The Illusion of Peace in Ukraine

No doubt some kind of agreement in Ukraine is desirable simply to stop the slaughter.  As PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk observed, even a bad agreement that saves lives is better than on agreement.

But the agreement reached last week is  mainly an agreement to recognize and accept Russia’s gains, and enable Russia to meet its goals.  Those goals are to create a frozen conflict and permanent weakening of Ukraine that will prevent its closer alliance with the EU and NATO.

Russia gained de facto recognition that its proxies control most of the Donbass and will remain secure in that control; yet the costs of public services and payrolls in that region were shifted back to Ukraine.  Moreover, the border between Russia and the Donbass will remain under Russian control at least through the end of 2015, assuring that Russian can send whatever troops, weapons and other support necessary to keep its proxies in control across the border without hindrance.

Ukraine did not gain nothing — it gained a temporary peace with heavy weapons supposedly silenced then drawn back from the front lines; and more important yet it gained a $17.5 billion bail-out fund from the IMF, which was unlikely to arrive if Ukraine was still actively embroiled in a losing military campaign.  Still, on balance this is simply a surrender and a clear Russian victory.

Why did European leaders accept this deal?  And why were plans being mooted to send heavier and more lethal arms to Ukraine to defend itself against the Russian-backed rebels?  The answer is simple — Europe and NATO have no stomach for war and did not want to risk an escalated conflict that might have seen the rebels take Mariupol or push further into eastern Ukraine.    European leaders believed that no matter what military resources they put into Ukraine, Putin would easily match or exceed them, so there was no way to use force to dislodge the rebels from their positions; sanctions were not serving to dissuade Putin from aggression; and they raised the warning that Putin cared so deeply about Ukraine that he might even use tactical nuclear weapons if an all-out NATO assisted assault was staged on rebel positions (Russian generals had in fact raised this possibility).

On the face of it, this is absurd.  NATO always relied on nuclear deterrence to dissuade the USSR from using nuclear weapons in numerous proxy wars during the cold war — why should that fail now when Russia is much weaker than the Soviet Union was during the cold war?  Russia’s economy is about one-fifth the size of that of Britain, Germany and France combined — never mind the rest of Europe.  Yet in a vital conflict right on its borders, Europe, worn out over debt issues and fearful of the turmoil on its borders in the Middle East, wanted nothing to do with another war.

Let us say that NATO got serious, and — as in Libya –used its cruise missiles and air power to destroy the heavy arms of the Russian-backed rebels.  What would Russia do?  Bomb Kiev?  Send in thousands of its own troops?   Use nuclear weapons (against whom)?  Putin’s entire domestic strategy depends on his portraying Russian efforts as purely defensive and humanitarian efforts to protect helpless Ukrainians from the fascist Kiev/U.S. aggression.   Any major offensive escalation by Russia would destroy that myth.  Yet Europe would not risk having to deal with that escalation, and so gave Putin everything he wanted without forcing him to take that chance.

The best course now for Ukraine is to try and keep the peace, unify its western and central regions, and use the IMF funds to rebuild its shattered economy.  Georgia has managed to rebuild and even thrive despite losing Abkhazia and South Ossetia to a remarkably similar campaign by Russia.  Ukraine has little choice but to try and do the same.

What should be more worrying for Europe is that President Putin, whose weakening economy makes him more reliant on nationalist victories abroad to keep his support strong, has learned the lessons from both Georgia and Ukraine that creating facts on the ground is an effective way to change realities in the face of a weak Europe.  If I were living in Transdniestria or Moldova, I would expect more changes at some point in the future.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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