We have entered a new stage in the lengthy conflict in Eastern Ukraine, one in which regular Russian army units have provided direct manpower and materiel to the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. The latter were on the verge of total collapse following a successful advance of the Anti-Terrorist Operation by the Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions.
The direct invasion by Russia—its second in Ukraine in a period of six months—has changed the balance of forces dramatically. It follows the August 26 meeting in Minsk between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, mediated by Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka. According to Russian analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, Putin did not consider that he was dealing with equal partners and sought mainly to belittle Poroshenko (http://www.radiosvoboda.org/content/article/26549687.html). The talks achieved little.
The occupation of Novoazovsk by Russian troops and the potential battle for Mariupol trapped a large contingent of ATO forces (around 700 troops) in the Donetsk corridor and there are now options for the “Novorossiya” forces to attack Mariupol, open up a pathway to Crimea, and even beyond. On the other hand Russia’s forces remain quite small, between 1,000 and 15,000, according to different accounts (See, e.g. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/8275bec4-2ea2-11e4-afe4-00144feabdc0.html#slide0; but which Russia refers to as “volunteers” (http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2014/08/29/7036198/).
These figures, even at the upper limit, suggest that the Russian leadership has not yet committed to a full-scale assault on Ukraine, but is rather seeking to push the Ukrainians out of the Donbas and create a stalemate. First and foremost, it wishes to protect the two proxy governments and ensure that Ukraine does not take possession of its far-eastern provinces.
For Ukraine, the situation poses new and serious problems. One option is to order a martial law in the Donbas, and try to relieve the Luhansk airport and other areas captured by separatist forces (See, e.g., http://www.newsru.ua/ukraine/28aug2014/stavkuprezident.html). That choice might lead to a full confrontation with troops that are clearly from Russia. It could be costly and deadly and bring about far more civilian casualties. It might free the region, but a complete victory would likely provoke a much broader Russian assault. Vladimir Putin would be unlikely to accept complete defeat, which is why he ordered the invasion in the first place.
A second option would be to withdraw ATO troops unilaterally from the Donbas. That option would leave the region under separatist and Russian control for the immediate future. It would be a humiliating climb-down for the commander-in-chief of the army, i.e. President Poroshenko. It would prevent Ukraine from holding nationwide parliamentary elections in October, the main means to stabilize the political situation in the country. It would also create yet another “frozen conflict” in this part of Europe to add to Transnistria, Abhazia, and South Ossetia, all of which resulted from Russian intrusions.
A third option would be to try to bring about immediate peace through negotiations. Russia would insist that the “people’s republics” must be included at the table. It might also demand recognition of the much-criticized referendums that took place in Donetsk and Luhansk last May on separation from Ukraine (http://maidan24.eu/ua/news/referendum-w-donecku). On the other hand it would bring the EU and the United States into the equation, and allow Ukraine to weigh its options. If the country has little support from its Western friends, then there is little point of engaging in a military conflict with Russia. The poor state of its army is well known and soldiers have little respect for their high-level officers, many of which are holdovers from Soviet days.
None of these options is particularly attractive. They all purport that outside aid to Ukraine will continue to be limited. At present, the EU seems badly divided on the war in Ukraine. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Slovakia are very concerned about the economic losses to be incurred through sanctions against Russia (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28801353). Germany has taken a firmer stance, but advocates a federalist solution (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/2b0b440c-2ac8-11e4-811d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3Bqh26pSv). The United States has ruled out direct military involvement and restricted its responses to sanctions and verbal condemnations. On the other hand, it has extended non-lethal military aid to Ukraine.
But Kyiv must act resolutely. As Pavel Felgenhauer has pointed out, Russia must demobilize its current contingent of troops in the fall, the days are becoming shorter, and the difficulties of direct air support for Russian troops mount (Cited in http://20committee.com/2014/08/29/the-russo-ukrainian-war/). Thus Putin requires a quick solution to the impasse, namely the withdrawal of the ATO from the Donbas. Is a fourth option available for Ukraine?
One possibility—it will not appeal to the more nationalistically minded—is to cut losses and solidify what remains. Ukraine might agree to the Donbas’ full autonomy or even independence—but not its joining Russia—provided that the latter (as well as the ATO) withdraw its troops and all aid to separatist forces, if the rest of the country were allowed by the West to take certain irrevocable steps.
The first of these would be direct, fast-track entry into the EU for the remainder of Ukraine, reducing the timeline for the usual bureaucratic processes and bringing about a quick vote in Brussels.
The second would be for Ukraine to join NATO, which would then offer full protection for the country minus the Donbas and Crimea. It is to be hoped that in doing so the West would continue to refuse recognition for Russia’s military conquests and heighten sanctions. NATO would also need to help in transforming and reequipping the Ukrainian army, as well as by establishing military bases inside Ukraine. Although in the past, many Ukrainians have been reticent about joining NATO, the vote today would be much closer, and without the Donbas and Crimea, it would likely be positive.
The caveats to this notion are that Ukraine would be severely affected by the loss of direct control over the Donbas, far more so than the Crimea and that entry into NATO would likely take some time. But the Donbas will already take many years to recover from the war, and even under the best of circumstances it is unlikely to attain its former hegemony as an industrial power house. It would seem to signal that Putin has won a partial victory through subterfuge, barbarity, and direct aggression but he would have failed to undermine the current government in Kyiv.
The idea would also require a degree of commitment from the EU and United States to preserving Ukraine that hitherto has not been evident. US president Barack Obama hesitates even to use the word “invasion” in describing Russian actions in Ukraine (http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-russia-lying-invasion-us-samantha-power/26555401.html). But the Western countries need to weigh the importance of preserving a post-Cold War state versus the 19th century “spheres of interest” vision of the Russian president, which is based neither on an accurate reading of history, nor any form of liberal worldview, but seeks to change the status quo at the first opportunity.
And if Ukraine cannot be preserved in full, then by now it should be recognized what is needed to maintain what is left. It can no longer be attained, it seems, by means of peaceful diplomacy because its enemies do not recognize its right to exist. But if the West is unwilling to protect Ukraine, then the government in Kyiv’s options are very limited as long as the current Russian leadership remains in place.
Ultimately, under this scenario, it would remain in the Russian orbit, and be integrated into Russian-led structures like the Customs Union and Collective-Security Treaty Organization. Few Ukrainians seek that option, which they would see as a step backward; many are bitterly against it. One can posit that rebellions and discontent would be manifest for many years. It is not an option that would benefit Russia, but it is one that may satisfy Russian hawks around the Russian president.
The EU in particular needs to recognize the consequences of its actions, initiated with the Eastern Partnership Project five years ago, headed by Poland and Sweden. Are these countries really partners or just friends visiting a house owned by Russia? Does the EU foresee in the future full membership for Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, or even Belarus? Because Russia’s responses demonstrate above all that there cannot be two options: these countries will not be permitted to keep open both the front and back doors, as former president Viktor Yanukovych wanted to do.
The EU and NATO are the best options for Ukraine, but only if these two organizations demonstrate in turn their full commitment to maintaining that country’s independence and supporting it economically and militarily. That statement is not an advocacy of war, but of complete protection for the part of Ukraine that can still be secured. The time for debate is very limited; decisive and clear responses are needed. Otherwise Ukraine will be lost.
Featured Image: “Karta boevykh deistvii v zone ATO”, http://korrespondent.net/