Author: Anatol Lieven a senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Because Russia has formally annexed Crimea after officially recognizing the 2014 referendum on this question, there is no chance it will return the territory to Ukraine. These impossible odds will not change with the eventual departure of President Putin from the scene, even should the political order Putin created collapse. It is the immense strategic and emotional importance of Crimea to Russia, and what appears to be the wishes of a majority of its inhabitants, that make a reversal impossible. Any Russian government that surrendered Crimea would suffer a catastrophic loss of domestic prestige.

If Ukraine took advantage of some future Russian domestic crisis to try to recover the peninsula by force, then local Russian forces would fight and Moscow would be compelled to support them at any cost. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the power of nationalism in Russia.

Crimea is also of great strategic importance to Russia. The Crimean city of Sevastopol is home to Russia’s only major naval base on the Black Sea. It is key to the defense of southern Russia, to Russian influence and power projection in the southern Caucasus and the Mediterranean, and to guarding against the possibility of future Turkish aggression.  

For Europe or the United States to base their policy on a belief that Russia can be compelled to return Crimea is pointless. That is never going to happen, short of Russian defeat in a war with the United States. This being so, one European and U.S. option is to shelve the Crimean issue, in the realistic expectation that over a long period of time the world will quietly forget the issue and accept the status quo. For example, few today remember that the United States has never formally recognized the Indian annexation of most of Kashmir. It is simply a question that the U.S. and India never discuss and that the U.S. never raises internationally.

The problems with this approach, however, are two. First, it either leaves Western sanctions in place or requires in the case of the U.S. a congressional sleight of hand to lift them as part of a political settlement of the Donbas conflict. If sanctions remain, they will be a permanent and critical barrier to the improvement of relations with Russia. Equally important, if the issue remains unresolved, the Ukrainian government will continue to be tempted to put pressure on Crimea. By 2021, the cutoff of water supplies by Kiev had already led to a severe agricultural crisis on the peninsula. Such action creates an obvious risk of Russian retaliation that could lead to a new crisis or even a war. Failing to resolve Crimea’s status thus risks eliminating U.S. geopolitical gains from settling the Donbas conflict. And, once again, in any war with Ukraine, Russia would certainly win.

Ideally, therefore, the issue of Crimea should be solved simultaneously with that of the Donbas and on the same fundamental basis: the wishes of the local population, certified by international organizations. That is, a new referendum on union with Russia should be held under the supervision of the OSCE and the U.N. If, as polls by U.S. organizations indicate, a majority voted to join Russia, then the Security Council, with U.S. assent, should ratify this decision.

The advantage of a Ukrainian settlement for Russia would be the lifting of Western economic sanctions. A solution to the Donbas conflict would lead to the sanctions being imposed in response to Russia’s intervention there being lifted, and that in turn would contribute greatly to a solution of the Crimea issue and the lifting of the sanctions imposed on Russia for the annexation of Crimea. These have not imposed disastrous losses on the Russian economy, but their impact has nonetheless been considerable and contributed to growing public unrest in Russia.

Perhaps the most difficult provision of a settlement for Kiev to accept would be the  abandonment of its claims on Crimea following a second referendum there. Just as the recognition of Kosovo independence would cause bitter complaints from Serbia and Russia, so the recognition of Crimean union with Russia would cause bitter protests from Ukraine and, as matters stand, the United States. But such protests would be misplaced. Crimea, whose population has never been majority Ukrainian, is certainly not a historic part of Ukraine. A Crimea within Ukraine would obstruct Ukraine’s hopes to join the West and develop a Ukrainian national culture. The only reason the Ukrainian parliament has been able to adopt pro–Western and anti–Russian policies, as well as a program of cultural and linguistic Ukrainianization, is that the separation of the Donbas and Crimea removed more than 15 percent of the Ukrainian electorate, the overwhelming majority of which had always voted for pro–Russian parties and against Ukrainianization. 

Simply put, if Ukraine could get Crimea and the Donbas back, it would not know what on earth to do with them. Ukrainian ethnic nationalists should be actively celebrating their loss. Faced with the reality of this loss, perhaps some may eventually learn to move on. But because it is probably too much to hope that Ukrainian nationalists will realize this, the United States and E.U. should make clear that if Ukraine were to reject a settlement agreed on by the rest of the international community, the price would be isolation, an end to Western economic and political support, and the loss of any long-term hope of joining the E.U.

In any case, U.S. and European policymakers should give no special deference to the views of the Ukrainian ethnic nationalists. Their existing program demands simultaneously the unconditional reincorporation of the Donbas and Crimea into Ukraine, radical and compulsory reduction of the Russian language and Russian culture in Ukraine, and the suppression of political parties favoring close relations with Russia. This program is politically impossible, morally unacceptable, and contrary to basic democratic principles. It directly contradicts the supposed core values of the European Union and NATO. It is a recipe not for integration into the West but for ethnic dictatorship and future civil war. Ukraine’s stability, liberal democracy, and hopes of one day joining the E.U. all depend on radically curtailing the ethno-nationalist influence now evident in Kiev and the western regions of the country. 

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