A Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea would be a red line for Vladimir Putin that could lead to a wider Russian response, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a Zoom call with a group of experts Wednesday.
The Russian president sees Crimea as fully part of Russia, not Ukraine, and would be loath to see the peninsula ripped from his clutches — even though that’s precisely what he did to Ukraine nearly a decade ago. Republican and Democratic administrations have since then said repeatedly that “Crimea is Ukraine.”
The top diplomat’s comments, sure to frustrate Kyiv, came after someone on the private call asked if the U.S. is willing to help Ukraine realize its long-term goal of retaking the territory seized by Moscow.
According to four people with knowledge of Blinken’s response, he conveyed that the U.S. isn’t actively encouraging Ukraine to retake Crimea, but that the decision is Kyiv’s alone. The administration’s main focus is helping Ukraine advance where the fight is, mainly in the east.
That assessment echoes comments from Pentagon officials in recent weeks, who have spoken about the grinding fight still raging in the Donbas and in the country’s south, and who have questioned Ukraine’s ability to take Crimea in the near future.
Blinken, according to two of the people, gave the impression that the U.S. doesn’t consider a push to retake Crimea to be a wise move at this time. He didn’t say those words explicitly, they underscored.
Two other people didn’t take Blinken’s comments that way. The secretary remarked that it is solely the Ukrainians’ decision as to what they try to take by force, not America’s. That signaled to them that Blinken was more open to a potential Ukrainian play for Crimea.
While U.S. and NATO diplomats and military officials have never wavered from publicly stating that Crimea is part of Ukraine, since 2014 they have done little to contest Russia’s invasion and occupation of the peninsula.
“Overall the message is that there is a lot of uncertainty on how things will go from here with real questions about capacity of either side to make big gains,” one of the people said.
The four people spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity to discuss the contents of an off-the-record conversation. The State Department declined to comment on the Zoom call, similar to others the secretary has had with experts to get outside perspectives on the conflict.
Blinken will join foreign dignitaries, including Ukrainian officials, at the Munich Security Conference this week. The diplomat will speak to them about how to coordinate future security assistance to the country as the war enters its second year.
Blinken, who was accompanied by Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland in the session, is the latest senior Biden administration official to throw some cold water on Ukrainian designs on Crimea. Two weeks ago, senior Pentagon officials told members of the House Armed Services Committee that they didn’t think Ukraine could recapture the peninsula in the near future.
That assessment followed comments by Gen. Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chair, who has long signaled skepticism about the prospects of a Ukrainian advance.
“I still maintain that for this year it would be very, very difficult to militarily eject the Russian forces from all — every inch of Ukraine and occupied — or Russian-occupied Ukraine,” he said during a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Germany on Jan. 20. “That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but it’d be very, very difficult.”
Some experts don’t believe Ukraine will try to retake Crimea, but instead will attempt to isolate it. “There are three critical points: the land bridge to Russia, the Kerch Strait bridge, and the naval base at Sevastopol. They should knock out all three,” said Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, who wasn’t on the call. “This would leave a lot of Russian forces without adequate support, without Ukraine actually trying to overrun Crimea, and it would still be a severe blow to Russia’s military effort.”
Occupied Crimea is bristling with air defenses, ammunition depots, and tens of thousands of troops. Many of those infantry forces are dug into fortified positions stretching hundreds of miles facing off against Ukrainian troops along the Dnipro River.
Punching through those Russian lines would be difficult for Ukrainian troops, even with the influx of artillery and armored vehicles arriving from Western donors.
The Ukrainian government has for months called for long-range artillery to begin hitting positions far behind Russia’s front lines, including in Crimea, where Russian forces have moved their headquarters and critical depots out of the 50-mile range of the rockets the U.S. has provided.
Kyiv has said that Army Tactical Missile Systems, fired from existing launchers, could hit those targets. The Biden administration has so far refused to provide them, initially claiming they were concerned Ukraine would launch attacks into Russia. U.S. officials have also said recently that there aren’t enough ATACMS in U.S. stockpiles to spare.
Speaking in Brussels Tuesday after another meeting of the Contact Group, Milley said “the Ukrainians are holding. They’re fighting the defense. The Russians, primarily the Wagner Group, are attacking, but there’s … a very significant grinding battle of attrition with very high casualties, especially on the Russian side.”
Meanwhile, the White House is privately up in arms over a Washington Post story on Monday featuring comments from an unnamed senior official questioning U.S. weapons aid through the end of the war. Officials say the comment didn’t reflect administration policy, reiterating that America’s support will proceed for “as long as it takes.”