Ukrainian officials have been warning for months that—in addition to kicking Russia out of territories seized this year—they also intend to take back territories stolen before the war, including Crimea, the peninsula illegally annexed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014.
And though Ukraine’s messaging on the matter is simple—that Ukrainian victory is about taking back Crimea, too—Russia’s response has been garbled in recent days. While some are urging Moscow to take the threat of a Ukrainian Crimea campaign seriously, others are working to downplay it.
The so-called head of the committee of the Crimean parliament on public diplomacy and interethnic relations, Yuri Gempel, indicated Wednesday that Ukraine’s statements about taking back Crimea are hogwash.
“Such statements are a fountain of crazy and sick fantasies. It seems that Zelensky's team makes all statements on the issue of Crimea in a besotted state,” Gempel said, according to RIA Novosti. “The essence of their statements has nothing to do with reality.”
The statements are nothing but a political effort to rally Ukrainians behind the cause, said Alexei Chepa, the first deputy head of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs.
“These are ordinary political statements for their voters. Everyone understands that there is nothing behind them,” Chepa said.
But then, only hours later, Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that the threat of Ukraine going after Crimea is “real.”
“As the leadership of Russia has repeatedly said, these threats will be eliminated,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, citing revelations contained in documents Russian forces allegedly found during the war. They “convincingly indicate that the Kyiv regime was seriously preparing for a large-scale offensive,” albeit in 2022.
The conflicting statements are the latest to emerge from the Russia after weeks of defeats have unsettled the Kremlin’s narrative that Moscow is winning in the war in Ukraine. After losing territory in the northeast of Ukraine, and then retreating from the city of Kherson, Russian authorities have been hinting that they believe Ukrainian forces may be zeroing in on Crimea next.
The Ukrainian official in charge of Crimea, Tamila Tasheva, told The Daily Beast earlier this month in an exclusive interview that, while intelligence suggests that Ukraine could take back Crimea around the spring or summer of next year, she thinks it may happen sooner.
Now that Kherson is liberated, Russian authorities are aware of Ukraine’s posturing for a Crimea campaign. Russia has been working to mobilize men in Crimea this month, according to a brief from the the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Other Russian officials have been working to assure the population in Crimea that everything is going to be fine, and that Russia is working to bolster its defenses. Some civilians have reportedly begun fleeing Crimea for fear of a counter move from Ukraine.
If Ukraine is able to boot Russia from Crimea, it would represent a crushing blow to Putin’s takeover plans for Ukraine. Much of Putin’s political legitimacy derives from the illegal annexation of the peninsula in 2014, after which his popularity surged. Losing Crimea would chip away at his political foundations, some experts say.
Refat Chubarov, a Crimean Tatar leader, told Ukrainian Radio NV it would cause the Kremlin to crumble.
“This Ukrainian territory is extremely important for Putin. This is the question of his life, and not only political," Chubarov said, according to Newsweek. “Therefore, it is clear that Russia, especially at the stage of inevitable defeat, will stimulate all its agents and all its forces in order to keep Crimea for itself.”