Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared on Tuesday that had Russian President Vladimir Putin not “taken the initiative” in Ukraine, the NATO alliance would have launched a war with Russia over Crimea, which Kiev claims as its own land.
Speaking alongside Putin in Tehran, Khamenei stated that “as regards Ukraine, if you did not take the initiative, the other side would have initiated the war.”
Describing the West as “completely opposed to a strong and independent Russia” and NATO as “a dangerous entity that sees no boundaries in its expansionist policy,” the Iranian leader added that “had they not been stopped in Ukraine, they would have launched the same war sometime later under the pretext of the Crimea issue.”
Considered Russian land since imperial times, Crimea was an autonomous republic within the Soviet Union until it was ceded to the Ukrainian SSR by Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev in 1954.
The region fell under Ukrainian control after the breakup of the USSR, and voted to join Russia in 2014.
NATO considers Crimea to be “illegally annexed” Ukrainian territory. While the alliance has not threatened Russia with open war, it has demanded that Moscow return the region to Ukrainian control and a number of decisions made by its leaders and the government in Kiev suggest a possible path to war over Crimea.
NATO first established a partnership with Ukraine in 1997, and in the 2008 Bucharest Declaration stated that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO” at an unspecified future date. The Declaration remains alliance policy, and were Ukraine to join NATO, its 30 other members would instantly become parties to a territorial dispute with Russia.
For its part, Ukraine has signaled that it both intends to join NATO and intends to act on this dispute.
Under President Pyotr Poroshenko, the country wrote its goal of becoming a NATO member into its constitution in 2019, despite Moscow’s warnings that having the alliance’s forces and weapons on its border would constitute an unacceptable security threat.
Two years later, President Vladimir Zelensky signed a decree ordering his government to “prepare and implement measures to ensure the de-occupation and reintegration” of Crimea.
Ukraine’s ambitions of joining NATO appear to have fallen by the wayside, with Igor Zhovkva, an adviser to Zelensky, telling Financial Times last month that Kiev won’t pursue accession any further.
Its ambitions of seizing Crimea, however, persist. Zelensky announced last month that he intends to “liberate” Crimea, and a spokesman for Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, Vadim Skibitskiy, declared on Saturday that his forces may use American missiles to strike the peninsula.
While a Ukrainian attack on Crimea has found some support in the West, Russia’s former president and current deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, warned on Sunday that such a strike would result in a “Day of Judgement” coming to Ukraine.