by Leonid Bershidsky
A traditional wooden Russian nesting doll, a Matryoshka doll, depicting Russia's President Vladimir Putin is displayed at a flea market in Moscow on Jan. 24, 2015.
As Ukraine burned again last weekend, Western leaders stubbornly stuck to their chosen path: No appeasement and no military action, just more economic sanctions against Russia. It's a sure-fire way to get more Ukrainians killed.
Even as President Barack Obama claimed in his State of the Nation speech on Jan. 20 that Russia was "isolated," with "its economy in tatters," pro-Russian separatists -- and probably some regular Russian units -- pushed Ukrainian troops out of the ruined Donetsk airport after 200 days of what had been held up as a brave Ukrainian resistance. They then moved to encircle Ukrainian soldiers near Debaltseve and, last weekend, shelled the port city of Mariupol, killing 30 civilians.
To understand why the separatists and their Russian allies decided to end almost four months of relative passivity, it's helpful to try to imagine the situation from President Vladimir Putin's point of view.
At the end of last summer, Russia sent in regular troops to stop the Ukrainian army from eliminating the rebels. This resulted in a spectacular Ukrainian defeat near Ilovaysk. Suddenly, Ukraine was willing to talk and make concessions. The Minsk cease-fire agreement, signed in September by the rebels, the Ukrainian government, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, effectively created a frozen conflict zone similar to Transnistria or South Ossetia.
Ukraine agreed to give the rebel-held areas special status, allowing them to govern themselves and even set up their own police forces. The semi-autonomous area would still, however, be the responsibility of Ukraine's social and financial systems. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed to the conditions and the parliament quickly passed a bill that gave the rebels all they wanted.
Poroshenko, however, was never interested in maintaining this uneasy compromise. Neither he nor Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters were willing to accept defeat. Poroshenko soon cut off all funding for social programs in rebel-held areas and moved to strengthen defenses along the separation line, thereby making Russia responsible for funding and governing most of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. At the same time, Poroshenko had the parliament rescind Ukraine's neutral status, taking an early step toward a NATO bid, and his rhetoric remained resolutely anti-Russian.
That wasn't what Putin had in mind. His initial goal was to reintegrate the separatist areas into Ukraine and use them to influence Ukrainian policies -- above all, to prevent any move toward NATO. Instead, Western countries kept up economic pressure on Russia, demanding it withdraw support from the rebels. To Putin, this looked like an attempt to deny Russia's victory. Putin decided that his Western adversaries had interpreted his earlier attempts to avoid large-scale sanctions -- such as the recognition of Poroshenko's election as president -- as a sign of weakness.
As Mikhail Barabanov, editor of Moscow Defense Brief, wrote Jan. 19 in the moderately pro-Kremlin journal, Russia in Global Politics:
If the Kremlin suddenly starts retreating in Ukraine, the sanction blackmail will continue anyway. The West will put forward more and more demands to make the most of the situation, it will demand the surrender first of Novorossia [the Russian hawks' name for Donetsk and Luhansk regions], and then of Crimea. But the main goal, I will repeat, is to destabilize the Putin regime and to weaken Russia itself as much as possible (that is most clearly seen in the U.S. position). Thus, any retreat is practically impossible for the Kremlin, and so is keeping the status quo.
Putin is thinking along the same lines. He said today that Ukraine had "unfortunately used the peaceful break exclusively to regroup, and then they started again." He called the Ukrainian military a "NATO legion," whose goal was "the geopolitical containment of Russia."
This explains why Putin doesn't see a diplomatic solution to the conflict and why all the efforts to bring one about have fallen through in recent weeks. Putin wants to develop a military advantage so he can talk to Ukraine and its Western allies from a position of strength. This also accounts for the rebels' repudiation of the Minsk ceasefire and the limited push against the weak Ukrainian army, which crumbles every time it comes into contact with Russian units. Putin doesn't want to give Ukraine any more time to build up its military with Western help: He wants a LASTING DEAL soon.
The West could respond to Putin in two ways. It could pressure Poroshenko into accepting a conditional surrender, a compromise that would keep Ukraine out of NATO, though not out of the European Union, and force it to reintegrate the eastern regions more or less on Russian terms. Alternatively, it could offer direct military aid to Ukraine, in the form of both weapons and troops. The first path -- the only one that has a chance of ending the bloodshed -- is unacceptable for reasons of vanity, and the second one means a war with Russia -- a prospect voters in Europe and the U.S. don't relish.
So the West is choosing not to address the problem at all. Here's what Obama said yesterday:
I’ve been very clear that it would not be effective for us to engage in a military conflict with Russia on this issue, but what we can do is to continue to support Ukraine’s ability to control its own territory. And that involves a combination of the economic pressure that’s been brought to bear in sanctions, the diplomatic isolation that has been brought to bear against Russia, and, as important as anything, making sure that we’re continuing to provide the support that Ukraine needs to sustain its economy during this transition period, and to help its military with basic supplies and equipment, as well as the continuing training and exercises that have been taking place between NATO and Ukraine for quite some time.
New sanctions are already under discussion both in the U.S. and in Europe. Perhaps the U.S. might soften its stance on supplying weapons to the Kiev government. But none of that will stop the rebels' offensive, because Putin is determined to ignore the West's half-measures against him.
Economic pressure has never stopped Russia from waging wars. It's worth remembering that all the frozen conflict zones on Russia's borders were established in the early 1990s, when Russia was in economic ruin, and that Russia fought Chechen separatists in the 1990s and early 2000s, even though its economy was much smaller than it is today. Putin will fight on in Ukraine, having convinced himself that the West is aiming to destroy Russia. Generals and field commanders on both sides will steal and get rich. Both Russia and Ukraine will be weakened.
More people will die.