Photo by Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

What to do about Crimea?

Western pessimists are not as realistic as they think

Artillery Row

It was 4 a.m. when they came for the children. And their parents. And the teachers. And the religious leaders. And the labourers. Four a.m., when the human body and spirit is at its lowest ebb. “They” knew that at 4 a.m. you are least likely to resist — or escape. The men wearing the cornflower blue caps took them. Just the woollen peak was blue, piped with magenta. The rest of the headgear was the same rusty brown, worn by all the others. All knew who the “blue tops” were. They usually came for you in the night, and you rarely returned from their clutches. The blue spoke of terror and torture. It signified Stalin’s NKVD.

The date was Thursday, 18 May 1944. In Italy, Allied soldiers of General Anders’ Polish Corps captured the abbey at Monte Cassino after 123 days of battle. In southern England, over a million British, Canadian and US servicemen had finished their rehearsals, and they were waiting to embark for France. In the East, uncountable hordes of Red Army troops approached Warsaw. Yet in Crimea (“Krim” in many European languages), abandoned days earlier by the Nazis, Stalin diverted scores of NKVD battalions to round up the indigenous population. Their victims were Crimean Tatars, a Muslim people and descendants of the Greeks, Scythians, Armenians, Goths and Ottomans, who had settled the region from ancient times. When he discovered a handful had sided with the Wehrmacht, the ever-vengeful Stalin ordered them all rounded up, using the “blue tops”.

Prodded by pistols and truncheons, the Tatars were taken to railheads, herded onto trains and guarded by gun-toting sentries. They endured a journey of several foodless days. Thousands died of brutality or starvation in the initial collection or subsequent rail nightmare. With few possessions and no rights, they were forcibly settled in Uzbekistan, a land-locked country north of Afghanistan. Reduced to felling trees to build their new homes, they were accused of Nazi sympathies by Stalin’s loyal Uzbek Communists. Tethered like cattle to their districts, Crimea’s Tatars were forbidden to stray beyond their settlements without permission. Their deportation, physical and cultural genocide, called Sürgün in Crimean Tatar, was the equivalent of the Shoah for the world’s Jews. Only 45 years later with the advent of glasnost was the deportation deemed illegal and 250,000 allowed home.

Moscow directed discrimination, arrests, detentions and forced disappearances

Although their numbers have since doubled, deep in Tatar psyche remained a sense of persecution, hunger and injustice. Once independent, then happily under the rule of their fellow Muslims from Constantinople, Crimea was first annexed by Empress Catherine the Great in 1783. She encouraged an influx of Russian settlers. On the breakup of the USSR and Ukraine’s independence in 1991, Crimea formed one of the new state’s 24 regions. By 2014 Tatars numbered 20 per cent of the area’s 2.4 million residents, about the population of Nebraska, Slovenia or Wales. At the same time, 71 per cent of all Crimean citizens defined Ukraine as their motherland.

When the Tatars boycotted Russia’s 2014 sham referendum designed to legitimise its annexation of Crimea, which the UN refused to recognise, Moscow directed discrimination, arrests, detentions, forced disappearances and deprivation of property rights all over again. This year, as their coastline began to be fortified with obstacles, wire and minefields, Crimea’s Tatars were evicted back to central Asia. It wasn’t the “blue tops” this time, but the angry camouflage uniforms of their successors, the FSB. They, too, started with the children, whisking them far away. Putin has proved as much an enemy as Stalin.

Most observers missed the significance of President Zelensky’s appointment of a new Defence Minister at the beginning of this September. He is Rustem Umerov, replacing Oleksii Reznikov after 22 months in the job. Umerov was born in Uzbekistan, where his Tatar grandparents had been forcibly taken in May 1944. He was nine years old when Ukraine became independent on 24 August 1991. Later, Umerov accompanied his parents back to their ethnic homeland. As a leading Crimean Tatar, his appointment by Zelensky is the clearest of signals that the return of Crimea is non-negotiable. It must happen.

Around the Western world, battle fatigue is emerging. An impatient generation of post-Cold War leaders fail to realise that conflict sometimes has to be followed through to its bitter conclusion; and that artificial armistices rarely work. This is Kyiv’s worst nightmare, that Moscow will triumph not by victory in battle, but by wearing down Ukraine’s allies. With attention focussed elsewhere, Putin hopes the torrent of arms, aid, and moral and political support for Kyiv will slow to a trickle. The war has already slid from the headlines. Influential Westerners advocate an end to the fighting at any cost, even to the exclusion of Ukraine from the process.

Lessons from the absence of losing nations at the 1919–23 peace conferences, or of Czechoslovakia from the Munich agreement of 1938, fall on deaf ears. Foremost in this game of fantasy settlements is the issue of Crimea. Unlike the oblasts (provinces) of Luhansk and Donetsk, where the war is seen by some (in Neville Chamberlain’s unfortunate phraseology) as a “quarrel in a faraway land between people of which we know nothing”, Crimea is easily identifiable. Jutting out into the Black Sea and connected by narrow isthmus to mainland Ukraine in the north, and to Russia by bridge in the East, this lozenge-shaped area of 10,000 square miles is roughly the size of Albania, Maryland or Wales. It is a name well known to Britain, France and Turkey, who fought a famous war there in 1853–56.

Crimea houses the premier naval base of the Black Sea, Sevastopol

Umerov started out as a successful businessman and entered parliament in 2019. He was based in Kyiv when the Russians invaded his second homeland. Having been an exchange student in America for one year, he has internationalist credentials that few colleagues can match. A fellow Muslim, he is on good terms with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and key ministers in Turkey, the influential power across the Black Sea. He also represented President Zelenskyy in Saudi Arabia and at the 2023 Arab League summit in Jeddah. Above all, he is free from any taint of corruption. This endemic disease of Ukrainian officials is Zelensky’s main domestic problem, one that sceptical Republicans in American and other lukewarm figures across Europe use as an excuse to shut off aid to Kyiv. Umerov is young, enthusiastic, and he has negotiated high-profile prisoner exchanges and evacuations of civilians.

He appreciates more than anyone the importance of recovering Crimea — not just for its own sake, but because it houses the premier naval base of the Black Sea, Sevastopol. Russia has been using the former Ukrainian port to fire missiles at Kyiv and Odesa, attack Ukrainian oil rigs, and threaten vessels carrying Zelensky’s grain to Turkey, the Bosphorus and the wider world. Cereals, seeds and vegetable oils account for $20 billion of Ukraine’s total exports of $45 billion. I realised the importance of the annual grain harvest for Kyiv only when I first encountered the charming local tradition of sprinkling newlyweds with wheat, to wish them prosperity, well-being and family growth.

Both sides also know there is oil under the northern Black Sea; so far neither has the resources (technological or financial) to exploit it. Prohibitive maritime insurance premiums for passage, and Russia’s lurking naval menace in Sevastopol, mean that Ukraine has been forced to sell its principal export to five neighbouring EU states. Farmers in Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria are pretty angry that their domestic grain markets have been swamped. Russia sits back to enjoy the squabble. Hence Poland’s current threat to suspend weapons transfers to its neighbour.

President Andrzej Duda’s Law and Justice Party is nervous. It has been losing support since coming to power in 2015. With a general election looming on 15 October, it is hoping to attract votes from the anti-immigrant far right Freedom and Independence Confederation,which is opposed to further weapons transfers, and from farmers angered by the inflow of Ukrainian grain. This is why Duda and his Law and Justice Party leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, are indulging in temporary anti-Ukrainian policies to win their election. As it is not remotely in Poland’s interests for Russia to overwhelm a country on its border, we can be certain weapons supplies will resume, once the Polish election is done and dusted.

“Let Russia have Crimea, and we’ll negotiate a settlement,” well-meaning diplomats, particularly Americans, are muttering at the United Nations. On past form, could they really trust Russia to honour an agreement? Who would police or fund the administration of such a challenging frontier? Remember, the DMZ in Korea celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, whilst the Buffer Zone in Cyprus will be 50 years old in 2024. Is this merely “kicking the can down the road” for another generation to pick up? Never mind the strategic threat to Ukraine’s principal export. From Kyiv’s point of view, stripping Crimea from the Motherland would be the equivalent of London abandoning Wales to a foreign invader, with all the genocidal and cultural implications.

Criticism at the slowness of the counter offensive are now muted

I used to be a regular visitor to Sevastopol, studying both the campaigns of the 1850s and the 1940s. When aboard their warships, I was entertained by dancers and balalaika players of the Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet. This golden era produced some memorable vodka-hazed evenings with charming military colleagues. Whenever I hear their haunting melodies today, I shed a tear for the world that was. Rocking at anchor across the harbour lay Russia’s war armada, comprising the same class of vessels. In 1991, the Black Sea flotilla was split between Moscow and Kyiv. Russia paid money to lease the port facilities from Ukraine. Everybody was happy.

Now the Ukrainians must bomb the warships, docks, communications and headquarters buildings they knew so well. Russia’s air defence and radar systems are sited where the former occupants had put theirs. That is why Kyiv has achieved such success, destroying an anti-aircraft S-400 missile compound, damaging the landing ship Minsk and a submarine, Rostov, killing and wounding senior Russian officers. A dry dock has been eliminated: a strategic resource, one of very few accessible to the Russian Navy anywhere. Moscow’s new illegal settlers are fleeing back to their homeland. Ukraine must recover Crimea to prevent the current, and any future revanchist Russian regime, from destroying its main export trade and killing its people.

The war is being fought by Ukraine on two levels. Tactically, it is striving to penetrate the dense Russian ground defences. After initial setbacks, it appears to have had some success in two areas, though at great cost. Western calls for a counter offensive, and subsequent criticism at its slowness, are now muted. Who said war was easy? This is where M1A1 Abrahms, Leopard 1 and 2, and Britain’s Challenger 2 tanks, which outperform their adversaries in every respect, will make a difference. As in the two world wars, it is artillery that keeps war mobile. Russia relies on endless numbers of guns and quantities of ammunition (now to be sustained by stocks from North Korea). Their mainstay is the 122mm D-30 howitzer, of which over 10,000 were manufactured, with a maximum range of 15 miles.

They are challenged by the West’s superior AS-90 self-propelled 155mm guns, supplied by Britain; American M777 howitzers; British Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS); and US truck-mounted M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). Good training can ensure these weapons move around the battlefield far more quickly than their opponents. An AS-90 can fire three rounds and be off before the first shell strikes its target. The first two reach out to 15 and 25 miles respectively; the latter pair can hit a target 50 miles away. Air-to-ground American Hellfire and British Brimstone missiles supplement this firepower, at ranges of 10–12 miles. All are protected by the likes of British Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles, fired from Stormer armoured vehicles, with a 4-mile range into the skies.

On 13 September alone, Ukraine bullishly claimed the destruction of 42 Russian mortars, towed cannon and self-propelled artillery pieces. Although the figures are unverified, Kyiv now reckons Russia has lost 5,972 such weapons in 18 months of war. Western analysts assess the Kremlin had at its disposal 6,574 self-propelled guns and 7,571 towed artillery pieces when the war began. Whatever the figures, Putin is unquestionably losing these tactical assets at a huge rate, leaving his frontline infantry naked, unable to attack or defend.

The war has now become one of acronyms, missiles and weapon ranges

Regaining territory is all very well, but of far more value is the gradual erosion of Russia’s more distant supply lines. As Mr Putin’s forces are pushed back, their logistics network of roads and railways has fallen within reach of long-range Ukrainian artillery and missiles. This is why the war has now become one of acronyms, missiles and weapon ranges. If Moscow fails to sustain its men at the front, they cannot continue to hold their gains. Hence the importance of the US truck-mounted Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which can strike at between 100–180 miles; the British Storm Shadow (SCALP-EG to the French) cruise missile with a 150–300-mile range; and the requested, but so far declined, Swedish-manufactured, German-operated Taurus rocket, which can threaten targets over 300 miles away.

The most sophisticated of these munitions are expensive, incorporating stealth technology, GPS, image-based and terrain-referenced navigation systems, high-resolution and infrared homing cameras. They can fly at transonic speeds around the Sound Barrier, beyond 750mph. Ukraine’s recent deep battle strike on Sevastopol with fast and accurate Storm Shadow missiles, which penetrated air defences and killed Viktor Sokolov, commander of the Black Sea Fleet, and 33 of his staff, prove that every headquarters and airbase in the south is in trouble. The Russians will have to move back their communications centres, their vulnerable radar sites, aircraft and Kalibr cruise missile sites, or risk losing them.

These new Western missiles can now threaten all Russia’s supply routes on the southern front, between Mariupol and Crimea. Kyiv needs far more of them, quickly. There’s a good argument that if Zelensky had had this arsenal sooner, he might have already won. Ukraine hopes it will no longer have to regain its territory at huge attritional cost, to turn the map back to its original colour. Instead, it may be enough to threaten the occupier’s logistics with long-range weapons systems. Kyiv assesses that Crimea may be recoverable without having to even contest it on land. The doubting diplomats and politicians of the West need to realise this. They must shut up and stop offering to Moscow land that is not theirs to give.

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