BY PATRICK DRENNAN, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR – 08/17/23 2:00 PM ET
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently proposed his 10-part peace plan to end the war in Ukraine to a peace conference attended by 40 countries. The most notable absence from the conference was Russia, whose only official reaction was that it would “keep an eye” on the meeting. Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he would not negotiateuntil Ukraine stops fighting.
So, considering that Ukraine is not likely to stop fighting to recover its occupied territory, with or without Western help, what will bring Putin to the negotiating table?
In one word: Crimea.
Ever since Catherine the Great conquered Crimea in 1783 and established Sevastopol as its principal naval base, Crimea has been key to Russian military strategy. It was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 when it was part of the USSR. Then, when the USSR was dissolved in 1991, Ukraine kept Crimea.
This was unforgivable for Putin, who has long wanted to restore the USSR. In March 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and declared Sevastopol a federal city. Approximately 800,000 Russianshave moved into Crimea since then. Facing constant bombardments from Ukraine from just across a narrow border, would make life unbearable for them, and for Putin.
In a leaked zoom call between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and officials, the secretary believes that Crimea is a ”red line” that Putin will not cross. They recognize the significance of the peninsula to Putin; the implication is that while the United States supports the counteroffensive, it does not believe that retaking Crimea is a realistic or worthwhile goal.
To directly threaten and isolate Crimea, the Ukrainian counteroffensive would have to advance toward one of the strategic towns of Melitopol, Armiansk or Skadovsk. The Russians have made the latter two difficult, with the flooding of the Dnipro River. Nevertheless, Ukrainian forces have recently conducted commando raids across the river.
There, the immediate topography is marshy and heavily wooded. This terrain means that the devastating Russian heavy artillery would be less effective than in the open. Establishing bridgeheads, with anti-aircraft equipment such as man-portable air-defense systems, is possible, but to get large, heavy equipment across would be challenging. Pontoon bridges would be vulnerable to Ka-52 helicopters armed with powerful laser-guided 9K121 “Vikhr” missiles. Once across, the country roads are narrow and not tank friendly. Nevertheless, they are not heavily mined, and the opposing Russian troops are mainly conscripts.
To threaten Crimea by taking Melitopol, the Ukrainians would first have to capture Tokmak. Tomak is surrounded by layers of trenches, minefields and “dragon’s teeth” barriers. It is estimated that Russia now has more than 90,000 troops in this area. The Ukrainians are advancing slowly. They have mine-clearing M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge systems and specialist vehicles, but there are not enough of them. In some areas, the Ukrainians encountered minefields between 3 miles and 10 miles deep, laden with booby traps and trip-wired anti-personnel mines. The Ukrainians send platoons out at night to dismantle the mines. The casualty and emotional toll is high.
The ad-hoc nature of the Ukrainian mine-clearing strategy is demonstrated by units using ropes and grappling hooks to detonate mines. Some Ukrainian companies are manufacturing their own cheap mine-clearing over-boots using 3D-printers.
So where does this leave Putin?
Obviously, Putin would like to attack and capture Kyiv, but stubborn defense and Western weaponry has stymied him. And so to a degree, the prolonged stalemate suits him. Another year and a possible change of government in the U.S. to one that favors limiting military funding for Ukraine may increase his chances of long-term success. On the other hand, Putin is facing pushback from his own oligarchs and the Russian people.
Approximately 47,000 Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine — a conservative estimate. Putin does not care. In fact, he appears to revel in having power over life and death. This outlook has been very successful for Putin within Russia and has been employed in Georgia, Donbas and Moldova.
Whatever Putin says about protecting the Russian-speakers of Luhansk and Donetsk, his current priority is to hold onto Crimea. Russian offensives in northern Ukraine, and threats from Wagner mercenaries in Belarus, are diversions. In the center, Bakhmut offers little tactical advantage for either side.
And while Ukrainian advances that directly threaten Crimea could force Putin to negotiate, even this would only be a delaying tactic. While he retains power, Putin’s long-term self-serving goals will never change.
Patrick Drennan is a journalist based in New Zealand, with a degree in American history and economics.