The Ongoing Struggle for Crimea: Ukraine’s Determined Path to Liberation

Christian Baghai
7 min readMay 28, 2024

In 2014, the international community watched in shock as Russia annexed Crimea, a strategic peninsula in southern Ukraine. The world’s disbelief turned into horror when, in 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Amidst the devastation, Ukraine vowed to reclaim Crimea, a promise that seems closer to fulfillment in 2024, marking a decade since the annexation. Ukraine’s recent military successes, particularly involving drones in the Black Sea, have disrupted Russian naval operations, indicating a potential shift in control over Crimea. As Russian forces retreat, the question arises: Is the siege of Crimea beginning, and can Ukraine maintain its momentum to finally reclaim this critical territory?

Historical Context: Crimea’s Geopolitical Significance

To grasp the current conflict over Crimea, we must delve into its complex history and geopolitical importance. Crimea’s strategic location and abundant resources have made it a coveted prize for various empires, including the Greeks, Romans, Turks, and Mongols. Its position on the Black Sea and access to essential trade routes underscored its value. For the Russian Empire, Crimea was particularly significant. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 1783 from the Crimean Khanate marked the beginning of a long association. This move was not just a territorial expansion but a strategic endeavor to gain control over the Black Sea, which was critical for naval dominance and trade routes. The establishment of the naval base at Sevastopol, which remains crucial to this day, further cemented Crimea’s importance for Russia. The region’s role in various conflicts, including the Crimean War of the 19th century, which saw major European powers intervening, highlights its continued strategic significance.

Crimea in World War II: A Tale of Betrayal and Ethnic Cleansing

During World War II, Crimea experienced intense conflict. The Nazis invaded the peninsula as part of Operation Barbarossa, meeting fierce resistance from Soviet defenders, including many Crimean Tatars. However, after reclaiming Crimea in 1944, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin accused the Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis and deported the entire Tatar population to Central Asia, one of the most ruthless ethnic cleansings of the 20th century. This mass deportation significantly altered Crimea’s demographics, as ethnic Russians and Ukrainians became the majority. The Tatars’ expulsion and the subsequent demographic changes have had lasting effects on Crimea’s cultural and social landscape. Despite their return after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Tatars continue to face significant political and social challenges in Crimea.

Crimea’s Transfer to Ukraine and Post-Soviet Dynamics

In 1954, the Soviet leadership transferred Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This symbolic gesture commemorated the Treaty of Pereyaslav, which was seen as a foundation of unity between Ukraine and Russia. However, this unity began to fray with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ukraine gained independence, but most of Crimea’s population, largely ethnic Russians, remained loyal to Moscow. This loyalty manifested in Crimea being granted Autonomous Republic status, a status that Ukraine abolished in 1995, placing Crimea firmly under Ukrainian control until the 2014 annexation. The transfer in 1954 was also strategically motivated to stabilize the region and ensure political loyalty by integrating the predominantly Russian population of Crimea into Ukraine.

The 2014 Annexation: A Catalyst for Conflict

In 2014, as Ukraine sought closer ties with the West, Russia moved to assert its influence. Masked Russian special forces, known as “little green men,” began occupying Crimea, seizing strategic sites and installing a pro-Russian government. A controversial referendum, held under occupation, resulted in a supposed 97% vote in favor of joining Russia. This move significantly boosted Putin’s popularity domestically but was widely condemned internationally. The annexation of Crimea by Russia marked a significant geopolitical shift, emphasizing Crimea’s strategic importance due to its military value, particularly the naval base at Sevastopol, and its role in regional power dynamics. This event not only strained Russia-Ukraine relations but also had profound implications for international law and regional security.

Ukraine’s Determined Fight: Recent Military Successes

Fast forward to 2024, and Ukraine’s resolve to reclaim Crimea has only strengthened. Ukrainian drones have inflicted significant damage on Russian naval capabilities in the Black Sea, causing Russian naval forces to retreat. Notable successes include the July 2023 explosion on the Crimean Bridge, a critical supply route for Russia, and numerous drone attacks on strategic military targets. These victories have shifted the dynamics in the Black Sea, allowing Ukraine to gain the upper hand.

In 2024, Ukraine’s military efforts have continued to yield significant results. One major success was the sinking of the Russian warship Caesar Kunikov off the coast of the Crimean peninsula, highlighting the effectiveness of Ukraine’s innovative naval strategies. This was part of a broader campaign that has seen Ukraine use a combination of domestically produced and Western-supplied anti-ship missiles to target Russian vessels and infrastructure. These missiles, along with naval drones developed by Ukraine, have proven highly effective in disrupting Russian naval operations and supply lines.

Ukraine’s tactical ingenuity has extended beyond the sea. The Ukrainian forces have also made substantial progress in aerial warfare. By effectively utilizing long-range missiles and drones, they have managed to strike critical targets deep within Russian-controlled territory. This includes successful attacks on logistics centers and supply depots in Crimea, significantly impairing Russian resupply efforts.

On land, while the situation remains challenging, Ukraine has managed to stabilize its positions and even push back Russian advances in certain areas. The Ukrainian military’s ability to maintain pressure on Russian forces in the Black Sea has allowed for the redeployment of troops to reinforce frontlines in the eastern regions. This strategic flexibility has been crucial in countering Russian offensives and maintaining territorial integrity.

The combination of these military successes has not only improved Ukraine’s strategic position but also bolstered its international support. Western allies continue to provide vital military aid, including advanced weaponry and ammunition, which remains essential for sustaining Ukraine’s defensive and offensive operations. The international community’s commitment to Ukraine’s cause underscores the broader geopolitical implications of the conflict and the importance of Ukraine’s successes in the broader struggle against Russian aggression.

The Current Siege: Ukraine’s Tactics and Challenges

Ukraine’s recent military actions suggest the beginning of a siege on Crimea. By disrupting supply lines and targeting strategic points, Ukraine is applying pressure on Russian forces. Recent attacks, such as airstrikes on a command post near Sevastopol, aim to degrade Russia’s operational capabilities on the peninsula. Despite these efforts, reclaiming Crimea involves significant challenges, including demolishing the Crimean Bridge, neutralizing Russian military capabilities, and regaining control of strategic areas.

Ukraine’s strategy also includes targeting Russian naval assets to weaken their presence in the Black Sea. Ukrainian forces have achieved some success, reportedly destroying the last Russian warship armed with cruise missiles stationed on the peninsula. However, Russia’s military superiority, including substantial drone and missile capabilities, and nuclear threats pose substantial obstacles. Additionally, Russia continues to reinforce its positions in Crimea and the wider conflict zone, making the Ukrainian mission increasingly complex and risky.

To counter these challenges, Ukraine is seeking enhanced support from its allies. The NATO-Ukraine Council has been focusing on strengthening Ukraine’s air defenses and providing advanced weaponry, such as combat drones and long-range missiles. Despite the significant aid from NATO allies, estimated to exceed USD 175 billion since the conflict began, Ukraine continues to push for more resources to maintain momentum and counter the overwhelming Russian military presence.

International Concerns and Possible Resolutions

The international community remains wary of escalating the conflict, particularly due to Russia’s nuclear threats. This caution influences the level of support Ukraine receives from Western allies. The war in Ukraine has significantly impacted global security, causing a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe and exacerbating food and energy crises worldwide. As of May 2023, the conflict resulted in over 24,862 civilian casualties and substantial damage to educational, medical, and cultural sites. The deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and damage to critical infrastructure like the Tolyatti-Odesa pipeline further heighten international concerns.

Some experts propose a “Cyprus Solution” for Crimea, where Crimea remains under de facto Russian control but is recognized internationally as part of Ukraine. This compromise aims to reduce tensions while respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and the interests of Crimea’s Russian-speaking population. This approach, however, faces significant challenges. Russia’s continued military activities and infrastructure attacks in Ukraine, including its strategic blockade of Ukrainian food exports, complicate potential diplomatic resolutions. The blockade not only affects Ukraine but also contributes to a global food crisis, as Ukraine is a major supplier to the World Food Program.

The international community, including the United Nations, has struggled to effectively mediate the conflict. Despite multiple initiatives, including the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allowed safe passage for Ukrainian grain exports, progress has been intermittent and fraught with setbacks. The withdrawal of Russia from the grain deal underscores the fragility of such agreements. Efforts by Turkey and other intermediaries continue, but lasting resolutions remain elusive amidst ongoing hostilities and geopolitical tensions.

Conclusion: The Future of Crimea

The struggle for Crimea is far from over. Ukraine’s recent victories provide hope but also highlight the immense challenges ahead. The international community’s role in supporting Ukraine and navigating the delicate balance of power in the region will be crucial. Whether through military success, diplomatic negotiations, or a compromise solution, the future of Crimea remains a pivotal issue in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

The outcome will not only shape the fate of Ukraine but also have profound implications for regional stability and international relations. The war has challenged the post-World War II international order, which is based on the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. The global response to Russia’s invasion, marked by economic sanctions and military aid to Ukraine, reflects a commitment to these principles, but also reveals the limitations and strains on the existing multilateral system.

As the conflict continues, the international community must address both immediate humanitarian needs and long-term geopolitical stability. This includes navigating complex diplomatic channels, ensuring accountability for war crimes, and fostering resilient economic and security frameworks in the region. The resolution of the Crimea issue will serve as a litmus test for the effectiveness of international diplomacy and the resilience of the global order in the face of aggressive territorial disputes.

--

--