Zelenskyy must realise that Crimea was only given as a present to Ukraine 66 years ago simply as a gesture.
“Crimea is Russian, John, and will always be Russian”, said the admiral sitting opposite me. It was the summer of 1992 and I had travelled from Moscow to Sevastopol in Crimea to pay an official visit to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. I had met the commander, Admiral Igor Kasatonov, on a number of occasions, and had found him open and realistic about the problems facing his beloved country. The Soviet Union had collapsed the previous December and while it was a fascinating time to be a diplomat in Russia, conditions were incredibly hard for most people. Nevertheless, everyone appeared positive about their future, hoping to develop strong relations with the West in their new-found freedom. Despite his hard-line position on Crimea, I sensed that Igor was one of these.
I had broached the sensitive subject of a Russian fleet being based in a foreign country—Ukraine. Igor’s face suddenly became serious and it was crystal clear to me that he didn’t consider Crimea to be anything other than Russian. I recalled his words back in 2014 when Russian troops effortlessly occupied Crimea and carried out a disputed referendum, in which Moscow claimed some 95% of voters had supported joining Russia. Many Crimeans loyal to Kiev had boycotted the referendum, which had been condemned by the US and EU as illegal. At the time, some 58% of Crimea’s population were ethnic Russians, with the rest made up of Ukrainians and Tatars. Crimea had been part of Russia since 1774, when Catherine the Great defeated the Ottoman Empire and incorporated Crimea into the Russian Empire. It was the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, who controversially transferred Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, a personal gesture towards his favourite Republic.
Back in January 1992 opinion was different in Kiev when I travelled there to meet the new British ambassador and help establish the first British embassy in Ukraine. The temporary embassy consisted of a few rooms on the fifteenth floor of a decrepit Soviet hotel. Short of space, my wife and I sat on the ambassador’s bed with him and toasted his arrival with some Russian champagne. The atmosphere around the city was euphoric at the new-found freedom after centuries under foreign domination.
One person who was not euphoric at that time was the chairman of St Petersburg’s External Relations Committee—Vladimir Putin. I was destined to meet him during the preparations for the visit of Prince Charles in May 1994, the first visit to Russia by a member of the British Royal Family since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Putin was still incensed by Ukraine’s Independence Referendum on 1 December 1991, in which 92% voted in favour, a result that effectively destroyed Mikhael Gorbachev’s attempt to reconstruct the Soviet Union. Putin hated Ukraine from that moment and if you want to identify a date for the genesis of the current war, that’s probably it. He later criticised Khrushchev in his hour-long speech prior to the invasion in February, saying, “In 1954, the Crimean region of the RSFSR was given to the Ukrainian SSR in gross violation of legal norms that were in force at the time”, which explains why Putin had no compunction in taking it back in 2014.
It’s now 283 days since the start of the invasion and, following Ukraine’s successful offensive in which thousands of square kilometres of the eastern territory were recovered in a matter of days, a kind of winter stalemate is developing. Some analysts are suggesting that the prospect of further battlefield humiliations in the spring could encourage Vladimir Putin to seek a dignified exit. This is unlikely, but not impossible. When Putin started the war, he wanted to achieve a compliant regime in Kyiv that would accept Ukraine’s total subjugation to Moscow. Anything less would require the Russian leader admitting he has made a huge blunder, something not in his character. Despite sustaining heavy losses, not only of equipment but of an estimated 100,000 men killed or wounded, and despite being rocked by recent failures, it would be difficult for the Kremlin to offer any compromises soon. In any case, Zelenskyy would find it equally difficult to accept any. He has repeatedly insisted that Ukraine is determined to show that Russian aggression must not pay and that there will be no permanent transfer of any Ukrainian territory to Russia. So how can this war end?
Short of one side defeating the other, an unlikely scenario in the current circumstances, the war can only end by negotiation. Open negotiations will only make sense when both sides acknowledge that they have no chance of victory. But neither is likely to admit this publicly, so some form of back-door negotiations will have to take place. Western sanctions on Russia are beginning to bite and there are also signs that Russian critics of the war are raising their heads above the parapet. Putin’s rivals, who now have much more articulate voices, are feeling that they can take even more public stands. At a certain point, people around him will conclude that it doesn’t make any sense to keep losing so many Russian troops in Ukraine anymore, particularly if because of huge losses Putin finds it necessary to order a second mobilisation, currently being discussed behind closed doors. This would have a dramatically negative effect on public opinion throughout Russia.
For their part, any sense of victory for the Ukrainians would mean not only ridding the country of Russian troops, at least to the pre-invasion borders, but also the offer of a future in the European Union. Having scored major wins on the battlefield, most Ukrainians believe the tide has turned in their favour and they now want to see justice done. Ukraine’s Western backers have so far refrained from talking down Ukraine’s military ambitions in public, but gaps appear to be opening up in the rhetoric, which in turn could lead to back-door pressure on Zelenskyy to negotiate.
Something will have to give. Without a realistic shot at a diplomatic solution, things are likely to carry on much as they already have. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy admitted as much back in May, when he said that ‘only diplomacy will end the war’. Despite the tough talk since, from both Moscow and Kyiv, it’s becoming increasingly clear that neither side has the capability to vanquish the other, so unless there are negotiations, the prospect of a long bloody war remains, which nobody wants. Setting aside the tricky subject of war reparations, which currently run to some $1 trillion, two off-ramps will have to be found – one for Putin and one for Zelenskyy – for them both to be able to claim some form of success.
Vladimir Putin must realise by now that his absurd annexation on 30 September of the four regions of Ukraine, none of which he controlled, as “Russian for ever” will not work. Any pretence to hold on to Donetsk, Kherson (already partly taken back by Kyiv), Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts will guarantee a ‘forever war’ with Ukraine. Equally, Zelenskyy must realise by now that Crimea was only given as a present to Ukraine 66 years ago simply as a gesture. It had not only been part of Russia for nearly 200 years, but the majority of the population are ethnic Russians (800,000 have moved there since 2014), and any free referendum in Crimea would unquestionably result in an emphatic win for Russia.
Five rounds of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine were held soon after the start of the invasion in February, once Putin realised that his expected victory over Ukraine in three days had failed. The fifth round in Istanbul, Turkey lasted five days and broke up on 14 March without any agreement. Nine months on, with military positions becoming entrenched, now is the time to re-open the negotiations.
Of all the issues outstanding, such as the Donbas, Russia’s land-bridge and Ukraine’s membership of NATO, the crucial one is Crimea. Crimea, once the jewel of the Russian empire, is a huge part of Russia’s history and Russia never accepted that Crimea was not Russian. The formal recognition of this fact by Ukraine and the West would unlock solutions to the other issues. The question of Ukraine and NATO could be solved by Ukraine declaring itself neutral, with a written Treaty with NATO that it would come to its rescue should Russia again attack, although this would be unlikely in the near term having burned its fingers so much over the past 10 months. Ukraine should be fast-tracked to the EU and all Russian forces should be returned to the internationally recognised borders. This would be a face-saving solution for both Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy and would lead to the possibility of a lasting peace in the region.
When India took over the presidency of the G20 last Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowledged that building a consensus on and de-escalating the conflict in Ukraine would be one of his biggest challenges. He should look to Crimea as the key to success.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.