Goal number one. Three Stages of the Return of Crimea - opinion

7 May, 12:31 PM
Crimea (Photo:Reuters)

Crimea (Photo:Reuters)

There are three stages and three main participants in returning the Crimean Peninsula and restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

First published in NV Magazine in April 2023. Reproduction is prohibited

Another anniversary of the illegal annexation of Crimea has passed. Another reason to recall the stormy events of the spring of 2014 and the nine following years, to assess the current state of affairs, and reflect on the prospects. On the other side of the front, there is another occasion for celebration, but this time without grandiose concerts. The main culprit made a "spontaneous" visit to Sevastopol on the annexation anniversary, but he decided not to meet with the happy Crimeans, whose calls for "even stones from the sky" seem to start materializing.

Video of day

Preparations for Crimea's "2023 season" have acquired a new meaning. The occupation authorities do everything to make the population and guests feel safe - loud statements about how "everything is under control," 200 km of trenches, dugouts, mine barriers, and the familiar sound of air defense. Despite this, local tour operators are optimistic about 10-15% of vacationers from the level of 2022, and property sales have reached record levels and wild discounts. So you have to ask: "What’s happened?"

The following is what happened: paradoxically, but the fact is that Putin’s plans to grab even more Ukrainian lands and solidify claims to Crimea forever, actually helped bring the solution of the Crimean issue closer to Ukraine's advantage. Let's be honest: the chances of Crimea's return through political and diplomatic means were pretty illusory in the foreseeable future.

The priority of political and diplomatic measures is discussed in the current Strategy of Deoccupation and Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (as of March 24, 2021). The official strategy definitely needs an update, but in general, it remains a relevant and entirely meaningful document, especially the part related to the stages of reintegration, namely its early preparation and implementation.

Without battle

First, we should emphasize the importance and timeliness of the first stage - the preparation for the liberation of Crimea. Preparing operational plans, military forces, and assets is only one component of the phase – necessary but insufficient. No less important here is a comprehensive package of non-military forces and means for the operational restoration of control and subsequent support of life in the de-occupied territories.

After the de-occupation operation, the next, third stage awaits us - a long process of reintegration

In the extensive government plan for implementing Strategy 2021, the deadline for implementing most measures is defined as being "until the moment of de-occupation of the temporarily occupied territory." I may be wrong, but I assume that at the time of the plan and until today, the executors did not perceive the term as "urgent." Time is running out, and while de-occupation can be sudden and swift, reintegration will still take a long time. At the same time, the efficiency and quality of individual priority measures will set the framework for the duration and success of the entire process.

Implementing the peninsula liberation operation and restoring the control of the Ukrainian authorities over the entire territory is the second, most challenging, and essential stage. It should be a military operation, although possibly and preferably without intense combat. I very much hope that the upcoming Crimean campaign will be an example of applying one of the main principles from Sun Tzu’s Art of War – suppress enemy resistance without fighting. Sun Tzu also believed that it is better to dislodge an enemy army than to destroy it (it is better to capture a regiment, squad, or entire company than to destroy it). The moment when Ukrainian troops enter the territory of Crimea, the Russians have to accept the futility of resistance. Crimea is a peninsula geographically, but strategically for the Russians, it is an island and territory that is easier to capture than to hold.

After the de-occupation operation, the next, third stage awaits us - a long process of reintegration, closely related to and dependent on the results of the previous two. Crimea has always been, to put it mildly, a unique region of Ukraine, and now the consequences of nine years of Russian occupation have been added to the pre-war complex of problems. Passive anti-Ukrainian sentiments will have to be dealt with for many years. Still, the threat of active resistance from the local population is low in the absence of external influence. In any case, everything possible and necessary should be done so that the solution to one urgent problem does not become a new long-term one.

Successful implementation of each stage's tasks involves the awareness and consideration of the key players' roles. The right of Ukraine and the strategic necessity of de-occupation to ensure long-term peace and national security are seemingly obvious. But certain key players still need to be convinced, if not of Ukraine's right to liberate Crimea, then of the inevitability and realism of such a scenario.

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The Right to Support

Given our critical dependence on foreign aid, our partner’s comprehensive support is both a guarantee of success and a lever of political influence. Few in the civilized world can deny Ukraine's right to restore its territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders in general. Still, it is far from a fact that our key partners will have the courage to confirm their support for Ukraine with practical steps when the time comes. There is still a mantra in the West that Putin will never be able to come to terms with the loss of Crimea and will do anything not to give up the peninsula because it will be the end of his political and physical life. Instead, they should bet on the success of Ukraine, overcoming their own fears and their own "red lines."

The second key player is the occupiers themselves and, of course, Putin as a risk factor for nuclear escalation. Convincing them of Ukraine's right to restore its territorial integrity is useless. As for the troops and the occupation administration, Ukraine already has the experience of stimulating the occupiers to a "gesture of goodwill" or to "regroup." In the case of successful implementation of one or another option, when the prospect of defeat becomes evident to the Russian commanders, their commander-in-chief will have to refrain not only from drastic movements, but also from comments and, possibly, from public appearances.

The de-occupation of Crimea will radically change the perception of the "Putin factor" in the West and inside Russia, speeding up the solution to the main problem.

The third, or rather the first and most important player, is Ukraine. It is notable that Ukraine currently has an almost unanimous understanding of the image of victory and confidence in victory. There is a clear official position of the president: "Nine years ago, Russian aggression began with Crimea. By returning Crimea, we will restore peace." There is no need to convince Ukrainian society of this because 93% of Ukrainians believe in victory. For 76%, victory means the de-occupation of the entire territory of the country, according to the survey of the Razumkov Center and the Democratic Initiatives Foundation.

In conclusion, we should pay attention to one of the factors that, along with a comprehensive list of reasons and circumstances, contributed to Putin's blitzkrieg in 2014.

Ukraine lost Crimea almost without a fight. The state was not ready to defend it with weapons in its hands. Undoubtedly, the critical state of the army and the security sector, in general, was an obvious and objective point of failure. But an equally decisive factor was the mental inability of Ukrainian politicians, society, and the international community to perceive the reality of the bloody conflict with Russia. The desire to avoid using force and, accordingly, human casualties the come with that seemed perfectly rational, but, as it turned out, strategically flawed. Within a month, the first shots rang out in Donbas, where the number of victims reached thousands, and eight years later - tens of thousands.

At the moment, it is useless to go back in time and talk about whether giving up Crimea could have prevented a “big war” with Russia. The need to fight for Crimea to neutralize the threat of war in the future is absolutely obvious today.

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