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Ukraine is expected to make a counteroffensive to take back Crimea

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ukraine's counteroffensive is expected to begin any day now, and many wonder if it will include a push to take back Crimea. The Ukrainian peninsula, annexed illegally by Russia nine years ago, is seen as a red line for President Putin and this war's highest stakes territory. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

TAMILA TASHEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: (Non-English language spoken).

Tamila Tasheva heads the Crimea Platform, a diplomatic effort launched by the Ukrainian government in 2021 to mobilize international support for returning Crimea to Ukraine. She's also Crimean Tatar, the peninsula's indigenous population who were deported by tsars in the 19th century and then by Soviet leader Josef Stalin after World War II.

TASHEVA: My grand-grandmother and father are deported in 1944. And when I 5 years old, I am come back to Ukraine, to Crimea, with my parents.

BEARDSLEY: What year was that?

TASHEVA: In 1991.

BEARDSLEY: The year the Soviet Union broke up and Ukraine became an independent country. Tasheva says in 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea, many residents thought being officially part of Russia would bring investment and Moscow-level prosperity. But the opposite happened. The West imposed sanctions, and she says Putin used the peninsula as a springboard to launch his full-scale invasion last year.

TASHEVA: Thousands of Russian soldiers are in Crimea. It's a really huge military base with a lot of military personnel. It's really a territory of fear.

BEARDSLEY: The Crimean Peninsula became part of the Russian empire in 1783 after Catherine the Great's victory over the Turks. Crimea went on to become part of the Soviet Union. In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev officially transferred Crimea to Soviet Ukraine.

RORY FINNIN: This transfer of Crimea from Soviet Russia to Soviet Ukraine has been interpreted as a is a mistake. Sometimes it's been thought of as this kind of superfluous gift.

BEARDSLEY: Cambridge University Crimea specialist Rory Finnin says it was more like a rescue. Crimea was an economic wreck after World War II and joining Ukraine actually revived it, though our mental maps tend to associate Crimea with Russia, he says.

FINNIN: But when we check an actual map, what we'll see is that Crimea has no natural physical connection to Russia. Crimea is an extension of the Ukrainian mainland - not only attached to southern Ukraine, but dependent on it.

BEARDSLEY: Historically and culturally, Crimea does hold a special place in the Russian collective imagination, says former Russian Duma member Ilya Ponomarev. But he says Putin has completely misrepresented the peninsula as some kind of sacred Russian land.

ILYA PONOMAREV: It's a Ukrainian land, and the Ukrainians will liberate it and be totally in their right to do so.

BEARDSLEY: Ponomarev, who lives in Kyiv, was expelled from Russia after being the only parliament member to vote against Putin's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

PONOMAREV: It would be like - I don't know - somebody would occupy Florida and you would say, oh, it's just a peninsula, you know, so just forget about it.

BEARDSLEY: Ben Hodges is a retired lieutenant general and former commander of U.S. Forces in Europe. He says as long as Russia is in control of Crimea, there will never be lasting peace.

BEN HODGES: It's like a dagger pointed at the belly of Ukraine.

BEARDSLEY: He believes if Ukraine can liberate Crimea, the war could be over this year.

HODGES: It's feasible that Ukraine can recapture and liberate Crimea if we give them what they need, which is primarily long-range precision weapons that could today make Crimea untenable for Russian forces.

BEARDSLEY: Many fear Putin could resort to using tactical nuclear weapons if Crimea is threatened. Hodges doesn't think so. For starters, China and India have said that would be unacceptable.

HODGES: What benefit would it give Russia to use a nuclear weapon? Zero. And the Russians know this. Their nuclear weapons are only effective as long as they don't use them because they see how we deter ourselves.

BEARDSLEY: The ground is already shifting in Crimea, says Envoy Tasheva. Repeated attacks on military bases, fuel depots and bridges have meant that thousands of Russians who moved to Crimea after 2014 are selling their houses and leaving. And she says there's a new spirit of defiance.

TASHEVA: After full-scale invasion in Crimea, we have very active, different new movements. It's really huge numbers of people, and we don't have such kind activities before.

BEARDSLEY: Getting Crimea back using diplomatic and political means alone was impossible, says Tasheva. This war, as horrible as it is, gives Ukraine a real chance to liberate all of its territory.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.