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Time for a reality check

February 6, 2015

Nothing much has been written about the war in eastern Ukraine here recently – aside from mentioning there is an on-going war in eastern Ukraine.

However, with John Kerry, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel all in Kyiv yesterday, it is perhaps time to write a few lines.

Firstly, that Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel head to Moscow for talks with President Putin later today, clearly indicates that John Kerry and anybody from Ukraine were not invited to participate.  Indeed, The Kremlin sent a “Putin Plan” to settle the Ukrainian conflict to the German Chancellor and French President a few days ago, and that is responsible for the latest spate of high profile (and high speed) diplomacy in action.  It was not sent to the US or the Ukrainians.

Only after these two European leaders insisted the plan was also sent to President Poroshenko, was it indeed sent – yesterday.  Rightly these two European leaders stopped off in Kyiv to get the Ukrainian view prior to heading on to Moscow.  That the Kremlin sought to solve the war in Ukraine without involving Ukraine sends its own message.  That it continues to deny involvement despite all evidence to the contrary, sends another.  That is does not want the US as an interlocutor in any negotiated outcomes yet another.

It is also necessary to remind ourselves that the Kremlin adventure in eastern Ukraine is an adventure with a purpose – to regain political control of Kyiv and subjugate Ukraine to its whim once again.  The ripple effect, if successful, is the perception (and perhaps real) effect of a sphere of influence over its neighbours.  By extension it is a clear challenge to the rule of law, and unilaterally displays the Kremlin will to disregard previously ratified agreements, be they bilateral, regional and international, to respect sovereign borders only when it suits.

In short, any deal that may or may not be delivered that does not provide for a Kremlin sphere of influence and political control over Ukraine (and others) will be nothing more than a masquerade on behalf of the Kremlin.  Its goal and desire to achieve control over its neighbourhood will remain unchanged unless it forced to reconsider due to the odds of success dramatically reducing somehow.

This is where the “do we”/”don’t we” arm Ukraine proponents clash.  Those against cite the clear and real potential for further Kremlin escalation if arming occurs.  The argument goes, The Kremlin simply cares more about Ukraine than the west does and will escalate to win.  Perhaps so, but despite that argument, Ukrainians in all probability care more about Ukraine than the Kremlin, and they have already died in their thousands fighting for Ukraine.  Convincing Ukrainians that no military help supports a diplomatic solution that has not only not arrived but has also seen swathes of its territory occupied via escalating Kremlin actions, is something of an ask.

Those in favour of arming Ukraine cite the fact that efforts so far have simply not prevented any Kremlin escalation, and indeed such a reactive and barely proportionate or timely response, has actually encouraged and/or enabled The Kremlin.  They accept the risks of Kremlin escalation, but consider those risks acceptable compared to doing nothing and simply watching the Kremlin escalate regardless.

Perhaps those against would eventually be proven right given enough time.  The problem is, with Ukrainian territory being captured daily, Ukraine does not have the time to wait and see if they are going to be proven correct in the months, and indeed years, ahead.  The clocks for Ukraine and The Kremlin are not synchronised when it comes to critical time lines (or outcomes).  Ukraine is in need of a method of synchronising those clocks and slowing/stopping further territorial loses if at all possible.  Therein lies the argument to arm Ukraine – or not – with modern, but purely defensive, weapons.

It is not Ukraine that needs to be convinced that there is no military solution – it is The Kremlin that has to be convinced – and thus far every military solution it has employed has been effective on the ground.

After all, purely defensive weapons are not going to be much use for an offensive attempt to regain lost territory – and neither will the Kremlin simply allow any offensive to be successful.

Much attention will therefore be paid to any demarcation line between the teeth arms of the combatants – perhaps rightly.  The meeting today in Moscow between the leaders of France, Germany and Russia may well arrive at a fudge over the previously identified demarcation line within the Minsk Agreement – if President Poroshenko can sell that to the Ukrainian public.  The last hastily delivered EU/Russia brokered deal involving a Ukrainian president saw him flee the country.

However, the line that matters the most, is that of the official Ukrainian border with Russia, for that is the line that will need to be restored to Ukrainian control if regional and international law is to be maintained regarding territorial integrity and Ukrainian sovereignty – the most important issue currently being challenged for any law aiding nation globally.

Is there anybody who seriously considers that the Kremlin will simply allow Ukraine to control its borders, in effect “surrounding” the “people’s republics”, and cutting supply Kremlin lines any time soon?  The “people’s republics” were created for a political reason after all – an anchor heavy enough to prevent Ukrainian movement westward.  Thus far, the Kremlin cannot be certain that the anchor is heavy enough – or permanent enough.  The only solution acceptable to the Kremlin is one that provides such an anchor.

The events in Ukraine have always been zero sum from the Kremlin perspective.  They remain zero sum.  They will always be zero sum.  Anything the Kremlin is seen to accept that is anything less than the Kremlin being assured of its desired outcome will be a temporary masquerade.  Alternatively any such Kremlin acceptance will be given only after being faced with significant obstacles that would make any such effort far more difficult and costly.  As yet, those obstacles are clearly not there.

However, if for whatever reason, the Kremlin accepts a deal far below its requirements to control Ukraine, the issue of arming Ukraine does not disappear.  Ukraine will rightly still perceive the Kremlin as an adversary and a threat – which it undoubtedly will be.  Ukraine will therefore still want to arm itself with more modern, technically superior defensive weaponry to that which it currently holds – and it will buy those weapons from somebody, as it is not under any arms embargoes.  The Kremlin cannot be allowed to prevent a sovereign nation buying conventional defensive weaponry indefinitely, even if the “do not arm Ukraine” lobby have not thought that far down the road – however far that may be.

If the Kremlin  considers arming Ukraine with defensive weaponry a threat to Russian interests now, what reason is there to think the same (escalating) objections won’t be raised after a “period of calm” that comes from any agreement that may or may nor be broken at any time?

That Lithuania has tired of waiting and is now supplying weaponry to Ukraine by its own admission, is perhaps recognition that it understands that there will be a strong Kremlin reaction to the arming of Ukraine with western hi-tech defensive weaponry whenever it is supplied – so why not now when the Ukrainian leadership is pleading for it?  Whenever it is supplied, the Kremlin will escalate punishments toward Ukraine – however they manifest.

Whether Poland, Romania and others will follow the Lithuanian lead prior to any US decision remains to be seen – but a very brave decision by Lithuania when nobody can be sure, and indeed many doubt, the robustness of NATO’s Article 5 should it be put to the test.

Thus the reality is such that the Kremlin sees Ukraine and the former Soviet space as a zero sum endeavor, which at (almost) all costs it will fight bitterly to control – and not simply on the ground in the Donbas.  Ukraine is, of course, very aware of this – as are all of Russia’s neighbours.  Hence we are now seeing tangible coalitions of the willing appearing – the LitPolUkrBrig now a ratified reality – in addition to, or instead of, or within, previous security structures – or straddling them with some members within and others without.  Denmark and Estonia are getting ever more cozy.  Such coalitions of the willing are likely to only increase in number.

Another issue, especially for those fighting for, and especially leading the “people’s republics” is that they have little to offer the populations they control if and when the fighting stops.  A Transnistrian future is hardly a welcoming prospect with a Kremlin suffering from economic woes that are not going to go away any time soon, even if the Kremlin decides that the “republics” are no longer a suitable anchor within Ukraine and were to facilitate separation via recognition, or even more unlikely, annexation.

Could the Kremlin ,or anybody else, convince the leaders of the “republics” their future lies within Ukraine and to stop fighting with immediate effect?

No solutions are going to come from any meeting in Moscow today – at best there will possibly be some respite from the needless deaths of civilians – for however long that lasts.

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