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Putin has tacitly admitted that Crimea is not part of Russia - Peter Dickinson


The apparent inconsistency of the Kremlin's public position regarding attacks on Russian territory has a number of practical consequences for the further conduct of the war. Ukraine made an important diplomatic breakthrough last week, receiving permission from key allies to strike Russian territory with Western weapons. Russia's reaction to this epochal news bordered on hysteria: many Kremlin officials and propagandists condemned the West and promised terrible revenge- write in his blog, Peter Dickinson, Atlantic Council researcher, publisher of Business Ukraine and Lviv Today magazines.

Vladimir Putin predictably made the announcement, issuing yet another thinly veiled nuclear threat that has become his trademark. Speaking in Tashkent, Putin warned European leaders of "serious consequences" before reminding them of their own vulnerability. "They should remember that their countries are small and densely populated, and this factor must be taken into account before talking about striking deep into Russian territory.", he commented.

The response from Putin's close ally and former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev contained an even more blunt nuclear threat. Medvedev, who currently serves as deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, said it would be a "fatal mistake" for Western leaders to believe that Russia is not ready to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine or individual NATO countries. "This, unfortunately, is not an attempt at intimidation or a nuclear bluff," he said.

Russia's use of nuclear blackmail is, of course, no longer surprising. Since the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has frequently rattled off nuclear weapons as part of a broader Russian effort to establish so-called red lines and undermine Western support for Ukraine.

By mentioning "small and densely populated countries", Putin apparently hoped to intimidate his opponents and make it clear that the use of Western weapons on Russian territory is the main "red line" for the Kremlin. But, according to the logic of Russia itself, this particular red line has already been crossed hundreds of times. Since 2022, Ukraine has regularly used Western weapons in occupied Ukrainian regions, which Putin says are now part of Russia, without causing any noticeable escalation from Moscow. It seems that in Putin's new Russian empire, some places are more Russian than others.

Officially, at least in Moscow, there are no disagreements about the status of the Ukrainian regions claimed by the Kremlin. According to the Russian Constitution, the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions of Ukraine, as well as the Crimean Peninsula, are now part of the Russian Federation. Russia declared the "return" of Crimea in March 2014, just weeks after a lightning-quick military seizure of the peninsula that marked the beginning of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Putin then announced the "annexation" of four more Ukrainian regions in a lavish Kremlin ceremony in September 2022.

Strictly speaking, from a technical point of view, all five Ukrainian regions that underwent unilateral Russian "annexation" should now be under the same protection as the rest of Putin's territory. In practice, however, it has long been clear that Moscow has no intention of expanding its nuclear umbrella to cover these regions, or even trying to impose its red lines on the use of Western weapons.

The battle for Kherson particularly vividly demonstrates the gap in trust between Russian rhetoric and Russian reality. The only regional capital captured during the entire Russian invasion, Kherson, was liberated in November 2022, less than two months after Putin announced that it would "remain Russian forever." Instead of pressing the nuclear button, Putin responded to this unfortunate setback by ordering his battered troops to quietly retreat beyond the Dnipro.

The ongoing battle for Crimea is perhaps even more revealing. For more than a decade, Putin has insisted that the occupied Ukrainian peninsula is now part of Russia and has rejected all attempts to discuss its status. During this period, the seizure of Crimea became, perhaps, the most important element of the national narrative of modern Russia; it has come to be seen as the greatest achievement of Putin's entire reign, and many see it as a symbol of the country's return to the pinnacle of international relations. This official Russian deference to Crimea initially convinced many in the West to consider attacks on the peninsula off-limits, but they failed to contain Ukraine.

From the first months of the war, Ukraine attacked Russian troops in Crimea with all available weapons, including those provided by Western allies. Western-supplied missiles played a central role in the battle for Crimea, allowing Ukraine to methodically destroy Russian air defense systems across the peninsula and sink numerous Russian warships. The loudest attack occurred in September 2023, when Ukraine, with the help of Western cruise missiles, bombed and partially destroyed the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. If Kherson was a shame for Putin, then this blow became a very personal humiliation. Most importantly, it did not lead to World War III. Instead, Putin withdrew most of his remaining warships from Crimea to the relative safety of Russian ports.

The apparent inconsistency of the Kremlin's public position regarding attacks on Russian territory has a number of practical consequences for the further conduct of the war. It highlights the fluidity of Russian "red lines" and reinforces the view that Moscow seeks primarily to exploit the West's fear of escalation rather than establish any real borders.

No responsible Western leader can afford to completely ignore the threat of nuclear war. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the incessant rattling of Russia's nuclear weapons is losing its power. By regularly resorting to nuclear threats that never lead to actual action, the Kremlin has weakened the entire concept of nuclear deterrence, and Russia now looks toothless. Based on the experience of the past two years, we can conclude that while carpet bombing of the Kremlin may force Putin to take some decisive action, targeted attacks on Russian military bases and firing positions across the border with Ukraine are unlikely to lead to any serious escalation.

The Kremlin's apparent reluctance to consider the "annexed" regions of Ukraine as entirely Russian directly contradicts Moscow's own efforts to present the occupation of Ukrainian lands as irreversible. Although Putin likes to compare himself to Peter the Great and brag about the "return of historically Russian lands", he is apparently in no hurry to provide his Ukrainian "conquests" with unequivocal security obligations, which are the highest sign of sovereignty. Indeed, more than a decade later, the hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens who have been deported to occupied Crimea since 2014 are no doubt wondering how much longer they will have to wait before the Kremlin finally deems them worthy of protection.

Russia's territorial ambitions in Ukraine are by no means "cut in stone", they are largely opportunistic and will be expanded or narrowed depending on the military situation. Putin and his colleagues often call on Ukraine to accept the "new territorial realities" created by the current war front line, but their actions send a clear signal that the future of the "annexed" Ukrainian regions is still up for debate. Meanwhile, the numerous retreats from "historically Russian lands" by Putin's invasion army since 2022 suggest that the chances of a nuclear apocalypse are greatly exaggerated. This should help Kyiv's Western partners overcome their self-defeating fear of escalation and encourage them to finally give Ukraine the necessary tools and leeway to finish the job of defeating Russia.

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