A Face-Saving Invasion

Sending troops into eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin risks NATO involvement

IP Journal  August 28, 2014

by Elizabeth Pond

The long-feared direct Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine has now begun, unannounced. This is no war of necessity, but the ultimate war of choice – an arbitrary personal choice to save Vladimir Putin’s face after the Russian president began losing his seven-month gamble to foment civil war in Ukraine by proxy separatists.

Putin still continues to deny blandly that Russia is sending ever more troops, tanks, multiple rocket launchers, and advanced anti-aircraft missile systems over the border to promote pro-Russian secession in eastern Ukraine. Yet as of Wednesday, Moscow is no longer just supporting Ukrainian and Russian mercenaries led by a light overlay of Russian commanders like Russian military intelligence colonel Igor Strelkov, until recently the military commander of the self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk.” Nor is Russia simply firing artillery from Russian soil onto Ukrainian army troops that are besieging the remaining separatist strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk. Instead, Moscow has now sent elite Russian paratroopers from the 331st airborne guard regiment of the Svirsk division to spearhead an attack on the hitherto peaceful and only lightly defended coast on the Azov Sea extension of the Black Sea.

With this escalation, Putin is bringing upon himself the very thing he professed to fear the most – NATO engagement in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has appealed to the Western defense alliance for military aid and is scheduled to attend the NATO summit next week. NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen has told European journalists that the alliance will indeed set up four trust funds to finance Ukraine’s military logistics, command and control structures, and cyber defenses, and to pay the armed forces’ pensions. The alliance will also, for the first time, set up de facto permanent bases on the territory of its Baltic state members to facilitate rapid response to any Russian attempts to “defend” ethnic Russians there by force. In addition, neutral Sweden and Finland, which have long quietly depended on NATO for their ultimate defense, will sign a pact at the summit meeting that approves help from NATO troops in emergencies in Nordic countries.

The Russian escalation also scotches the assiduous efforts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to find some face-saving way for Putin to pull back from the first armed land grab of a neighbor’s territory in Europe since 1945. This ends the brief interregnum in which Merkel surprised everyone by assuming the geopolitical as well as the economic leadership of Europe. By default, she became the West’s “sherpa” for Ukraine policy as US President Barack Obama was distracted by crises in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere. Now that diplomacy has failed to deter Russia’s direct incursion into Ukraine, however, tougher Western financial and visa sanctions on Russian leaders are sure to follow, under Washington’s leadership.

Even inside Germany, which Moscow has long regarded as its best friend in the European Union, something has snapped under the provocation of Putin’s adventurism. Ever since the Russian annexation of Crimea in mid-March, Christian Democrat Merkel and her Social Democratic foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have led the political and the traditional pro-Russian business class away from their widespread innate sympathy for Russia.

As a result, Berlin’s rethinking of Germany’s decades-old abstinence from global security leadership that began last February has accelerated. It is now culminating in the government’s unprecedented decision to help arm Kurdish troops against Islamic State jihadis in Iraq. On the economic side, the large majority of German businessmen now agree that the restoration of Europe’s post-World-War-II taboo on violent coercion must take precedence over their commercial interest in Russia. This has translated into business endorsement of increasingly robust Western sanctions on Putin’s inner circle and even on Russian banks and energy firms. The sanctions provide little immediate deterrence, but they have already triggered huge capital flight from Russia and a drying-up of sorely needed investment and will inflict long-term damage on the Russian economy.

Moscow further squandered its reservoir of good will in the broader German population when Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was shot down over rebel territory in eastern Ukraine in mid-July, apparently by a powerful Russian Buk missile.

Even more damaging for Putin’s signature dream of building a Russian-led Eurasian Union is his alienation of ordinary Ukrainians from Russia after a millennium of common culture as fellow East Slavs. Reliable opinion surveys have consistently shown that a majority of Ukrainian citizens – including those in the east, despite their complaints about neglect by the Kiev government – want Ukraine to remain a unified sovereign state rather than be dismembered. Some 83 percent favored the establishment of Ukraine as an independent country as the Soviet Union imploded in the early 1990s. Today, after months of bloodshed, 90 percent – including a majority in the east – favor the preservation of Ukraine in its present borders.

Petro Poroshenko reflected Ukraine’s alienation from Russia in warning this past week that “in the foreseeable future, unfortunately, a constant military threat will hang over Ukraine.” The confrontation has already cost Ukraine more than 2,000 civilian and military lives, but Ukraine’s president cautioned: “We need to learn not only to live with this, but also to be always prepared to defend the independence of our country.”

ELIZABETH POND, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe.“ She has covered Ukraine for over 30 years.


© Elizabeth Pond


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