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When Considering Crimea, Don’t Forget China

If Ukraine were to invade Crimea, it could give China an excuse to give more aid to Russia without sacrificing its peacekeeper image.

Words: Garrett Ehinger
Pictures: Валерия

As Ukraine awaits further weapons shipments and supplies, it is carefully planning for a major spring counteroffensive to push back push back against Russian occupation in the last remaining occupied territory. If things go well, there is the potential that Ukraine may try to use its momentum to retake Crimea. But such a strategy could take a turn for the worse.

Russia took possession of Crimea in 2014 and made it into a federal state in 2020. Russia is spreading rumors that Ukraine will invade the motherland. President Vladimir Putin could use a Ukrainian invasion of Crimea to flip the roles of the war, making Ukraine out to be an invader and Russia the victim. This could provide Russia’s allies, such as self-proclaimed peace arbiter China, the justification they need to ship more weapons to Russia and turn the tide of the war.

The War Within the War

When Ukraine lost Crimea to Russia in 2014, it tried to retake the peninsula militarily several times without success. Since then, Ukraine has attempted to use economic and diplomatic means to achieve these ends, such as by cutting off water supplies to Crimea, suing Russia in an international court over the illegal annexation, and partnering with allies to sanction Russia. Ukraine has not forgotten its lost territory and has vowed to retake it during the current conflict. As such, Russian leader Sergei Askyonov began seriously fortifying Crimea starting in November 2022. He moved T-80 tanks with anti-drone armor, new artillery guns, and anti-tank obstacles known as “dragon’s teeth” to the Crimean border, which previously only had trenches, limited armor placements, and troops.

The United States and other allies, such as Germany, have tried to temper Ukraine’s ambition in the past by refraining from giving them the heavy weaponry they needed to retake Crimea and avoiding taking an official stance that supports such operations. Some view retaking Crimea as a way to push Russia into a ceasefire, but this outcome is far from certain. Rather, trying to retake Crimea carries the potential to drag the war on even longer, or at worst, result in Putin deploying nuclear weapons to keep the peninsula at all costs. But despite these substantive risks and burdens, leaks from the White House are showing that the Biden administration might be warming to the idea.

In the context of the Ukrainian invasion of Crimea, Chinese weapons shipments to Russia could be painted as an attempt to defend Russia from an aggressive Ukraine.

Another reason Ukraine might ignore the US official stance is that the United States can’t control what Ukraine does with the weapons sent to them after they arrive. Once Western weapons — such as Patriot missiles, Abram tanks, and F-16 fighter jets — have reached Ukraine, outsiders have little to no control over where Ukraine sends them or how they use them. This means that if the United States wishes to not support an offensive into Crimea, then they would have to significantly reduce aid sent to Ukraine or cut it off altogether. But this risks costing Ukraine the war, since fewer weapons might mean the inability to fight off Russia. Ukraine might not believe the United States would be willing to take this risk.

US investments in Ukraine are fast approaching $100 billion, more than the Korean or Iraq wars, and more than all the US foreign aid sent to its top ten recipients combined. The Biden administration has been plagued with a disastrous foreign policy from the start, be it the jolting withdrawal from Afghanistan, the inability to manage nuclear buildups in North Korea and Iran, or the mishandling of Cuban and Venezuelan instability. The president desperately needs a win, and withdrawing aid to Ukraine after already investing billions would only add to a growing list of failures, especially if it culminates in a Russian victory. With the US election season fast approaching, Ukraine might see this year as a closing window of opportunity in which the West will have little choice but to continue supplying Ukraine with aid even as it tries to take Crimea.

Even if President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself is unwilling to make an official attack on Crimea, that doesn’t mean his commanders or troops won’t take things into their own hands. For example, US intelligence agencies have recently intercepted communications between Ukrainian officials suggesting that the drone attacks on the Kremlin were indeed sponsored by Ukrainian security forces but were likely done without Zelenskyy’s approval. Similarly, minor attacks on Crimea could be conducted by Ukrainian forces without Zelenskyy’s say-so, and the result could drag Ukraine and the West into a full-blown incursion.

The Risks of Retaking Crimea

An invasion of Crimea is likely to lengthen the duration of the war, but there are other greater concerns for the United States about this strategy, such as the escalatory risks involving Putin’s nuclear threats. Another primary concern, however, is China. The People’s Republic of China has repeatedly declared itself a “peacemaker,” and sought to prove this point by negotiating for peace on behalf of Russia and engaging in diplomacy with European states. But as the war has slogged on, China has begun to openly discuss sending Russia weapons. Ukraine has also been finding more and more Chinese components in weapons. More recently, it has become clear that China is shipping Russia assault rifles and body armor that are being used in the conflict.

China has had a vested interest in countering US influence since it wants to become a new world superpower. But in regard to the Ukraine conflict, this interest clashes with China’s attempts to preserve a positive reputation as a “responsible power.”

If Ukraine were to invade Crimea, it could give China the excuse to change its policy and give greater lethal aid without sacrificing its peacekeeper image. In the context of a Ukrainian invasion of Crimea, Chinese weapons shipments to Russia could be painted as an attempt to defend Russia from an aggressive Ukraine, and as a means to bring a swift end to the war. While Ukraine lost Crimea back in 2014, it has been successful on all other fronts in the war. But these successes have not been easy, even with all of the aid Ukraine has been getting from the West. It would undoubtedly be bad news if China joined the fray with its enormous manufacturing potential. There’s no telling what the ultimate outcomes would be, but it is certain that the war would increase in both duration and intensity, a result nobody wants.

While there isn’t much else the United States can do to deter Ukraine from taking Crimea without seriously hampering the war effort, there are measures the United States can take to deter or hamper Chinese aid. For example, the United States can leverage regional neighbors like Mongolia to stop weapons shipments before they can leave China’s doorstep, or at least send them on serious and expensive detours. One way to do this is through strengthening Mongolia’s border security, which Mongolia has already expressed willingness toward as Russians flee to escape Putin’s draft. Mongolia recently accepted CT40 scanning kits, and US dispatches to prevent illicit missile translocations from China.

Whatever the approach, the United States should act fast to make Chinese aid to Russia as difficult and expensive as possible, hopefully nipping it in the bud or at least blunting its benefit.

Garrett Ehinger

Garrett Ehinger is a China analyst who holds a bachelor's in Biomedical Science with a minor in Mandarin Chinese from Brigham Young University in Idaho. He is currently a master's student at the University of Utah studying public health. He has studied Chinese culture and language for over a decade.

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