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There is every evidence that Russian troops are fighting the Ukrainian army on the Ukrainian soil. This Russian invasion is a further escalation of the war between Ukraine and Russian-sponsored separatists and terrorists in the East of Ukraine. As soon as the Ukrainian forces were about to take over cities in Eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin raised the stakes and sent Russian military to rescue the separatists from certain defeat. Both sides have experienced heavy losses, but the Russian government denies any involvement. The excuses sound increasingly surreal (e.g., Russian paratroopers got lost). Furthermore, dead Russian soldiers appear to be buried in secret and journalists trying to reveal these losses are harassed, intimidated and severely beaten. Finally, Russia shows no sign of being willing to engage in genuine negotiations to establish peace—all previous attempts turned into farce when Russian calls for peace were followed with more Russian weapon deliveries and casualties.
After the cut-off of gas supplies in 2014, the infamous annexation of Crimea earlier this year, the delivery of weapons (including tanks, artillery and BUKs that shot down Malaysian airline civil airliner MH17) to separatists, and now an invasion in Eastern Ukraine, one may ask where Mr. Putin is going to stop. We believe that Mr. Putin has been making calculated choices all along the way. His objective in Ukraine is to destabilize the new government that emerged from the Euromaidan movement that toppled Yanukovich. The ultimate motivation for this is to consolidate his own power at home and to prevent a similar democratic revolution in Russia. In each step of the Ukrainian conflict, he has weighed the benefits of each move, from the point of view of this strategic objective, against the costs. The current invasion is motivated by the need to prevent a military defeat of the separatists and to keep the conflict in Eastern Ukraine alive.
The costs of this latest move have so far not been very large for Mr. Putin. The reaction of the West has proved to be weak, exactly as he expected. Most sanctions are too narrow or are going to have tangible effects only in the medium or long run. Discussions to ban imports of Russian caviar and vodka are just laughable. To the extent that the stock market shows the health of the Russian economy, sanctions have had no real bite so far. True, there was some volatility—there was a dip after the annexation of Crimea in March—but this volatility is not unusual by Russian standards. Furthermore, the West refuses to sell weapons or to provide intelligence to the new Ukrainian government. At the same time, France is still going to sell assault Mistral-class ships to Russia.
To Putin’s surprise, the Ukrainian government and army have put up serious resistance to his earlier moves. The level of popular support for his people’s republics in the East has also been surprisingly low. At the same time, there is a truly popular movement to support the Ukrainian army, with people enrolling into the army by the thousands.
Given this situation, what are the possible outcomes?
In short, these three scenarios suggest that Mr. Putin’s chances to eventually win the war are minimal. He has been repeatedly raising the stakes to stifle Ukraine’s aspirations to become a free, democratic European country but he is running out of cards. The key question is at what cost he’s going to let Ukraine go. He is going to step down when the cost of what he is doing becomes too high, but not before. There is no doubt that Ukraine will carry the main burden of fighting for its sovereignty and independence. It may take many thousands of lives on both sides before the war is over (scenario #1), or the war can end soon. The tally largely depends on the West’s policy response.
The West’s policy of appeasement has so far been utterly ineffective. Putin has downright contempt for what he sees as the weakness and cowardice of the West. Because he only expects a weak response from the West, he does not hesitate to escalate the conflict in Ukraine to further his goal of destabilizing the fragile Ukrainian democracy. It is an illusion to think that trying to appease Putin will make him deescalate. On the contrary, because there is no turning back for him after this aggression, his own political survival may lead him to continuing expansion elsewhere under whatever motive he will come up with: to protect Russians in other countries (Kazakhstan, Belarus, Baltic countries), to protect spheres of influence, to counter the threat of NATO, etc. Just as the Soviet Union could not survive in peaceful co-existence and stay in its borders, Putin’s Russia will not be able to stay in its borders.
Force is unfortunately the only language Mr. Putin currently understands. By helping the Ukrainian army control its borders and chase out Russian invaders, NATO and Western powers will significantly increase the costs of Russia’s recent escalation of the Ukrainian conflict and make Mr. Putin think twice before further escalating the conflict. The West should not be intimidated by the prospect of a stand-off with Russia. If Russia raises the stakes, so should the West. Putin’s Russia is no match for the West. Ultimately, Putin’s regime will collapse like the communist regime collapsed as it was unable to keep up with the arms race in the 1980s. If the West does not muster the military strength it possesses to pose a credible and targeted response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine, then more Russian aggression is to be feared whenever it suits the domestic purposes of Mr. Putin.
First published in VoxUkraine on September 3, 2014.
© Yuriy Gorodnichenko, Gérard Roland