Ukraine may not be able to reclaim Crimea by force, US says

ukraine - ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images
ukraine - ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine may not be able to retake all Russian-occupied territory by force, the US Secretary of State has suggested, in remarks likely to anger Kyiv.

The United States is Ukraine’s most important military backer and has pledged to continue its support for “as long as it takes” to defeat the Russian invasion.

But Antony Blinken told Congress on Thursday that some of Ukraine’s stated war aims might only be possible through diplomacy.

“I think there’s going to be territory in Ukraine that the Ukrainians are determined to fight for on the ground; there may be territory that they decide that they’ll have to try to get back in other ways,” he said when asked whether the United States backed president Volodymyr Zelensky’s goal of liberating Crimea.

He added: “These have to be Ukrainian decisions about what they want their future to be and how that lands in terms of the sovereignty, the territorial integrity, the independence of the country.”

“What we don’t want, for everyone’s interests, is to have this settle in a place and in a way that simply invites the Russians to reset, rearm and then re-attack,” he added.

The comments underline unresolved tensions between Ukraine and several of its Western backers over the possible outcome of the war and especially the status of Crimea.

Blinken - AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana
Blinken - AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana

Russia annexed Crimea during its first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine never accepted the annexation but did not attempt to challenge it by force before Russia’s full-scale invasion last year.

Russia considers Crimea sovereign Russian territory, and some fear the Kremlin may consider an attempt to liberate it sufficiently threatening to warrant the use of nuclear weapons.

Since September last year, Russia has also claimed the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine, but has not used its deterrent against Ukrainian forces fighting to liberate them.

On Friday, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council and an ally of Vladimir Putin, said Russia wants to create demilitarised buffer zones inside Ukraine around areas it has annexed.

“We need to achieve all the goals that have been set to protect our territories, that is the territories of the Russian Federation,” Mr Medvedev said in an interview with Russian media posted on Telegram.

We need to “throw out all the foreigners who are there in the broad sense of the word, create a buffer zone which would not allow the use of any types of weapons that work at medium and short distances, that is 70-100 kilometres, to demilitarise it”, he said, adding that Russia would have to push further into Ukraine if such zones were not established.

Russia currently controls just under a fifth of Ukraine’s territory, including Crimea.

President Zelensky has repeatedly stated his government’s war aims include the liberation of all occupied territory including Crimea and parts of Donbas occupied since 2014.

The objective has divided Ukraine’s Western allies.

crimea bridge - Ed Ram/Getty Images
crimea bridge - Ed Ram/Getty Images

Some believe peace would be impossible without retaking Crimea because Russia would retain both a base from which to attack Ukraine and a motive to do so.

Capturing it, on the other hand, could deal a decisive and humiliating blow to Vladimir Putin that could force Russia to sue for peace.

Lt Gen Ben Hodges, a former commander of US Army Europe, argued last month that liberating Crimea would be the quickest way to end the war and should be the main objective for Ukraine and its allies.

Others worry retaking it by force would be militarily difficult and risk dangerous escalation because of its strategic and domestic political importance to the Kremlin.

Chris Stewart, a Republican representative who asked Mr Blinken whether the US backed Ukraine retaking Crimea, said: “My great fear is not a recognition that Crimea is different than the eastern Donbas region.”

“If our commitment and our agreement with Mr Zelensky is we will support you whatever you want to achieve, including no Russian presence at all in Crimea, then we’re asking for a world of hurt,” he added.

Mr Zelensky has never ruled out returning Crimea via diplomatic rather than military means, and some senior Ukrainian officials have argued the objective could be achieved without fighting.

Some Ukrainian officials have argued that it may not be necessary to fight for the peninsula.

Mikhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Mr Zelensky, told The Telegraph last year that a sufficiently punishing Russian defeat elsewhere on the battlefield could lead to Moscow surrendering Crimea peacefully amid an internal political crisis.