John Lough
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Ukrainian special forces officers deploy a defence barrier made of spikes at a check-point on the road between Donetsk and Slavyansk 25 April 2014. Ukraine's army launched an operation to ensnare pro-Russian militants in the flashpoint eastern city of SlaUkrainian special forces officers deploy a defence barrier made of spikes at a check-point on the road between Donetsk and Slavyansk 25 April 2014. Ukraine's army launched an operation to ensnare pro-Russian militants in the flashpoint eastern city of Slavyansk. Photo by Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images.

Western policymakers are still struggling to come to terms with the logic of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and its objective of stripping Ukraine of independence.

Instead of formulating a strategy to stabilize Ukraine, they have participated in a Russian-orchestrated game to ‘de-escalate’ tensions in which they have pretended that Russia is a partner that shares the same objective.

The Geneva agreement has proved meaningless because Russia has chosen to escalate tensions in order to achieve its version of stabilization: a ‘federalized’ Ukraine with its industrial heartland under Russian control.

The other part of the Western response has been sanctions. These have failed to create even the slightest traction with Moscow because of their limited nature. The latest expansion of the US list of targeted individuals and organizations is not going to cause Vladimir Putin to lose sleep.

Western policymakers need to recognize that while Putin is playing an audacious game, he has started to box himself in. He cannot advance towards his goal without further escalation of the situation. The master tactician is not necessarily a brilliant strategist.

Putin’s foray into Ukraine has come up against four serious problems:

  • Crimea is now a Russian island. It is dependent on water and electricity supplied from mainland Ukraine as well as road access across Ukrainian territory. Russia controls none of these at present and cannot create substitutes quickly. Preserving these links is a necessity that might require military intervention.
     
  • The population of southeastern Ukraine has not risen up in support of the ‘separatists’, indicating that there is limited appetite in these regions for secession from Ukraine. To scupper the 25 May presidential election will probably require stirring up further trouble that risks running out of control.
     
  • Kyiv is trying to stand its ground and is deploying forces in an effort to evict the ‘separatists’. Even partial success by Ukrainian forces will increase the pressure on Russia to intervene militarily to protect “Russian-speakers.
     
  • Pressure to create a land bridge to Transnistria carries significant risks because it would trigger a war with Ukraine, and probably a prolonged one given the history of partisan resistance in the west of the country at the end of the Second World War.

While Putin is encountering difficulties at the tactical level, he is losing ground at the strategic level because of the growing levels of alienation that his policies are creating beyond the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. In the rest of the country, economic and cultural links with Russia are less strong and Ukrainian identity is more developed.  

To this part of the population, the Russian model of governance has been unattractive for some time. It holds even less appeal after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its shift to an old-fashioned brand of conservative imperialism.

By contrast, the remarkable transformation of Poland over the past 20 years has exercised a profound influence on Ukrainians’ perceptions of their own shortcomings and highlighted the possibilities of reforming Ukraine on a European model.  

The ‘Maidan revolution’ underlined that there is a strong and growing constituency in Ukrainian society that will not tolerate crony capitalism and wants to build new institutions.

Putin has good reason to fear the Maidan because it represents organized resistance to a Russian embrace of Ukraine.

West should offer an ‘unequivocal message’ of modernization

If Western policymakers are serious about countering Russia’s effort to dismantle Ukraine, they need to think beyond tactical ‘de-escalation’ to exploit Russia’s chief weakness in Ukraine, its inability to offer an attractive way of life to Ukrainians.

Ukrainians need to hear an unequivocal message from the West saying that it will support the modernization of Ukraine and will find resources to help put the country on a different trajectory if that is what Ukrainians choose.

Despite many advantages, Putin is vulnerable both at the tactical and strategic levels. If he escalates the situation further, he faces the risk of setting off uncontrolled violence in Ukraine.  Conflict of this kind would not necessarily stop at the Russian border.

Further violence in Ukraine will also inflict even greater damage on Russia’s standing among Ukrainians, further strengthening their rejection of its efforts to smother Ukraine with ‘brotherly’ love.

Putin has suffered serious policy failures in Ukraine on two previous occasions based on a misreading of attitudes in Ukraine. The first was when he backed Viktor Yanukovych’s fraudulent victory in the 2004 presidential election only to see the Orange Revolution install a government friendly to the West. The second came in February with the spectacular disintegration of Yanukovych’s rule after he had strong-armed the Ukrainian president into rejecting the Association Agreement with the EU.

Western policymakers need to decide if they really are prepared to stand up for Ukraine. If so, strong support for deep reforms to modernize Ukraine is the most powerful tool available for resisting Russia’s offensive.

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