Crimea has emerged as a central talking point in the war in Ukraine, and as President Volodymyr Zelensky‘s military forces continue their momentum on the battlefield, Russia faces a legitimate threat of losing the peninsula it took by force in 2014, according to military analysts.
After Ukraine surprised many experts around the globe by mounting a strong defense against the Russian invasion that began in late February, Zelensky began publicly stating that he wants Crimea to be once again considered part of his country.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin will not only refuse to relinquish Crimea, but he has said he wants four Ukrainian territories he illegitimately annexed in September to be recognized as part of Russia before he agrees to any potential peace talks.
However, Putin may not be given the choice for negotiations.
“Militarily, it is a possibility” that Zelensky could take control of Crimea, John Spencer, a retired U.S. Army major and chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Madison Policy Forum, told Newsweek.
“I think it is not unfeasible with the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ that the Ukrainian military couldn’t militarily create a situation where it wasn’t tenable for Russian formations to be in [Crimea’s largest city] Sevastopol and places like that,” Spencer said.
Sean Spoonts, a U.S. Navy veteran and editor-in-chief of the military news outlet SOFREP, told Newsweek that Ukraine taking Crimea by force is “entirely realistic.”
“When you look at a map of the region, you can see that Crimea is supplied by three routes,” Spoonts explained. “Along two highways that run from Russia and Ukraine from north to south. Then there is the small Chonhar Bridge to the north. To the west is the Kerch strait and its bridge which carries both road and rail traffic.
“Ukraine has blown this up,” he said. “Finally, there is a narrow causeway from Russia that runs on the Eastern border of Crimea, which would be a death trap to any supply convoys trying to use it. Ukraine could cut it on the north and south ends, trapping everything on it with water on both sides of the causeway.”
He continued: “If Ukraine can cut the supply routes on the west and north, it will be all but impossible for Russia to supply its military units in Crimea, which are considerable. The Black Fleet would have to evacuate the port of Sevastopol and move East to ports in Georgia.
“Ukraine would push down from the north, bring its missiles into range of these transportation choke points and cut the Russian Army and Russian civilians off from supplies and even retreat by land,” Spoonts said.
Ukraine gaining control of Crimea would require a huge undertaking, but if Zelensky managed to do so, Putin would be greatly impacted, according to Catholic University of America history professor Michael Kimmage.
“If Crimea would be lost, it would provide a sense in Russia that Putin is not able to manage things and would definitely weaken him politically,” Kimmage told Newsweek.
Kimmage noted that control of Crimea also gives Putin a strategic advantage, as he mounted his invasion in southern Ukraine from the peninsula. As such, its geographic position could be part of the reason why Zelensky would want control of Crimea.
Professor and chair of the political science department at Northwestern University, William Reno told Newsweek that if Ukraine did take back Crimea, Zelensky could be facing resistance from the citizens who currently reside there.
“A pragmatist might wonder whether Ukraine’s government wants to rule a place that has a lot of people who prefer that the place be part of Russia,” Reno said. “While Russia’s 2014 referendum was a sham, that doesn’t cancel out the fact that a significant part of the population was OK with Russia’s rule. This history and the contemporary political fact make it more likely that Crimea could be a subject for future negotiation.”
Spencer said that another question that should be asked in regard to Ukraine reclaiming Crimea is “Should they get it back?”
“That’s a decision for the Ukrainian people,” he said.
Newsweek reached out to the Ukrainian and Russian ministries of foreign affairs for comment.