not bode well for European security.” Moreover, before the war, Putin personally indicated a willingness 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 capture was a crowning achievement of Putin’s reign; its loss could threaten his domestic legitimacy and even undermine his hold on power. By providing access to the Black Sea, Crimea is of greater strategic importance to Russia than other parts of Ukraine. Finally, it must be clear to Putin now that an occupation of the newly annexed territories would be difficult and costly; by contrast, most Crimeans want to be Russian.
To be sure, Russian nuclear use over Crimea would be incredibly dangerous, and Putin would surely not order it lightly. Nonetheless, the consequences of not using weapons could be so deleterious from his perspective that he might conclude that, for him personally, starting a nuclear war was the lesser of two evils.
While it is not in U.S. interests for Ukraine to threaten Russia’s hold on Crimea, it is also not in those interests for Crimea to become a sanctuary for Russian forces. As the Times story notes, Russia uses bases in Crimea to support its operations in the rest of Ukraine. U.S. officials indicated that part of the reason why they are considering augmenting the supply of American weapons to Ukraine is to enable Kyiv to strike those bases and interdict Russian troops leaving Crimea.
In all probability, such operations would only precipitate Russian nuclear use if Moscow believed they were part of an effort to retake Crimea (after all, Ukraine has already conducted operations deep inside Crimea without sparking a nuclear war). The United States, therefore, should adopt a policy of supplying Ukraine with more and better equipment, but only in types and quantities that would not enable Ukraine to credibly recapture Crimea.
Such a policy is admittedly easier to articulate than to design. It would need to be implemented on the basis of detailed analysis by the U.S. military, which can assess the likely effect of U.S. supplies on Ukraine’s ability to retake Crimea, as well as the U.S. intelligence community, which can assess their possible effect on Russian perceptions. Such an analysis could consider, for example, whether to supply Ukraine with longer-range missiles, such as the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb, only in small numbers (with a commitment to replace missiles expended in combat on a one-for-one basis), so that Ukraine could attack individual high-value Russian military facilities in Crimea but not launch a large-scale missile barrage. U.S. officials could also consider whether to supply additional armored vehicles only on condition that Ukraine agreed to limit the number deployed within some distance of the border with Crimea.
This approach is not risk-free. There would still be some chance of nuclear escalation. U.S. assessments could prove to be incorrect. As noted above, Ukraine might not abide by any limitations imposed by the United States, though it is better to have such limitations than not. However, the risk would be much smaller than if the United States actively sought to help Ukraine threaten Crimea.
The Ukrainian government would be disappointed by a decision not to help it threaten Crimea, of course. But such a policy would reflect the reality that U.S. and Ukrainian interests are closely — but not perfectly — aligned. Even though the United States rightly recognizes Crimea as Ukrainian, Biden’s risk tolerance in recapturing it should be less than Zelenskyy’s. Recognizing this real difference in interests, Biden should now direct his team to ensure that any military aid supplied to Ukraine could not threaten Russia’s hold on Crimea. As unsatisfactory as it is, the resolution of the peninsula’s status should wait for another day.
James M. Acton is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program and holds the Jessica T. Mathews Chair at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.