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The uncomfortable truth about Crimea

Pro-Russian Crimeans in 2014. Viktor Drachev/Getty

Ukraine has become trapped, says Anatol Lieven in Foreign Policy, by its own “uncompromising” plans to reconquer Crimea. Hardcore nationalists – and Volodymyr Zelensky’s government – insist the war cannot end until the whole country is reunited. One top official, Mykhailo Podolyak, has called for all Russian troops and nationals plus any sympathetic locals (he calls them mankurts, or “brain-dead slaves”) to be “expelled” from the Crimean peninsula. “We have to completely close everything related to the Russian cultural space there,” he said recently. “We have to eradicate everything Russian.”

But this vision – arguably “tantamount to ethnic cleansing” – is not shared by many of the ordinary Ukrainians I spoke to on a recent trip. They said privately that Ukraine should be prepared to give up Crimea if necessary. Their reasons differed, but, in essence, there were three: “otherwise this war will go on forever”; Crimea “was never really part of Ukraine” anyway; and the pro-Russian population of Crimea would be a perpetual headache. One told me that while everyone has to say in public that the country must “fight on indefinitely” to recapture Crimea, “most sensible people know that it is not possible”. The difficulty for the government is that the muscular patriotism of its propaganda via a strictly state-controlled media has turned any open talk of this inevitable concession into “political suicide”. Crimea has become a kind of “Frankenstein’s monster” for the Zelensky government – and it’s responsible for a “public mood that it helped create but now cannot control”.