Since the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Western leaders have privately been warning Kyiv against kicking Russia out of Crimea, the peninsula Russian President Vladimir Putin seized from Ukraine in 2014, out of a fear of triggering a nuclear flashpoint.
But now, over one year into the invasion, the tide appears to be turning—at least from Kyiv’s perspective.
Western leaders have started warming to the idea that Ukraine can take back Crimea in spite of Russian nuclear threats, Tamila Tasheva, the Ukrainian government official in charge of Crimea, told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview.
“We heard from Western leaders that… if we come back to Crimea, that there would be an unavoidable escalation, that might even provoke a nuclear conflict,” Tasheva said, noting that those warnings have faded in recent weeks. “The rhetoric has been changing since we explain more and more what Crimea is, what it means for Russia, and how things are connected around Crimea,” she said referring to the way Russia has been using Crimea as a launchpad and key supply route for the war.
In the fall, The Daily Beast reported that Western officials were privately urging Ukraine’s government to back away from the idea of taking back Crimea. At the time, they expressed concerns to Tasheva that Putin, who had derived huge domestic support from seizing the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, would view a Ukrainian campaign to take it back as an attack on Russia proper and respond with massive escalation.
Tasheva believes that concern has started melting away now that Ukraine is arguing that Crimea is key to a victory against Putin both because Russia continues to use it as a launchpad for the war, and because Putin views it as key to his political legitimacy in Russia.
Ukraine hopes its plan to kick Russia out of Crimea—as well as the other territory it has stolen—is finally gaining momentum.
It’s a dramatic shift from the early days of the war, when Ukraine’s goals were focused on defending against Russia’s invasion and forcing Russia out of Ukrainian land captured in 2022. As Ukraine’s forces have staged successful counteroffensives, though, Kyiv has gained confidence it might be able to push Russia out of territory it stole in 2014, including Crimea.
Now, with a Ukrainian counteroffensive likely targeted at southern Ukraine looming, the path to Crimea is becoming clearer.
Significant headwinds remain in the way of that goal, however.
Publicly, the Biden administration has signaled support in recent days for Ukraine taking back Crimea, but behind the scenes, sources say there’s a different narrative that has held steady.
“Crimea is Ukraine… It is Ukrainian territory and we want to see all of Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders restored,” White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby said in an interview with TV Rain last week, adding that the Biden administration is not dictating limits on what Ukraine can and cannot do.
President Joe Biden said last month in a speech in Warsaw that America will continue to back Ukraine. “Our support for Ukraine will not waver, NATO will not be divided, and we will not tire.”
Internally, though, senior administration officials in both the State Department and the Pentagon harbor reservations about going full speed ahead on taking back Crimea, sources who have spoken with senior administration officials in recent days told The Daily Beast.
The administration doesn’t seem to grasp the operational importance of isolating Crimea from Russia just yet, Ben Hodges, former commanding general of United States Army Europe, told The Daily Beast.
“The administration has not yet committed to the significance of Crimea. They, and I know this from talking to senior people in DOD and elsewhere… they don't get it,” Hodges said.
The Biden administration has a fear that taking Crimea back could be a nuclear red line for Putin, another person who spoke with a senior administration official in recent weeks told The Daily Beast. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the conversation.
The administration’s willingness to say the United States is going to stand with Ukraine until the end of the war, but then to “deliberately slow roll” aid that would help Ukraine end the war and not define what victory looks like is “baffling,” a congressional source familiar with the administration’s negotiations on Capitol Hill told The Daily Beast. “We’re very frustrated,” the source said.
Public rhetoric is one thing. Ukraine’s ability to take back Crimea is another, and is highly dependent on the flow of military aid to Ukraine, Tasheva admitted. And while the rhetoric Western officials are feeding to Ukraine appears to be amenable to pushing Russia out of Crimea, weapons aid that would help Ukraine in Crimea is not there.
Kyiv continues to press the Biden administration for long-range weapons that they want to use to take back Crimea to no avail.
“We repeat again and again that we need long-range missiles and as President Zelensky has mentioned, as soon as you give us the long-range weapons, we are going to liberate Crimea,” Tasheva said.
If the Biden administration was willing to help Ukraine go after Crimea, it would send Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), longer-range munitions that can reach about 180 miles, Hodges said.
“If they did, they would be providing the long-range, precision weapons that would help make Crimea untenable for the Russians,” Hodges said.
Russia has threatened to respond harshly over Crimea. But Tasheva stressed that while Putin has hinted at nuclear responses in other scenarios in which Ukraine takes back land Russia has illegally annexed, his threats have been empty, including Kherson.
“We have doubts he would if we come back to Crimea,” Tasheva said.
For Ukraine, delays to taking back Crimea could be make-it or break-it, particularly because it’s not clear how long the political willpower—on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue—to help Ukraine will stand up.
The share of Americans that thinks the United States is providing too much aid to Ukraine has been rising in recent weeks, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. The creeping doubt about the current policy on supporting Ukraine is spreading among both Republicans and Democrats, the survey found.
And while some lawmakers have walked back their stances, with the 2024 presidential elections looming, Americans’ attention may shift even further to other domestic concerns.
Several plausible Republican presidential candidates have already tossed aside the idea of Ukraine aid.
Nikki Haley, a former United Nations ambassador who has announced she is running for president, has signaled that U.S. aid could dry up under her leadership.
“I don’t think we need to put money in Ukraine,” Haley said last week before an audience in Iowa.
Haley, though, sought to strike a balance by framing the war in Ukraine as a conflict that must be won, noting that a loss could spell further trouble on the global stage and potentially lead to wider conflict.
“This is not a war about Ukraine, this is a war about freedom—and it’s one that we have to win,” Haley said. “If we win this war, this will send a message to China, it will send a message to Iran, it will send a message to North Korea, it will send a message to Russia. If we lose this war… they said Poland and the Baltics are next, and you’re looking at a world war.”
Potential 2024 candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has indicated that his support for Ukraine would be less enthusiastic.
“While the U.S. has many vital national interests—securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness within our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural, and military power of the Chinese Communist Party—becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” DeSantis told Fox News host Tucker Carlson this week.
Former President Donald Trump has said he would have let Russia “take over” parts of Ukraine if he were still in the White House.
Among Republicans who are eyeing the presidency, a Trump victory would likely be the worst outcome for Ukraine aid, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said.
“Short of that I suspect that we will continue to provide substantial aid to Ukraine, because it is so clearly in American interests,” Herbst told The Daily Beast. “Republican aspirants understand that American interests require defeating Putin in Ukraine, because if he wins in Ukraine, we have a much larger national security problem, and a much more expensive national security problem.”
Kyiv is keeping tabs of the political developments in the United States with a watchful eye, particularly as the timeline for taking back Crimea hangs in the balance.
“I understand that Ukraine is becoming an issue in American domestic political fights for… American people and most of all, America’s current leadership,” Tasheva told The Daily Beast. “We realize that Ukraine is becoming a part of the agenda in political battles.”
Tasheva had a message for America’s political leaders, warning that ignoring Ukraine could lead to a wider war with American boots on the ground. Russia has already threatened to invade other countries beyond Ukraine, including those in NATO, which maintains a collective defense protocol. When one is attacked, the organization can consider it an attack on all and respond together.
“We want to point out that we are here fighting for democratic values and it is democracy facing the threat of dictatorial regime,” she said.
“Ukraine is not a part of NATO, but Ukraine’s neighbors, including Baltic countries, are members of NATO,” Tasheva said. “I don’t think NATO countries’ leaders would like to send their own fighters to fight in this war, in case Ukraine loses. It’s necessary to help Ukraine win for that very reason.”