Why Putin Will Do ‘Everything Possible’ to Keep Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his forces in occupied southern Ukraine will do everything possible to retain control of Crimea, a senior Ukrainian defense intelligence official has said. Leaders in Kyiv are pushing ahead with plans to liberate the peninsula, despite Western concerns about Russian escalation.

Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of Ukraine’s defense Intelligence agency (GUR), told the Yalta European Strategy summit in Kyiv on Saturday that Crimea is the key to Russia’s regional power projection. The peninsula’s liberation by Ukrainian troops is non-negotiable.

Russia, Skibitsky said, has 423,000 troops now on Ukrainian soil, in the occupied swaths of the eastern Donbas, Crimea, and the southern Ukrainian “land corridor.”

The Crimean Peninsula, Skibitsky added, takes special place among the 20 percent of Ukraine still occupied by Russian troops. “The Autonomous Republic of Crimea is a part and parcel of our country,” he said.

A neon art piece depicting Crimea, part of a broader work by Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan, during the exhibition “The Artist as Prophet” at the Weisser Elefant gallery on July 29, 2023 in Berlin, Germany. Kyiv has made clear its intention to liberate the peninsula from Russian control.
Omer Messinger/Getty Images

From the annexation of the peninsula by the Kremlin’s “little green men” in 2014, “Russia turned the peninsula into a powerful military base and restored all the military facilities of the former Soviet Union,” the intelligence official said.

“They do everything possible to keep the territories that they’ve occupied: Kherson Oblast, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, and to keep Crimea as well,” Skibitsky said, noting Crimea’s geographical domination of the Black Sea and its subsequent boon to Moscow’s power projection. “Crimea helps them to have full control of the Black Sea region and to project force into the Mediterranean.

“Their presence in Syria and in African countries is backed up by their presence in the Black Sea, their facilities, which make it possible for them to provide everything possible for what they have overseas,” Skibitsky added.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive operation is designed to drive south from Zaporizhzhia towards the Sea of Azov coastline. If successful, this would sever the land corridor connecting Crimea to Western Russia.

The land corridor stands as one of Moscow’s biggest achievements from 18 months at war. Losing it would be a serious political blow to Putin and imperil his forces in Crimea and the rest of southern Ukraine. This problem will be especially pointed if Ukraine destroys the Kerch Strait Bridge, which has already been successfully attacked several times.

“Currently, the Russian Federation is actively using the Crimean Peninsula to supply their units in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts,” Skibitsky said. “It is through Crimea that all their supply lines, munitions, and personnel lines run. In Crimea, they recently formed the newly created 18th [Combined Arms] Army, which is now being actively used on the Zaporizhzhia axis to thwart our counteroffensive.”

Russia’s armed forces have been badly mauled. Even the Black Sea Fleet has fallen victim to Ukrainian forces, even though Kyiv has no meaningful conventional navy. Russian warships regularly launch cruise missiles from Black Sea waters against Ukrainian cities, taking care to stay out of the range of anti-ship missile batteries that last year claimed the Black Sea Fleet’s Moskva flagship.

“The threat posed to us by the Black Sea Fleet is primarily about the Kalibr cruise missiles,” Skibitsky said. “Over the last month, they have been actively using Crimea to strike our port facilities… They also have been striking the infrastructure facilities that are supposed to provide food security for pretty much the whole world.”

Workers restore damaged parts of the Kerch Strait Bridge that links Crimea to Russia. Ukraine has attacked the crossing several times in its efforts to isolate Crimea and choke Russian military supply lines in occupied southern Ukraine.
STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

“We can predict that Russia will continue to amass military personnel and build up their military in Crimea and do everything possible to control the Black Sea area,” Skibitsky added.

Kyiv has made clear its intention to liberate Crimea and all other occupied territory. “It began with Crimea; it will end with Crimea,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said last year.

But Crimea’s special place in Putin’s neo-imperial project has raised concerns that a threat to Russian rule there will prompt nuclear escalation. Russia’s nuclear doctrine suggests it can revert to weapons of mass destruction when “the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.”

Earlier this year, former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev—no longer part of the Kremlin inner circle, but recently one of its most vocal hawks—threatened to “use all means of protection, including those provided for by the basic doctrine of nuclear deterrence,” if Crimea is threatened.

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David Brennan