On Thursday, 17 June, Major General Dmytro Marchenko of the Ukrainian Armed Forces declared the bridge which links the Crimean Peninsula to Russia to be their number one target for destruction. This marked a departure from the careful ambiguity which has thus far characterized Ukrainian rhetoric on attacks against Russian territory. Although Kyiv and much of the world insist that Crimea is Ukraine, this is largely immaterial in terms of rhetoric. Ukraine has sought to avoid escalating the conflict by openly attacking Russia itself, and western partners have sought guarantees on this issue when providing weapons that could strike Russian territory. Regardless of Crimea’s status in international law, a Ukrainian attack on the ostensible territory of the Russian Federation would destabilize the conflict further.
The Crimean Bridge, which crosses the Kerch Strait to connect Krasnodar Krai in mainland Russia to the annexed Crimean Peninsula, opened in 2018. It was perhaps the flagship Russian-funded infrastructure project that sought to herald a new age of peace and prosperity in Crimea. Moscow’s approach to Crimea has differed markedly from those in other regions of Ukraine, with a swift and near-bloodless occupation preceding its formal incorporation into the Federation. The Donbas, by contrast, has been forced to endure eight years of bloodshed and the separatist republics only received recognition from Russia in February of this year – formal incorporation remains a more distant prospect. Thus, while the constant artillery duels in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kherson oblasts are permitted and enacted by Russia, Crimea has long been considered a different case, and the Crimean Bridge is the greatest symbol of this.
When Ukrainian intelligence officers announced that they had technical documentation regarding the bridge, such as terrain, the road surface, bridge piers, anti-landslide structures, and entrances and exits, Moscow was alarmed. Marchenko’s bold threat, announced on Radio Liberty, was based on the military justification that the bridge was “a way for bringing reserve forces” into the Ukrainian theatre and thus needed to be cut off to support Ukraine’s war effort in its other territories. However, the Kremlin did not view this only as a threat to their military position. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that the Russian military had preventative measures in place and that it was safe for passengers to cross. The contrast in framing between Russia’s focus on domestic security and Ukraine’s own military strategy highlights the hazards of contested perceptions.
Kyiv has consistently stated its intentions to return Crimea to its governance. This is perhaps a more maximalist war aim, yet one that Ukraine would undoubtedly pursue if it became feasible. However, initiating a conflict on territory that Russia also claims carries great risks – most notably that Russian nuclear doctrine allows the use of nuclear weapons “in the case of aggression against Russia with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened.” Attacking Crimea may well reach this threshold in Russia’s eyes and should therefore be approached with extreme caution. Wars can be waged for peace, and this is true in terms of both logic and grammar. The logic of Ukraine’s fight is that peace is only possible if Russian aggression is defeated; to not fight would preclude any future peace considered more than the absence of military violence. But the grammar, or conduct, of war, is also important. Ukraine must proceed with its strategy in a way that can birth a future peace, and attacking Crimea without a conducive political scenario to support the military effort would be futile and dangerous.
Defeating the Russian invasion and returning Crimea to Ukraine are both possible. But they are not endpoints in themselves; they are merely military and political contributions to a future peace process that will involve all of society. It is important for the Ukrainian military to consider their role within this perspective, for actions taken only in pursuit of military goals may be myopic in the multi-generational context of peace.
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