Addressing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and UN Security Council (UNSC), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy strongly emphasized Ukraine’s goal to regain all of its Russian-occupied territories, including Ukraine’s territorial waters in the Black Sea (Un.org, September 19, 20). Concurrently, Zelenskyy cautioned against any land-for-peace compromises with Russia. He spoke with fresh confidence as Ukrainian forces have been quite successful in targeting the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s assets in port and at sea with drone and missile strikes (Ukrinform, August 9, September 17, 21).
On the normative level (and tailored to the UNSC audience), Zelenskyy offered a seemingly necessary reminder that the principle of “territorial integrity [means] clearing the occupation forces out of the territory of the sovereign state.”
In practical terms Zelenskyy defined Ukraine’s defensive war aims as follows:
First: full withdrawal of all Russian troops and military formations, including Russia’s Black Sea Fleet or its remaining leaky bathtubs [дірявими коритами], as well as withdrawal of all Russian mercenary and paramilitary formations, from the entire sovereign territory of Ukraine within our 1991 borders as internationally recognized. Second: full restoration of Ukraine’s effective control over the entire state border and exclusive economic zones, including those in the Black and Azov seas as well as in the Kerch Strait. Only the fulfillment of these two points will result in an honest, reliable and complete cessation of hostilities (President.gov.ua, September 20).
The Ukrainian president added that “the deported people must come back home [to the regained territories] and the occupiers must return to their own land” (President.gov.ua, September 19).
Zelenskyy also framed the de-occupation of Ukraine’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zones as a global interest (tailored to the UNGA audience). Pointing to Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s maritime ports and air strikes on river ports to paralyze grain exports, he identified Moscow’s twin goals: “This is Russia’s obvious attempt at weaponizing food shortages on the world market so as to extort recognition, in full or in part, of its occupation of [Ukrainian] territories” (President.gov.ua, September 19).
On non-Russian suggestions for stopping the war through Ukrainian territorial concessions, Zelenskyy responded indirectly: “I am aware of the attempts to make some shady dealings behind the scenes.” He cast Ukraine’s refusal as a model of conduct that other nations could emulate if subjected to aggression and invasion: “The [Ukrainian example] entails the chance of fully restoring your territory and sovereignty, rather than seeing your lands partitioned and yourselves forced to submit to military or political pressures” (President.gov.ua, September 19).
Zelenskyy also highlighted, albeit briefly, Russia’s war aims against Ukraine in terms of classical European power politics. This clarity occurs rather rarely in the ongoing debates that often privilege other valid explanations for Russia’s war. Zelenskyy thus reminded the Western powers that “the goal of [Russia’s] present war against Ukraine is to turn our land, our people, our lives, our resources, into weapons against you, against the international rules-based order.” This explanation (apart from the modern codicil) fits into the struggle over Ukraine in past European wars as in this war. The Kremlin succeeded after each past war in adding Ukraine’s territories, population, mineral and agrarian resources to Russia’s own, tipping the European balance of power in Moscow’s favor. This was also a fundamental motivation of Russia’s current war from the outset (see EDM, February 24, 25, 2022).
“De-occupation” of Ukraine’s Black Sea maritime and littoral domains undoubtedly represents the most salient message in Zelenskyy’s UN speeches. It is the most comprehensive and compact statement from Kyiv on the issue thus far, combining national and global perspectives as well as strategic and economic considerations. It also indirectly points to the discrepancy between Ukrainian goals and Western diplomacy. The latter calibrates its position regarding Crimea according to perceived Russian “red lines” and the West’s self-imposed “no escalation” constraints. This outlook places restrictions on Western arms supplied to Ukraine. These considerations have, thus far, been allowed to override Ukraine and the West’s shared strategic interest in de-occupying Crimea.
Ukraine will not regain its full sovereignty nor be able to develop economically so long as Russia holds Crimea. Some 80 percent of Ukraine’s total export-import trade (in terms of value) went through Ukraine’s Black Sea and Azov Sea ports in the years prior to the war. Russian control of Crimea and parts of the Ukrainian littoral, however, has enabled Russia to impose a naval blockade on Ukraine. It also enables Moscow to extort economic and political concessions from Kyiv and the West in return for merely mitigating the blockade—as with the Black Sea Grain Initiative—or reinstating the blockade fully when Russia “withdrew from” that program. Alternative overland or riverine export-import routes are limited and expensive. From its Crimean bases, Russia has launched numerous air strikes deep into mainland Ukraine. Major Western investors will hardly feel confident to commit to Ukraine so long as Russia can block the country’s maritime trade and strike its infrastructure.
Russia has demonstrated what it can achieve with Crimea in its hands. And this extends beyond Ukraine. Moscow has been rather effective in discouraging and disrupting navigation in other countries’ exclusive economic zones in the Black Sea. Russia has also threatened offshore oil and gas drilling there, intimidated Turkey militarily and diplomatically, deterred Western naval powers from entering the Black Sea; and retained the potential of opening a land corridor to the borders of Moldova and Romania (see EDM, July 26, 27, 31, August 3, 7, 9, 15, September 11, 12). No “peace settlement” will be viable in the Black Sea basin while Russia’s fleet and other military assets remain positioned in their Crimean sanctuary. Denying that sanctuary would, however, compel Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to relocate from the peninsula.