As the Ukrainian army advances and takes back its territory from the retreating Russian forces, Putin will soon need to make a choice about how to respond. The recent decision to mobilize, whilst declaring the annexed territories as Russia has given him a few more options.
For starters, those on military service can now be sent to fight in the war, as constitutionally they are on Russian soil. Similarly, the action last year, to accelerate the move to people adopting Russian citizenship within Crimea by only allowing those with passports to have land claims and state aid has meant that there is now a large number of people who may have taken the passport for practical reasons, who may now be enlisted to fight against the country of their birth.
Indeed, while the occupied oblasts across the Donbas and Kherson have importance, none is as strategically significant as Crimea due to its warm water deep sea port, natural gas resources, and being a beachhead into Ukraine. It has also had the greatest Russification over the years, to the point when in 1991 when there was a referendum on independence; while most oblasts voted 80/90% be independent, Crimea was only 55% in favor. Now with a further eight years of Russification, it is not even clear what the outcome of a legitimate referendum could be.
What does this mean?
Putin knows that to lose Kherson or the Donbas while annoying does not in itself threaten his position, but to lose Crimea would be incredibly problematic. With that, what I expect to see happen is that as the Ukrainian army advances, Russian forces pull back into Crimea and do everything they can to freeze the border, both militarily and diplomatically.
In terms of what that means, probably the only way Russia can hold Crimea is to militarize it, so populate it with upwards of 300,000 soldiers while making the whole region a battleground, with fortifications at every mile. The gambit is to make Crimea impossible to conquer. Already troops are pulling back from Melitopol into Crimea; no doubt there are reinforcements coming from the East as well.
At the same time, the Russians will continue to apply pressure through energy. The most recent announcement that OPEC+ will cut production by 2m barrels a day shows the fact Russia has friends, even if the West remains supporting Ukraine. At every point, the agenda will be to increase the pain of the war and wait for the democratic tide to change, to Governments who are more amenable to making peace.
After all, already leading Republicans are openly calling for an end to funding for Ukraine. Similarly, across Europe, Russia has allies who will speak on its behalf. With that, once we remember that the Ukrainians can only win this war with western military and financial support, we also understand that it is not Ukraine alone who will decide when it is time to stop fighting.
Equally, for Ukraine, the cost of this war has been immense. Current estimates are up to 500 BN USD in the costs to repair the destroyed infrastructure and the war hasn’t even ended yet. Who pays for that? Russia won’t, voluntarily anyway, and while there are suggestions about using funds frozen from them for Ukraine, there is no legal basis for that currently. At the same time, the EU needs a reliable energy partner. Ukraine wants to be in the EU and if it can take back Crimea and have peace with Russia, it can afford to not only rebuild its country but become an economic superpower of the block.
Perhaps this is what Russia fears the most. A resurgent Ukraine with extensive natural gas would make Russia irrelevant as far as German industry is concerned. And for the French, for whom the EU has always been about amplifying their own foreign policy objectives, if Ukraine is integrated in this way, it means the block as a whole is more powerful than ever before, in every way.
As a result of all this, what we can expect to see over the next few months is for the Ukrainian Army to take back its land across the Donbas and Kherson, where the Russians will pull back into Crimea and militarize. For the Ukrainians to then win militarily becomes ever harder and a diplomatic solution that involves Russia keeping Crimea is unlikely to be accepted. This is why it could be that this war has a long way to go yet.
The irony is that since 2014 there has been no fighting in Crimea, which was central to why this war started in the first place. Yet as the war ends across the rest of the country, it will come to Crimea and the people there will have a choice to make. Take up arms for Ukraine or for Russia. What they decide could well determine the Crimean end game.