Ukraine: Fighting For Fields of Debris

Any victory Russia might achieve in Ukraine would surely be Pyrrhic, says Christopher Westdal. It is time for Moscow to cut its losses.
By: /
July 29, 2014
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The grotesque tragedy of the downing of MH17 has led to a rapid escalation of the war in Ukraine, with heavy Russian arms flows to the rebels now no secret and reports of cross-border fire from both sides proliferating.

Against this backdrop of deepening war, the truth of MH17 will try to out. The Dutch, the Malaysians, and the Australians, tragically thrown together, look like an A-team for the purpose, but their unarmed police contingents and investigators are kept from the site—near the war's front lines.

The MH17 catastrophe might yet transcend propaganda, the way Chernobyl did, the way Katrina did. It could also test President Putin as never before in the eyes of the world and of the Russian people. It will certainly colour his legacy. The present stakes are high, too. Putin would surely lose vital standing at home were his Ukrainian incursions to break bad, as they are now clearly threatening to do, dreadfully so, with the limits of the cynical strategy and masked tactics of the Kremlin's meddling unto war in Ukraine exposed and the threat of a Slavic civil war looming, all at enormous cost to Russia's economy, its stature in the world, and all on top of the USD$50 billion fine just slapped on Russia for taking Yukos down ten years ago.

Now, Russia's sustained arms flows and active military support to the rebels have ensured ever more damaging sanctions targeting sectors of the Russian economy, Vladimir Putin himself, and yet more of his key partners. The conviction is now widespread, even in European quarters that are most conscious of the cost of sanctions, that Moscow’s recent acts have put Russia beyond the pale, as Prime Minister Harper insists, and that pressure must be increased until the Kremlin changes course in Ukraine.

I doubt that many expected President Putin would go this far, or that he would take such risks with Russia's standing and with his own legacy. His drive to reverse the strategic setback of the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych (a bad horse the Russians should never have bet on, let alone double-down) was understandable. So, too, were the provocative insult and the aggression Putin saw in NATO's expansion. His dismissal of Western hypocrisy, when John Kerry advised him that invading sovereign countries and arming rebels were illegal, was to be expected; forked tongues don't lash well. President Putin incites scant sympathy, but these responses could at least be understood.

What is not readily grasped now is how President Putin thinks the further pursuit of this war can serve Russia's security. Any victory won on the field would surely be Pyrrhic. Even if the Donbass were pried loose by war, it would be at the cost of the bitter alienation of a large neighbour—and many others beyond. To what end and at what cost to Russian pride, identity, reputation, and influence?

There comes a time to cut losses: Crimea is back in the Motherland, but mainland Ukraine is not and cannot by force be taken in any shape worth having at any price worth paying. The Orange Revolution was betrayed several times, but it cannot be undone. President Putin should quit while he's ahead and stop trying—now so counter-productively—to deny or compromise the independence of Ukraine.

Crimea was a cakewalk, a line in the sand crossed at the cost of a few raps on the wrist. The mainland, though, is proving a hard red line, blood red—and the limits of the tactics of masked warfare are being exposed: they require too many lies and too many thugs who cannot be wholly controlled—or presented to company.

Meanwhile, however broke their Treasury, haphazard their administration, feckless their friends, and ill-prepared their forces, the Ukrainians are fighting and will fight on, imbued now with fresh patriotic fervour to attack "terrorists" abetted by a newly-exposed demon, the President of Russia. Caught in traps of their own making, Ukrainians and Russians are careening to major disaster, "terrorists" versus "fascists," both sides dehumanized, easier to kill.

The point seems academic at the moment, but were they of a mind to, these warring parties could sort this out jawing—which they are anyway one day map-bound and fated to do. The issues at stake are well-known: the destiny of the Donbass (whose citizens could surely not by Canadians be condemned for calling for the right to legal secession by plebiscite, if they so choose); the strategic orientation of Ukraine (and whether neutrality is to be self-proclaimed, as a prudent concession to reality—or inflicted, ruthlessly, in the form of chronic enfeeblement); and the devolution of powers to protect the cultural and language rights of Ukraine's Russian diaspora, a seventh of its people.

To overcome its reluctance to talk to the rebels, Kyiv should heed Moshe Dayan: "If you want to make peace, you don't have to talk to your friends, you have to talk to your enemies." Unless it wants another battle for a field of debris, like the one now underway, Kyiv can't bomb the Donbass back into the fold.

Moreover, whether it talks or fights, there are some facts Kyiv can’t change. Ukraine can't move; it must live beside Russia. It is Europe's mistress, occasionally well-tipped, but it doesn't get to move in—it rooms with Russia. Europe wants a buffer, too. The facts are also that the EU is full and broke, that "ultimate" EU membership remains Never-Never Land and that NATO membership is not in the cards either, the Europeans having just made it plain they won't fight (or readily sacrifice much) for Ukraine, and President Obama having from the start ruled out a military response. There is much in these facts for Kyiv not to like. The accommodation of reality, however, is a definition of sanity.

The spheres of influence of major powers are real. We Canadians know that; we live in one. In the real world—particularly given Russia's obvious vulnerabilities and fears—Kyiv remains about as free to adopt a security policy hostile to Moscow as we are to adopt one hostile to Washington. This may be bitter medicine for Kyiv. For Moscow too, though, as the failure of its ten-year campaign to reverse the Orange Revolution becomes clear, there is a hard lesson: they are properly called spheres of influence, not spheres of control. The less benign the influence, the harder the control. We all reap what we sow, Russia too.

I was in Moscow ten years ago when the Orange Revolution threw Viktor Yanukovych out the first time. I thought the earth had moved, that Russia and Vladimir Putin had finally come to terms with Ukrainian independence. It is now quite clear that they had not. That independence is a present fact, though. Russians have helped make it so—and they'll have to get used to it.

Russia is powerful enough to make Ukraine's political and economic life miserable, should it have nothing better to do. But it is not powerful enough to get away with it. In its ruthless, ever more aggressive backing of Ukraine's rebels—to the verge now of major Slavic civil war, in its regularly incredible propaganda and now in its and its allies' mismanagement of victims' remains and of vital evidence, the Kremlin is driving a stake through the heart of any hope for regional amity and alienating a good part of the world. Russians really need to think of better things to do.