Should Ukraine accept Russian occupation of some of its territory in exchange for an end to the war? Identifying four key strategic interests for Ukraine, Mariia Zolkina argues that only the full de-occupation of Ukrainian territory can bring a lasting peace.

Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine seems to have entered a decisive stage. Ukraine has stopped Russian troop movements and liberated more than 50% of the previously occupied territories, but now needs to prepare for a larger counteroffensive.

Russia, as indicated in Vladimir Putin’s latest address to the Russian Federal Assembly, continues to reject any withdrawal from the rest of the occupied areas. Ukraine is now relying on military means rather than negotiations with the Kremlin. Under these circumstances, both the tactics and strategy of Ukraine will be backed by concrete interests and goals, an analysis of which will contribute to understanding the likely development of the war in the near future.

Full de-occupation

The first strategic interest and goal in this regard is the de-occupation of all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and the part of Donbas that has been occupied by Russia since 2014. In practice, Ukraine’s efforts to receive battle tanks, long-range missiles and even fighter jets reflect both the military and diplomatic need to liberate the occupied territories.

This strategy is more than just the political vision of Ukraine’s decision-makers. It reflects a widely formed consensus between the three main collective actors in Ukraine, namely the Ukrainian political elite, the country’s military leadership, and Ukrainian society. Thus, ever since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, there has no longer been any difference for a clear majority of Ukrainians between any of the occupied parts of Ukraine.

This is evident in an opinion poll from December last year where only 8% of respondents indicated the occupation of Crimea would be a legitimate price to pay for ending the conflict. The overall perception of victory for Ukraine is either the expulsion of Russian forces from all occupied territories (54%), or an even more radical scenario under which there is the complete destruction of the Russian army and even a dissolution process initiated within Russia itself (22%). This means no territorial concession can be imposed on Ukraine to reach a fragile “peace deal”.

As a consequence, the de-occupation of Ukraine remains the overall strategy of the national resistance. Any deal that bargains over the country’s territorial integrity has no chance of being legitimised domestically within Ukraine. Ukrainians have a strong belief in victory (93%), and there is no support for concessions being made.

The reason for this is simple: there is no trust that Russia will comply with any promises. The fates of the Budapest memorandum of 1994 and the bilateral treaty between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on state borders, which was signed by Vladimir Putin, as well as the 2014 invasion of Crimea and Donbas have given a clear demonstration of why Ukraine cannot rely on a political deal that leaves some territories under occupation.

Crimea and Donbas are not a “separate case”

The “Crimean card” is probably one of the few diplomatic successes Russia has secured during its aggression. Russia has repeatedly maintained that Crimea is a “red line” and represents a special case. While some have been caught up in this information campaign since 2014 and now have doubts about the liberation of Crimea, Ukraine has sound reasons for not excluding Crimea from the list of territories to be de-occupied.

The first is that territorial integrity is not a bargaining chip. Second, if Crimea is not liberated, then it will continue to serve as a huge military base that constitutes a permanent threat to Ukraine and a starting point for a future offensive that could be launched at any time from both the ground and the air.

Finally, freedom of navigation will prove impossible if Russia remains in control of Crimea. Even after a formal end to the war, Russia could effectively enforce a sea blockade, blocking Ukraine’s sea ports and preventing Ukrainian ships from using the Sea of Azov even if the rest of southern Ukraine is liberated. This is not to mention the threat posed by potential future landing operations in the Mykolaiv and Odesa regions of Ukraine. Thus, for all these reasons, the liberation of Crimea is first and foremost one of the keys to a sustainable peace in the region.

Timing matters

The second strategic interest of Ukraine in this regard is to finish the conflict as soon as possible. A protracted conflict isn’t in the interests of Ukraine, not least because it would mean a de-facto freezing of the current frontline, occupation for an undefined period of time, and a likely decrease in international support and the incremental legitimisation of the status quo.

Indeed, a protracted war would likely replicate the situation that occurred in Crimea and Donbas between 2014 and 2022. Kyiv understands these risks rather well, and that is why it is asking for an intensified supply of weapons in 2023 rather than the limited supplies it received in 2022. The tactics employed in the first year of the war were enough to mount a defence and local counteroffensives, but larger operations demand a greater concentration of resources.

Justice and a response to violations of human rights

The third main interest for Ukraine is to stop any oppression, persecution, deportation and other practices of a genocidal character that have been imposed by Russia on the temporary occupied territories. As of now, Ukraine has registered about 50,000 cases of alleged war crimes, with 16,000 cases of child deportations, and many more to be added. In all liberated areas, Ukraine is finding mass graves and “torture rooms”. Thus, de-occupation isn’t a battle just for land, but rather a humanitarian issue to prevent war crimes and further oppression of the people living in the occupied territories.

What comes after the war?

The final issue of strategic importance for Ukraine is to be integrated into the system of international security, with the country securing certain international guarantees concerning Ukraine’s national security. Although this isn’t yet being discussed as actively as the ongoing war and the military needs of Ukraine, an end to Russia’s aggression doesn’t seem possible without a clear understanding of how politically and militarily Ukraine will be secured from further attacks in the future. Without this, Ukraine will remain vulnerable to new Russian offensives and the region will be denied a sustainable peace.

From Ukraine’s point of view, NATO membership is the main priority, which could be preceded or combined with defensive alliances with certain countries and the formalisation of their military help in case of new assaults against Ukraine. Any return to the kind of “non-bloc status” that Ukraine had when Russia occupied Crimea and invaded Donbas in 2014 is no longer an option.

Refusing to learn the lessons from 2014 and pursuing short-sighted decisions, a freezing of the frontline at the cost of Ukrainian control over occupied territories, and a fragile ceasefire won’t give any advantages to Ukraine or to Europe. If the aim is to secure sustainable peace and security in this part of Europe, then all the above-mentioned interests of Ukraine should appear as entirely rational, rather than political, goals.