Unless Russia and the rebels it backs in eastern Ukraine find Mariupol an irresistible strategic target — in which case all bets are off, again — the Minsk II ceasefire and peace deal Angela Merkel brokered appears to have survived the battle of Debaltseve and may be taking hold.
This tragic Slavic civil war has killed thousands and condemned millions to misery. Now, the West is slip-sliding to a hot proxy war with an increasingly strident Russia. Our leaders are trading insults. Economic and information wars rage. Cooperation is faltering in nuclear arms control, in the Arctic and in the Middle East. New fear and lethal anger are in the air. The atmosphere recalls the Cold War we thought we’d left behind.
How can war be happening in Europe 2015, 25 years after the Cold War ended? In part, it’s because of what happened in 1991 when the USSR voluntarily broke up. A superpower of 300 million became 15 republics. Overnight, 20 million ethnic Russians found themselves stranded abroad.
The break-up was relatively peaceful, though the formalization of new states — the borders of which had been imposed arbitrarily by Stalin and Khrushchev to balance ethnic nationalists — left inevitable loose ends. The most awkward was Ukraine, where the heavily Russian eastern provinces — including Crimea, with its unique hold on the Russian historic imagination — were radically different in history, ethnicity and outlook from the Western provinces, which had been part of the Hapsburg Empire and later of Poland.
By 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic attempt to transform a stagnant and conformist communist society by upending its economics, politics and official beliefs had resulted in what David Remnick called “the wreckage of everyday life.” There was no precedent for change of this scale and complexity. No one — least of all the hordes of Western advisers — knew a short-cut to the kind of behavioural change and institutional evolution that took hundreds of years to develop as liberal democracy and capitalism elsewhere. Furthermore, the Russians were — and remain — Russian, inheritors of a very old, very proud civilization with its own unique roots.
A ham-handed revanchist coup against Gorbachev was defeated by the people of Moscow and by Boris Yeltsin from atop a tank. A diminished Gorbachev sought a looser Soviet Union — but it was too late. His public standing had sunk. Yeltsin couldn’t displace him as president, having just saved him from a coup. So he replaced his country; he broke up the Soviet Union.
To do so, he had to have Ukraine on board. Long-time Communist Party boss Leonid Kravchuk had been anything but a passionate Ukrainian nationalist, but he cut a deal with nationalists who agree that if Kravchuk led Ukraine to independence, he would get to run it. In Kyiv, the music changed, but the orchestra stayed much the same. So began 23 years of venal governance.
The Maidan revolutions of 2004 and 2013-14 were in part about Ukraine’s struggle to balance relations between Russia and the EU. Above all, however, the protests were staged against the systemic corruption and inequity that had plagued the young state from the start. An association agreement with the EU would have bound politicians to codes of conduct based on Western norms of transparency and accountability.
Vladimir Putin has run Russia since 2000. By most standards his rule has been successful; he’s doubled the size of the economy, suppressed terrorism and strengthened the state, in return for a suspension of political competition. For him, the danger in the Maidan protests wasn’t just the threat of the protests spreading like contagion to the Russian cities that had begun to contest his own oligarchic rule. What Putin saw in the demonstrations and their outcome was U.S.-backed regime change aimed at containing Russia. After the “decade of humiliation,” deepened by the Bush administration’s dismissal of Russia as a loser, the Russian public cheered Putin for standing up to the United States.
Putin stirred the emotional pot at home by charging Kyiv with the suppression of ethnic Russians, even though the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens speak Russian and inter-marriage is widespread. In turn, extreme nativist Ukrainian militants — while a tiny proportion of the population — were increasingly prominent on the Maidan and made enough noise for state-controlled Russian TV to build a patriotic narrative claiming Russian families needed defence. In disgruntled eastern Ukraine, separatists fell under the sway of self-styled rebel commanders who were themselves under the sway of an interventionist Kremlin.
Crimea — including Sebastopol, the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet — was a cakewalk for the Kremlin. Little force was required; Russian troops were already there and a majority of Crimeans were soon quite willing. Russia’s commitment to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees, was jettisoned on the grounds there had been a coup in Kyiv against a democratically-elected president.
On the mainland, though, intervention veered toward catastrophe. A million people have been displaced, their region devastated. Thousands have been killed, including Ukrainian soldiers trying bravely to defend the central government’s control over a dissident region seeking autonomy and even absorption by Russia.
Western countries charge Russia with aggression, with up-ending the “rule-based” international system. This is a bit rich, coming from the parties which unilaterally invaded Iraq, devastated Libya and wrecked a whole region. But sanctions against Russia were justified; they have held and are hurting the petrostate as it struggles to cope with cheap oil. A collapse of confidence has led to disinvestment and capital flight. Long term, poor infrastructure and technology denial will hurt Russia even more. The costs of Russia’s Ukrainian incursion are sky-high and still rising.
Was Ukraine a one-off? Putin may be bold, but he would have to be crazy – which he is not — to challenge the Article V commitments of NATO by making a move on the Baltics.
Except for some warmed-over cold warriors, though, hurting Russia isn’t the point. The urgent, overarching task is to reduce the risk of a wider war, to stop the killing and devastation, and to regain the regional amity essential to Ukrainian prospects. The parties need to negotiate terms they’re all prepared to live with — an outcome that respects regional realities, including Russia’s natural security interest in the strategic orientation of Ukraine, and Ukraine’s urgent interest in the peace and freedom required to mend the many wounds of war, get its governance on track and fulfill its national destiny between Europe and Russia.
It’s not that there are no military options. It’s just that there are no military options worth the price in blood and the risk of a hot war between nuclear powers. The issues surrounding Donbas’ allegiance can be addressed without combat — and they must be, urgently and relentlessly, however many Minsks it takes.
Military confrontation on Russia’s border would be whole orders of magnitude more dangerous than the economic freeze we can expect to see continue until a settlement emerges. Some military cooperation between NATO and Ukraine should be considered normal between friends — but the provision now of “lethal” modern military supplies to Ukraine’s under-trained and problematically privatized armed forces would not challenge Russia’s overwhelming military superiority. It would, however, risk far more death and destruction — while giving Putin all the proof he needs to show that the West is the enemy.
It will take a long time to tie up the loose ends between Ukraine and Russia. Negotiating new measures of regional autonomy for those parts of the Donbas that seem to have opted for it will be a difficult, vexing process. Kyiv’s authority in a more decentralized country, even a federal state, will be affected. But the rest of the country has built out of this war a broad sense of solidarity and purpose that should improve Ukraine’s odds of getting a fresh start — provided a combination of major reform and massive Western economic support clicks in. Then the competition with Russia will be peaceful and about governance.
Putin’s effort to re-connect Russia to a semi-imaginary pre-Bolshevik past to shore up a national identity voided by the evacuation of all-embracing communism has led to intolerance and intimidation. A culture of fear and hatred — the culture that led to the murder of Putin’s most prominent critic, Boris Nemtsov — must prove barren, unworthy of Russia at home and abroad.
The best way for Russia to proceed with other countries is to engage, not spoil. Ultimately, the decision to avoid further war in Ukraine and an escalating conflict with the West belongs to Putin; the rest of us have the task of dealing with him.