Assessing Ukraine’s Options


David Marples

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/

 

About DAVID R. MARPLES

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

18 comments

  1. Wayne ryan

    I as a Ukrainian Canadian am shocked that an educated man living in a province built by Ukrainian immigrants would think such a thing. Ukraine will fight even a partisan war if necessary. Never surrender. Pray that Europe and USA provides them with the military equipment they need.

  2. Lev Tol

    Overall it is rare article which discusses multiple options of resolving Ukrainian crisis. Nevertheless, I cannot agree with some of the article passages. For example, “…the imperialistic 19th century vision of the Russian president, which is based neither on an accurate reading of history, nor any form of liberal worldview”.
    How can one tell objectively whose vision on history is accurate and whose not?
    And “the imperialistic 19th century vision” is not just a feature of Russian politics but also reflects the worldview of the American political elite (at least, its majority) . US government has clearly overplayed its hand in Ukraine providing material support and advice to Yatsenyuk and others when it didn’t take into account possible Russian reaction. The Department of State thinking was probably – what would they do? Didn’t Russians let all their former allies and 3 Baltic countries to join NATO? Well, it was a mistake and an example of American usual shortsightedness in international affairs. Crisis in Ukraine is not about Ukraine – it is about Russia and its falling out of line and not blindly following their “American and European partners” as it used to be in 90s.

    • Mark Baker

      There may be more than one accurate reading of history, but Putin’s is not one of the accurate ones. Allowing more than one interpretation of the past does not imply that all interpretations are equal. Please do tell which part of Putin’s interpretation of the past is accurate?

      • Lev Tol

        Mark, here it goes:
        1. The prevailing opinion of the West (at least, what our media is telling us) that Russia suffers from paranoia, that there is no legitimate concerns about its safety and there was/is no threat from the NATO in general and US in particular. Putin, his circle and most Russians believe otherwise. Their beliefs are based on several events which happened since 1991:
        – Unjustified NATO enlargement. NATO has absorbed every former Soviet satellite and 3 Baltic countries (which were part of the Soviet Union). And that happened despite promises of the Western leaders given to Gorbachev.
        – Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Yes, I know the propaganda line – it was different. How different?
        – Annihilation of Russian trading partners (whatever the reason): Iraq, Libya, and most recently Syria. And all was done without any regard to Russian interests and without much justification.

        2. About more distant history. There was no such country as Ukraine until Bolsheviks legally created it. The term “Ukraine” itself was invented by Poles for whom it was indeed a border land. Ironically, Ukrainian nation is being created right now before our eyes (and all because of Russian actions!)

        Novorossia (so much noise about this term recently) is indeed a territory which was fought for by Russians in 17-18 centuries. Many eastern and southern cities in Ukraine were founded by Russian tzars (e.g., Odessa, Nikolayev, Kharkov).

        Is something incorrect in the above? Please go ahead and point.

        I personally don’t justify violations of international law, annexations, “incursions”, fostering and material support for insurgency in other countries, etc. But wait… isn’t it what US was/is doing? I must say – Putin got some very good teachers! That’s why Ukrainian crisis, that’s why Russia behaves as it does contrary to its own core interests.

      • Mark Baker

        Lev,

        I am sorry, but much is incorrect in what you wrote below. See my comments in []:

        Mark, here it goes:
        1. The prevailing opinion of the West (at least, what our media is telling us) that Russia suffers from paranoia, that there is no legitimate concerns about its safety and there was/is no threat from the NATO in general and US in particular. Putin, his circle and most Russians believe otherwise. Their beliefs are based on several events which happened since 1991:
        – Unjustified NATO enlargement. NATO has absorbed every former Soviet satellite and 3 Baltic countries (which were part of the Soviet Union). And that happened despite promises of the Western leaders given to Gorbachev. [As Mary Elise Sarotte in the recent issue of foreign affairs made clear, there was never a serious promise from the USA or NATO not to expand east. This idea was floated out a few times, but Gorbachev appears never to have asked for any serious guarantee, and the US and Germany never gave one. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/141845/mary-elise-sarotte/a-broken-promise%5D

        – Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Yes, I know the propaganda line – it was different. How different? [I do not understand what you are talking about here. How did events there prove that NATO threatened Russia?]

        – Annihilation of Russian trading partners (whatever the reason): Iraq, Libya, and most recently Syria. And all was done without any regard to Russian interests and without much justification. [Sorry, but this does smack of paranoia: how could the very complex events in these countries be viewed as NATO threatening Russia?]

        2. About more distant history. There was no such country as Ukraine until Bolsheviks legally created it. The term “Ukraine” itself was invented by Poles for whom it was indeed a border land. Ironically, Ukrainian nation is being created right now before our eyes (and all because of Russian actions!) [While it is basically correct that there was no fully functioning Ukrainian state before 1917, there were earlier precursors. But this is almost entirely beside the point. What does it matter how long a nation has had its own state? There are many countries with similar histories, such as Slovakia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, etc. The end of WWI brought many new nation-states into existence. Moreover, how does the longevity of a nation-state affect whether Russia has any right at all to intervene? Are you saying there is some sort of law that it is fine for older states to invade new ones, that they are somehow less legitimate?]

        Novorossia (so much noise about this term recently) is indeed a territory which was fought for by Russians in 17-18 centuries. Many eastern and southern cities in Ukraine were founded by Russian tzars (e.g., Odessa, Nikolayev, Kharkov). [The longevity of this term is also not really an important issue, except that Putin appears to be using it to justify military intervention in a sovereign state. Surely, this is no rationale at all. By a similar logic, Britain should be allowed to re-occupy Egypt, Australia, Canada, etc.]

        Is something incorrect in the above? Please go ahead and point.

        I personally don’t justify violations of international law, annexations, “incursions”, fostering and material support for insurgency in other countries, etc. But wait… isn’t it what US was/is doing? I must say – Putin got some very good teachers! That’s why Ukrainian crisis, that’s why Russia behaves as it does contrary to its own core interests.

        [Lev, I am not at all a defender of US foreign policy; I think it is deeply flawed, but so is Russian policy, especially when it encourages and causes violence against innocent civilians of a foreign, sovereign, independent country. If Russia wishes to be respected internationally, then it needs to stop such violence. Were I a Russian citizen, I would be out on the streets protesting against the Russian intervention in Ukraine, which is clearly a violation of international law, of human rights, and of basic human dignity.

        David’s proposal is for some sort of a compromise to stop the violence. My sympathies lie entirely with the people caught up in the violence, most of whom, do not want any part of it.]

  3. Stuart

    Seriously, David, if another country invaded your militarily, would you suggest these same options? Would your country simply give up the land occupied?

  4. Mark Baker

    Well put, David. The replies so far simply strengthen your point. Uncompromising approaches are exactly what leads to more bloodshed. Has Ukraine not had enough?

  5. Rina

    Do you actually believe that Putin will be satisfied with “Novorossiya” and Crimea and let the rest of Ukraine join NATO? Please.

    • Ivan

      Russia is promoting a strategy of creeping empire expansion. If the west does not resist expansionism will continue. Since the Russian culture is authoritarian based the best way to counter Putin is to make him look weak in front of the world. Then his people will turn against him. Right now he is using the tactics of denials named plausible deniability. Send Russian sons and grandsons home in coffins. Then Putin won’t be able to deny his war against the “fraternal brothers” in Ukraine. The babushkas (grandmothers) will eventually get rid of Putin.

  6. Rodders

    There is no Russian invasion. These are lies by the desperate Ukrainian govt. This is a true account of what is happening: http://vineyardsaker.blogspot.co.uk/?m=1

    A group of ex US spies wrote a memo to Merkel saying the intelligence is highly dubious, comparing it to the Iraq dodgy dossier in 2003, just as they did after the downing of MH17.

    http://consortiumnews.com/2014/09/01/warning-merkel-on-russian-invasion-intel/

  7. zako

    Czechoslovakia must not be just a typo in a political assessment in ’14.

  8. AP

    If the price to join the EU (economic security and welfare) and NATO (territorial security) is to lose Donbas and Crimea, I suspect many Ukrainians would agree. These areas were not particularly pro-Ukrainian anyways, and gave the country the disastrous Yanukovich. The rest of the country could then move forward relatively smoothly.

    Forced territorial adjustment such as this are a horrible break with precedent in the civilized world, and the price ought to be quite steep – cancelation of all debts plus compensation. Even the US paid Mexico for the land it took from it in the 19th century.

  9. Ukraine has two choices, war or peace, deaths, destruction and misery or peace, development and happiness.
    Ukraine has a big disadvantage which in really is a big, very big advantage.
    Part of its population are pro-Russians, part of them pro-European.
    They can turn Europe against Russia or they can bring Russia closer to Europe.
    They can feed the war with their bodies or they can feed the peace between Ukrainians and between Russians and Europeans with success and happiness.
    They can convert their country to a bridge between East and West Ukraine, between Europe and Russia or return our world to cold war.
    They can belong on both worlds, Russia and Europe, taking the goodies from Russia and Europe and strength the peace and democracy.
    They can unite Ukrainian’s hearts and pockets or destroy them.
    I BELIEVE THAT UKRAINE IS RUSSIA AND EUROPE, A SPOT ON THE MAP WHICH DRIVES THE WORLD TO MORE UNDERSTANDING, COOPERATION AND MUTUAL BENEFITS.
    LET’S CONVERT THE BAD MOMENT TO A HAPPY PERMANENT PEACE, SUCCESS AND HAPPINESS.
    Antonios Symeonakis
    Adelaide

  10. A compelling and sobering look at the potential future that lies before Ukraine. Russia has meddled, incited violence and apart from the obvious military support, has stirred up a hornets nest that will endure, as it has, as David points out, in other breakaway republics. Donetsk and Luhansk will now be a thorn in the side of Kiev whatever the outcome, much to Putin’s delight.

    In response to Stuart, certainly, it’s easy to say a country should cut its losses and give up the occupied lands from afar. But without disciplined military nor the support of those who have one, what else can they do besides engage in a protracted conflict with mounting casualties? Look at Canada, my country – if any portion was invaded or occupied buy the US or Russia, could we expect the support of NATO? Or any other country for that matter? Our military is on life support as it is, despite our tough talk. This simplifies the situation, without a doubt, but it points to the need to be realistic and pragmatic. The people of Ukraine wouldn’t benefit from a Pyrrhic victory from Kiev.

    Russia let the Baltics slip away to NATO. Ukraine has been made an example of what could happen if Kazakhstan, Belarus or others decide to fully embrace democracy and look west…

  11. S Garg

    Interesting article and interesting comments. People fail to see that the Baltic States and Georgia who joined NATO do not represent an existential threat to Russia. Unfortunately Ukraine does due to its size, and its closeness with Russian people.

    Russia has reacted because it cannot let Ukraine go. Ukraine is independent but only nominally. It remained dependent on Russia even after that independence. It wanted and received subsidies from Russia. So you deal with Russia and now suddenly the whole past looks poison to you. This behavior is interesting.

    Ukrainians may want something but IF they will get it? Write now it is desperation for EU. If the EU dream fails to improve conditions in Ukraine, what will Ukrainians do next?? This is a question Ukrainians must ask when they make an enemy of Russia.

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