Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t use nuclear weapons to retain control of Crimea, according to a senior Ukrainian official who rejected contrary Western warnings as a product of Russian “propaganda.”

“I don’t think that they [will] use a nuclear weapon, tactical nuclear weapon, against Ukraine,” Ukrainian special representative Tamila Tasheva told the Washington Examiner. “I don’t think so.”


Putin has made ominous gestures toward Russia’s nuclear arsenal over the last year in an apparent effort to discourage the United States and other Western allies from providing military aid to Ukraine. The Kremlin chief’s nuclear saber-rattling rings hollow for Tasheva, in part because he flinched from deploying the weapons when Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops out of Kherson city — just weeks after Putin signed a Russian law annexing the region into the Russian state.

“We de-occupied the territory of the city of Kherson in the end of the autumn last year. … According to their constitution, it’s a part of Russian Federation,” she recalled. “We de-occupied Kherson. According to Russian nuclear doctrine, if we do something [against] their territorial integrity, Russian territorial integrity, they must use immediately nuclear weapons. But they don’t use it, even until now.”

Putin’s repeated failure to enforce his so-called red lines has emboldened U.S. and European officials to increase the quality and quantity of military aid they provide to Kyiv, up to a point, and some Americans echo the Ukrainian appeal for the West to defy Putin further.

“The general point is that Putin doesn’t have red lines,” former Ambassador Bill Taylor, who led the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on two occasions, told the Washington Examiner. “This ‘escalation’ and ‘red lines’ is a meaningless concept. We need to support Ukrainians to allow them to win, and the Ukrainians need to do what they need to do in order to win, and that’s what they’ve been doing. They have not been deterred from doing what they need to do to push the Russians out.”

Still, many Western leaders do not share Tasheva’s disregard for Putin’s threats, particularly concerning Crimea, the historic headquarters of imperial Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Putin has celebrated the seizure as a recovery of “holy land” for Moscow — a region of “sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism,” as he put it in 2014.

Such rhetoric has had an effect in Western imaginations. Even former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an outspoken proponent of military aid to Ukraine, has suggested that “Crimea is a slightly separate issue,” and Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly has assessed that “a Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea would be a red line” for Russia. That’s a bipartisan misgiving in Washington, one that has been shared directly with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in discussions about whether Ukrainian forces should try to liberate Crimea.

“Crimea is probably a bright red line for Moscow,” an elected Republican who met Zelensky in Kyiv this year told the Washington Examiner. “He may understand that’s our view and he may not agree with it … [but] he may accept that that’s a reality and he can’t do it without U.S support.”

For Tasheva, a Crimean Tatar who said her parents still live in Sevastopol on the southern tip of the peninsula, that anxiety shows that Putin’s “propaganda” continues to work on Western imaginations. Russian Empress Catherine the Great annexed Crimea in 1783 after a war with the Ottoman Empire. Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev transferred the peninsula to Ukrainian control in 1954 after a tour of the “desolate” region convinced him that “Ukraine could handle it more concertedly,” as the University of Cambridge’s Rory Finnin recalled recently.

“There’s nothing very special [about] Crimea,” Tasheva said. “Crimea is a territory where three indigenous people, populations, live. … The period of time when Crimea is a territory under control of Russian Empire, for example, or the Russian Federation — it’s not [a] very long period, actually.”

The cardinal facts about Crimea, according to Tasheva and her colleagues, center on the logistical importance of the peninsula for the Russian invasion and the plight of the Crimean Tatars and other loyal Ukrainians under Russian rule.

“Crimea is one of the key sort of launch pads or springboards for Russian attacks on the mainland of Ukraine,” added Maria Tomak, an adviser to Tasheva who provided occasional interpreter services during the interview. “And Crimea throughout [the last] nine years has been the place where the heavy human rights violations, serious human rights violations took place.”

That’s a compelling argument for many leading Republicans, such as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX), who has cited alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine to make the case for U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets and long-range ground-to-ground missile systems to Ukraine.

“I personally heard an account from a mother who saw her 5-year-old daughter gang raped to death by 10 Wagner mercenaries who then threw her dead body on the side of the road,” McCaul said during a congressional hearing last month. “We need to do more than just give Ukraine enough for survival. We urgently must give them longer-range systems, such as ATACMS, for victory. These are critical to not only destroy the Iranian drones in Crimea that have been devastating to Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure but also to enable Ukraine to push forward with its imminent counteroffensive to recapture its territory and liberate its people from the daily threat of Russian terror.”

Western leaders have made a point to postpone the debate about Zelensky’s pledge to retake Crimea until after the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Crimean Peninsula connects to the Ukrainian mainland, not Russia, and Ukrainian forces are expected to attempt a breakthrough to divide Russian forces once again.

“First of all, let’s help you get back Melitopol, Mariupol, Berdiansk, and all the land bridge — that needs to happen first,” Johnson, the former British prime minister, told a Ukrainian media outlet in January. “I think frankly once that happens, the geostrategic position will be very different. Ukraine will be in an immeasurably stronger position. The Kremlin with Putin will be very, very much weaker.”


Blinken’s team, contemplating that prospect, has floated a sort of compromise in which “Crimea is, at a minimum, demilitarized,” even if the ultimate dispute over long-term control remains unresolved. Yet Tasheva, who noted that China and India have warned Putin not to use nuclear weapons, doubts Putin will use nuclear weapons — even if he loses the war in Crimea.

“We don’t have simple answers for this question, but I don’t think that after the de-occupation of Crimea, they use some [weapons that] they [haven’t] used yet,” she said.