Debunking an urban myth

By Elizabeth Pond

It’s time to debunk the lingering urban myths that Germany has resisted imposing sanctions on Russia over its undeclared war on Ukraine and might once again desert the West in a flirtation with Russia. True, Chancellor Angela Merkel favors smart sanctions over blunt sanctions and is trying to negotiate with Russia a deescalation of the violence in Ukraine that has already killed more than 5000. But that’s empowerment, not opposition.

Moreover, her broader record in maximizing the West’s very weak opening Ukraine hand is impressive. At the start of the crisis, she told parliament bluntly that Russia’s land grab of its weak neighbor’s territory was unacceptable in a Europe that has finally turned a blood-soaked continent, in a “miraculous” evolution, into a zone of peace. Together with the United States, she sensibly rejected putting Western boots on the ground in a theater where Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys overwhelming military dominance and parades his will to use it. As a surrogate counter to Russian aggression, then, she and the West as a whole gambled on pitting their soft power of long-term financial might against Russia’s hard power of short-term military muscle.

Berlin and Washington stressed that the West must stay united in the crisis and agreed to resolve tactical differences pragmatically, by writing separate but overlapping lists of sanction targets and coordinating them. America’s list was widely advertised by Congressmen as seeking to punish Putin and make him feel pain–and was also intended, Russian officials trumpeted, to force regime change on Moscow. Merkel’s list of targets was specifically aimed at deterrence of future aggression in Ukraine and–unlike the American list–was set to expire after one year unless it was renewed.

The up-front activism of the Christian Democratic chancellor, whose native style personifies leading from behind, met with skepticism in the US, in Europe, and certainly in Russia. Western critics thought that the Social Democratic foreign minister in her right-left grand coalition, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, would never cross his political mentor and Merkel’s predecessor as chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. Schröder famously once praised Putin as a “flawless democrat,” accepted a lucrative Russia-paid job as head of the shareholders’ committee of Gazprom’s Nordstream pipeline the instant he retired from politics–and never publicly challenged Moscow’s violations of international law.

Yet on this issue Steinmeier declared his emancipation from his former boss. He repeatedly condemned Russia’s Crimea snatch as resolutely as Merkel did. And within his party’s Bundestag caucus he weaned most of the left wing away from their nostalgia for the grand deal that never transpired in the days before 2012, when hope persisted that Putin might agree to a more cooperative security partnership with the West in return for investment and technological help in breaking out of Russia’s oil and gas mono-economy.

Even more surprising was Merkel’s success in winning support for financial sanctions, or at least acceptance of them, by the German business lobby that represents some 6000 firms with 300,000 employees who depend on the €77 billion annual trade with Russia. Even though bilateral trade would shrink by 26 percent from August 2013 to August 2014 under the sanctions regime, Merkel persuaded most of the lobby executives that Europe’s security and peace order must trump profits and jobs. She effected this change behind the scenes in private meetings that rarely hit media headlines.

In addition, she quietly provided German guarantees of Ukrainian payments for energy imports from Russia, guarantees which will assuredly be called on. Though no one actually quotes European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s famous words in calming the eurocrisis, Germany is now prepared to pay “whatever it takes” to rescue Ukraine’s dysfunctional economy–if, and only if, the Ukrainian government cleans up the kleptocracy.

Armed with Germany’s own example of tolerating economic pain to uphold Europe’s taboo on forcible change of borders, Merkel then exercised similar suasion on her 27 fractious partner states in the European Union. France reluctantly suspended delivery of two contracted Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia. Britain subordinated the commercial interests of London banks and realtors to the common weal, even if it did continue to export weapons to Russia. Hungary, despite its vaunted turn to Russia (before the ruble plummeted), chose not to be the odd man out. Merkel delivered the required unanimous EU agreement to impose three rounds of sanctions on Putin’s wealthy inner circle as the Russians annexed Crimea.

The one constituency that Merkel did not court personally was the public. Nonetheless, her actions–and the bloodcurdling shooting down of the MH 17 airliner over separatist territory with a Russian Buk missile in July–triggered a public debate that has transformed popular German views of Russia. Last April 49 percent favored a neutral German role as a mediator between the United States and Russia. By December 76 percent mistrusted Russia and 54 percent approved sanctions.

Apart from the issue of sanctions, Germany’s assumption of geopolitical leadership of Europe for the first time since 1945 was most apparent in the diplomatic art of shifting the context of the confrontation over Ukraine in the West’s favor. In effect, President Barack Obama, fully occupied with crises elsewhere in the world–and exasperated that Europeans still remained free riders in security long after the EU had become richer than the US–outsourced the diplomacy to Merkel. This made sense; what to Obama seemed to be a pesky peripheral interest was a vital interest for states in the immediate European neighborhood. Moreover, Merkel was the one Western leader who could still communicate with the Russian president, in part because she speaks Russian from her East German schooldays, in part because Germany has been Russia’s best friend in the West ever since Moscow withdrew its 20 Soviet divisions from (East) German soil after almost half a century and permitted peaceful reunification of the two German states. Berlin, without gloating, let the troops retreat in dignity then and continued to treat Moscow with dignity thereafter.

The diplomacy was especially tricky because Putin’s improvisation to recover from successive setbacks made him unpredictable, while his reflex resort to the two tools he understood, armed coercion and outrageous spin, made him dangerous. Rational appeals that he was destroying the very social contract that had hitherto built his domestic popularity–restoring order after Russia’s initial Wild East capitalism and raising living standards for the urban middle class in return for abstinence from challenging his soft authoritarianism–fell on deaf ears.

At base, despite all his macho bluster, Putin’s annexation of Crimea was an angry reaction to his loss of control of all of Ukraine after he allegedly prodded his acolyte, then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, into authorizing Berkut police snipers to kill some hundred pro-Europe demonstrators in Kiev in early 2014. The counterproductive brutality shocked Yanukovych’s own party into deserting him, accelerated the formation of a distinct Ukrainian identity in opposition to Russian coercion, and voided Putin’s entire pet Eurasian Union project by immunizing East Slav Ukraine against joining and legitimizing it. Yanukovych and his family fled to Russian exile with, according to Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, some $8 billion.

The most urgent challenge to Western diplomacy after Russia incorporated Crimea was to help Ukraine and its parliament-appointed interim government survive during the chaos following Yanukovych’s flight. The neophyte government was in disarray. The neglected and underfunded Ukrainian army seemed useless, and was in any case still stationed on Ukraine’s western border in a deployment pattern inherited from Soviet times. The Ukrainian security services were still heavily laced with Russian commanders. Putin had just resurrected Catherine the Great’s 18th-century name of Novorossiya for what is now the eastern half of Ukraine and laid down a historical claim to it. In the name of New Russia, Russian-armed and -led separatists were beginning to seize administrative buildings in eastern Ukraine, where Putin hoped to ignite a general uprising of Russian-speakers against the Kiev government. Some 80,000 Russian troops on high alert were conducting continuous maneuvers and feinting invasions of Ukraine on an arc to the north, east, and south of Ukraine.

Putin was on a roll, convinced that the Russian capacity for suffering far surpassed that of the effete West. His popularity soared to the mid-eighties in a chauvinist surge. He had acquired Crimea cost-free, as the outgunned Ukrainian army had not resisted the takeover, and as yet there were no dead Russian soldiers. He had lied serially to Merkel, most blatantly in denying any Russian involvement in the armed destabilization of eastern Ukraine. She no longer trusted him to implement any agreed deals.

In dozens of phonecalls with Putin beginning in early March, Merkel, like Obama, offered to help save face for the Russian president if he would get “off ramp” and not further dismember Ukraine. If he did not change his policy, she warned him, Russian oligarchs would face financial sanctions. He shouldn’t delude himself into thinking that German tycoons would thwart them.Yes, the sanctions would hurt the German economy, but this time corporate Germany too would give priority to raison d’état.

In this environment Germany initiated Geneva peace talks in mid-April to deescalate the violence. This achieved two of Berlin’s aims. The immediate goal was to get Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to negotiate directly with his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Deshchytsia (in the protective presence of the American Secretary of State and the EU foreign policy chief) and thus acknowledge the Ukrainian foreign minister’s legitimacy as his interlocutor. The mid-term goal was to keep Russia talking instead of shooting during the month of greatest Ukrainian vulnerability before new votes would begin to confer legitimacy on an elected president and government. Ironically, this more important purpose was realized at least in part because Putin apparently thought the Kiev government and the likely presidential winner, the Europe-oriented chocolate oligarch Petro Poroshenko, were so weak and manipulable that he could gain the prize of Novorossiya without having to fight for it, on the pattern of his Crimean conquest.

American hardliners judged the outcome of the Geneva accord harshly and criticized the Germans for agreeing to delay the next tranche of tougher EU sanctions for a few days (while also criticizing Obama for allegedly showing too much deference to transatlantic unity in the Ukraine crisis). European critics too accused Germans of appeasement and false moral equivalence in inviting Russia to a negotiation about the future of its victim Ukraine. Subsequently, Steinmeier felt obliged to use a budget speech in the Bundestag to refute those who saw German policies as “appeasement and are quick to make [false] comparisons” with Neville Chamberlain’s concessions to Hitler in 1938.

In the event, the Russian army did not attack in the window when in purely military terms it could have sliced through to Kiev, as Putin later boasted, in two days. The ragtag Ukrainian army, after starting a disastrous counteroffensive to retake territory held by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s two easternmost oblasts, had time to regroup. Poroshenko was elected president by a clear majority in the first vote, without needing a runoff, on May 25. The delay before a resurgence of heavy fighting gave both Ukrainian and Russian speakers in the self-styled Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east enough exposure to arbitrary rule by the motley teams of Russian proxies (and their failure to pay out the promised higher pensions) to sour on them. The inhabitants of Novorossiya did not rally to the pro-Russian cause as Putin had expected and thus confronted him with a second shrinkage of his influence in Ukraine to only Crimea and the Donbas of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainian army, purged of at least some of its Russian agents, resumed the counteroffensive in tandem with volunteer militias and by August pushed back the Russian proxies to two Donbas enclaves and prepared for the coup de grace.

At that point Putin drew his red line in the sand. He would not let his proxies be defeated. Still denying that any Russian regulars were fighting in Ukraine, he sent elite paratroopers to Ukraine in his first direct invasion of his fellow East Slav neighbor. In a few devastating days the 7000 combined Russian troops in the country overran at least five of Ukraine’s 15 brigades and rendered them combat ineffective, according to the Potomac Foundation. Poroshenko understood the message and quickly agreed to a truce on September 5. Berlin saw to it that the pact, while confirming a new front line that left pro-Russian forces in control of half of Donetsk and Luhansk, nonetheless contained provisions that could eventually form the basis for a semi-permanent ceasefire. These included a buffer zone free of heavy weapons and closure of the porous Ukrainian-Russian border to further flows of Russian tanks, artillery, and military personnel under the oversight of the revived Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. By extension, the truce defined the preconditions for easing financial sanctions. The Germans had also seen to it that the original EU sanctions were organized in packages that could be varied to calibrate signalling to Russia without requiring fresh authorization from the EU Council for each decision.

Since then, in flexible small fora–sometimes in the “Normandy format” of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France, sometimes in the “contact group” of Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE , sometimes in such ad hoc groups as Germany, France, and Poland or Ukraine, Russia, the EU, and the US–Berlin has continued to lead the diplomatic probes for a more stable ceasefire.

By the time Black Tuesday hit in mid-December, the ruble dropped to half its value of a year earlier, capital flight from Russia reached an annual $130 billion, GDP headed for a fall of over four percent in 2015, and Western investment in Russia dried up, Putin stopped scorning the sanctions as a pinprick. By aggravating the impact of the drop in oil price to $60 a barrel, the West’s sanctions began to bite a year earlier than advocates had expected. Even Putin, perhaps, now has to reconsider the forces his belligerence has unleashed. These include not only an accelerated rush by Ukrainians to drop an East Slav for a European Ukrainian identity, but also Russian domestic disapproval of sending Russian boys to get killed in Ukraine, as voiced by mothers and widows of the dead Russian soldiers, that are buried secretly by the army. They include as well potential renewed Chechen insurgency and sly distancing from Moscow by Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan A. Nazarbayev. A hint that the Russian president may be doing some rethinking could perhaps be found in pragmatic Russian-Ukrainian deals on energy and humanitarian aid for civilians in the Donbas over the winter and what seems to be a decision to leave the region as formally still part of Ukraine rather than annexing it to Russia.

If this narrative is a correct reading of events, why then does the myth of German resistance to sanctions–and suspicion of a looming repetition of German defection from Western liberalism–persist?

For four reasons, perhaps. The first is that Merkel’s leading from behind of her grand coalition, the pro-Russian German business lobby, and the EU operated so smoothly that the evolution of Berlin’s Ukraine policy seemed to happen automatically. With no Sturm und Drang, Merkel’s low-key campaign drew few headlines.

The second, related reason is a widespread misunderstanding by outsiders of how foreign policy is shaped in Germany and a tendency to conflate opinion polls and TV talk shows with real policy. Foreign policy actually remains an elite affair that is resolved within a notably stable centrist consensus.

The third reason is a widespread misunderstanding by outsiders both of the process of forging common policy within an EU of 28 members and of Berlin’s special role in forming a consensus that gets beyond a lowest common denominator to real evolution. Germany regularly helps by digging into its deep pockets, of course. But at its best, as a true believer in the European dream of integration, Germany also helps build consensus by lending a sympathetic ear to the smallest as well as the biggest members and formulating ways to blend varied interests. Greeks would surely object to this description, but Norwegian and Polish think tankers speak of Germany as Europe’s indispensable nation. German Foreign Ministry State Secretary Markus Ederer describes Berlin’s unique role as the CFO–the Chief Facilitating Officer–of the European Union.

Finally, the fourth reason might be a kind of historical determinism in the recurring fear–even 70 years after 1945 and the deep repudiation of Hitler’s crimes by today’s citizens–that the Germans could again succumb to their old anti-Western and anti-liberal temptations. Suspicions of a German-Russian flirtation, suggests one senior Scandinavian government analyst, were fed by “the extraordinary denial of the danger that Putin presents that was propagated so loudly by so many outspoken Germans in the security field” right up to the shock of the Russian takeover of Crimea in March 2014. By now evidence to support such worries is hard to find.

On the contrary, it looks so far as if well-coordinated Western sanctions, the Ukrainian armed forces’ feisty defense of the homeland, and Angela Merkel’s patient diplomacy have combined to produce a least-worst outcome that no optimist could have dreamed of when Putin annexed Crimea one year ago.

The short form of this essay was published in Foreign Affairs, vol. 94, no. 2 (March/April 2015) under the headline : Germany’s Real Role in the Ukraine Crisis

http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/143033/elizabeth-pond-and-hans-kundnai/germanys-real-role-in-the-ukraine-crisis

The Waiting Game

Berlin Policy Journal 12 June 2015

By Elizabeth Pond

No, the West has not (yet) lost Ukraine in Vladimir Putin’s Russian roulette, and the fragile Minsk truce and Western sanctions on Moscow over its land grab in Ukraine have not failed.

A more nuanced reading of the current state of affairs in the Ukraine crisis would stress that we are still in a waiting game in Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine–but there is evolution in its terms. The Obama administration has recently reengaged directly with Russian president Putin after more than a year of minimal contact (and Russian media are spinning this as proof that the United States finally sees it must restore good relations with world-power Russia and dump unimportant Ukraine). The West, while still refusing to give lethal weapons to Kiev to counter the lethal weapons that Russia is pouring into rebel eastern Ukraine, has begun cautious training of Ukrainian troops and is sharing more battlefield intelligence with Kiev. And the West, including Japan, showed unexpected unity at last weekend’s G-7 summit in threatening to adopt even tougher sanctions if the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine fail to adhere fully to the “Minsk agreements“–meaning both the stricter original ceasefire of last September and its more lax implementation deal in February of this year.

In the European Union German Chancellor Angela Merkel has successfully nailed any easing of EU financial sanctions on Russia this year to Moscow’s and the separatists’ full implementation of the Minsk accords. In Moscow Russian President Putin has revealed, by curbing some hothead separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas –and even managing to drop his vaunted campaign to wrest all of the “Novorossiya east of Ukraine away from Kiev without sparking any Russian backlash–that he has not after all loosed nationalist demons that he can no longer control.

All told, Russian mathematician and Putin critic Andrey Piontkovsky detects a “new toughening of the West’s position.” It has decided that it “must stop Putin in Ukraine by non-military means” today to prevent having to use military means tomorrow to defend Baltic members of NATO against Russian incursions.

This will confront Putin with a choice, Piontkovsky concludes, between “political death as someone who will be held responsible for corruption, responsible for the downing of [Malaysia] airliner [flight 17] and a mass of other unattractive affairs or be the fighting leader of ‘the Russian world’ who throws a challenge to the entire West.”

In this changing environment the asymmetrical waiting that Kyiv, Moscow, Berlin, and Washington are currently practicing might best be summarized as follows.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is braced for a “full-scale invasion” by Russia from the estimated 9000 heavily-armed Russian troops inside Ukraine’s Donbas and 50,000 massed just over the Russian border. He expects a Russian/separatist attempt to seize more Ukrainian land at any moment, probably starting with an offensive like last week’s 12-hour battle in which a Russian/separatist attack on Maryinka, despite the truce, tried (but failed) to dislodge Ukrainian defenders.

The biggest potential spoiler of Poroshenko’s hopes to defend Ukraine is that contingent of 59,000 Russian soldiers in and near the Donbas. Last summer Ukrainian forces came close to routing eastern separatists that at the time were only thinly buttressed by Russian regulars and officers. Putin therefore showed he would not tolerate defeat of his proxies by sending elite Russian airborne troops into Ukraine in late August to repulse the Ukrainians in one short week. Since then he has steadily funneled ever more Russian T-72 main battle tanks, multiple rocket launchers, artillery, and armor over the border into Ukraine, while rotating Russian troops and generals in and out of the Donbas in varying numbers. Poroshenko realistically acknowledged Russia’s vast military superiority and Putin’s red line by immediately agreeing to the first Minsk truce of September 5. The barely disguised Russian forces in the Donbas–despite all the OSCE monitoring, photo, Facebook, and electronic evidence, Putin still denies flatly that any Russian forces are there–are now poised either for mere intimidation or for a blitzkrieg, should Putin so decide.

President Putin, according to German Kremlin-watchers, is expecting the Ukrainian government to collapse from its own–to use Soviet-speak–“contradictions.” He rightly sees Kiev’s basket-case economy as far worse off than Russia’s. He also expects fratricidal instincts among Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians to grow in a repetition of the meltdown of the government elected after the first pro-European Maidan protests in the 2004 Orange Revolution. He might therefore just prefer to wait for the Kiev government to fall instead of launching an offensive that would surely increase combat deaths among those Russian soldiers who supposedly aren’t in Ukraine, and whose deaths Putin is at pains to hide from their mothers and wives.

Moreover, the Russian president expects that the Europeans will soon feel Ukraine fatigue and ease their sanctions–much as he (wrongly) expected the Russophile German business lobby to block imposition of sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and as he (wrongly) expected Ukraine’s chaotic interim government and provisional president Poroshenko to fail before Poroshenko’s first-ballot election to his post a year ago. He could very well make the same decision he made in spring of 2014, when he mobilized some 80,000 troops on high alert for a month on Ukraine’s north, east, and south, but then chose to forego invasion for the cheaper alternative of letting Ukraine, as he (wrongly) anticipated, self-destruct.

Potential spoilers of Putin’s hopes to win by waiting are Merkel’s ability so far to hold the 28 EU members together on unanimous sanctions; Russia’s growing financial losses under the sanctions, which are hurting Russia’s economy faster than any of the sanctions’ authors dreamed possible; and Ukraine’s surprising resilience in the 15 months of Russia’s war.

Chancellor Merkel, as the leader of Western diplomacy in the Ukraine crisis, has always played the long game in the Ukraine crisis. Last year she succeeded in offsetting the West’s utter military absence in Russia’s neighborhood–and the West’s public refusal to put it own boots on the ground of non-ally Ukraine–by orchestrating a deescalation of violence in the initial September 5 Minsk truce. This averted any dangerous spiral of escalation that Russia would always win in its own environs. For her the truce was never an end in itself, but a search for a tacit equilibrium at a lowered level of violence. This first equilibrium held uneasily for four months, until the Russian/separatist forces resumed an offensive in January that captured a ring of towns and villages on the Ukrainian side of the 400-kilometer truce line. At that point Merkel and Poroshenko sued Putin for a new equilibrium in the February “Minsk-2” implementation that tacitly recognized the new Russian gains.

Merkel still hopes that the longer the West can confine Putin and his separatist protégés to a quasi-frozen conflict in the war-ravaged seven percent of Ukrainian territory that Moscow controls in the Donbas, the sooner Putin will be compelled to see the economic, international, and even domestic costs to Russia of his bullying of Ukraine. She has always offered to help the Russian president save face if he reverses his aggression, and she continues to do so, even if face-saving has become ever harder as he has narrowed his own options by reflexive resort to enhanced violence in response to setbacks.

The greatest potential spoiler to Merkel’s scenario of restoring heartland Europe’s seven-decade peace order, then, is Vladimir Putin’s 19th-century fixation on national military greatness.

For his part, President Barack Obama is pairing his reluctant direct reengagement with Russia with conspicuous NATO exercises to reassure Poland and Baltic NATO members of their collective security under the alliance’s Article 5 pledge and with steadily increasing non-lethal military support to Ukraine. And the administration is floating the ideas of modifying the missile defense it is now building in Europe against any Iranian nuclear breakout to target Russian missiles too–and possibly even returning intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles to Europe on British bases.

The greatest potential spoiler of American hopes for Ukraine is perhaps distraction by all the other world crises and by the all-consuming 2016 presidential campaign that has already started.

At this point all are waiting to see what the key player of Vladimir Putin will do next. In this confrontation, Andrey Piontkovsky concludes that emotionally, Putin will indeed be drawn to play the role of “the fighting leader of ‘the Russian world’ who throws a challenge to the entire West.” But Piontkovsky senses that some of his entourage may finally be starting to think that his “political death” might be a preferable alternative.


A version of this blog was published by the Berlin Policy Journal on 12 June 2015 at

http://berlinpolicyjournal.com/the-waiting-game/

What Next for Ukraine? Four rival scenarios

Berlin Policy Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations   May 5, 2015

by Elizabeth Pond  

As the sober National Interest warns that America and Russia are “stumbling to war,” roughly four Western scenarios compete to explain where we stand in the year-old Ukraine crisis. Let’s call them the McCain, Mearsheimer, Motyl, and Merkel theses of, respectively, Russian aggression, Russian hegemonic privilege, Russian decline, and Russian paranoia. The first part of this two-part blog examines the McCain and Mearsheimer view; the second examines the Motyl and Merkel views.

(Part 1)

US Senator John McCain sees Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine as an epic (and hotter) re-run of the Soviet-American Cold War that the wimpish United States is losing to Putin’s military juggernaut and superior political will. University of Chicago purist realist John Mearsheimer, by contrast, regards Russia as behaving normally for a great power in invading a smaller neighbor, annexing Crimea, and then stoking secession in eastern Ukraine through military coercion and patronage.

Rutgers political scientist Alexander Motyl, on the other hand, contends that Russian President Vladimir Putin is losing the contest in the long run and that Ukraine finally holds the initiative, despite the Russians’ overwhelming superiority on the battlefield. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who leads the West’s diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the violence in Ukraine, argues – to put it more bluntly than she herself does – that it is Putin’s post-empire paranoia that makes the current state of play so dangerous.

The difference matters: the four premises imply very different Western responses. In essence, the McCain thesis assumes that the ongoing Russian military buildup in eastern Ukraine is laying the groundwork for Moscow to overturn the present fragile truce and launch a fresh offensive in Ukrainian “Novorossiya” in the next few weeks, and that there is no non-military solution to Russia’s regressive violation of Europe’s seven-decade taboo on forcible seizure of a neighbor’s territory. The West must therefore avoid appeasing Putin as it once appeased Hitler, and instead give Ukraine lethal weapons to defend itself while calling Putin’s bluff that he would trump any Western escalation all the way up to the nuclear level. For his part, John Mearsheimer blames the West itself for provoking the Russian bear, and counsels Washington to simply defer to Moscow in its sphere of influence.

Motyl maintains that Kiev should cede to Moscow the half of the Donbas that is already controlled by Ukrainian rebels and Russian soldiers, defend the remainder of Ukraine and make it a showcase of economic and democratic development, and deter further Russian encroachment on Ukrainian territory. Deterrence could be achieved, he believes, through the cumulative impact of the West’s financial sanctions, rising Russian casualties, and Russian generals’ worry that any escalation of the army’s mission to occupying Ukrainian territory against probable partisan guerrillas would overstretch its capabilities. At this point, he posits, it is Moscow rather than Kiev that would lose if there is a stalemate.

Finally, the pragmatic Chancellor Merkel insists that there is no possible military solution, given the West’s weak geopolitical position in Russia’s backyard. She focuses instead on deescalating the level of violence in Ukraine to a semi-stable level and relying on the long-term policy of containment that won the first Cold War.

The McCain View

It became clear how sharply Senator McCain’s view diverged from Merkel’s last February on the sidelines of the blue-ribbon Munich Security Conference. In a private meeting between German officials and American politicians, he lambasted the chancellor (and President Barack Obama) for not sending lethal weapons to Ukraine, and compared the European pursuit of peace talks with Putin to Neville Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement of Hitler in 1938. Shortly thereafter, in unusually caustic criticism of an allied leader, McCain complained to a German TV interviewer that one could think Merkel “either had no idea that people in Ukraine were being butchered, or was indifferent to it.”

Former NATO commander Wesley Clark, the most prominent spokesman for the McCain approach today, recently made the case that delivering weapons was the only course that could deter further “military adventurism” by Putin in Ukraine. He said that Ukrainian forces, although they are vastly inferior to the Russian military machine in manpower and weapons, are ready to fight, and even came close to defeating the Russian-led secessionists in eastern Ukraine last August. Ever since, the Russians have been augmenting their already superior arsenal in the area despite making tactical withdrawals under the truces that Merkel negotiated with Putin in September and February. Moscow has used the barely monitored ceasefires to infiltrate ever more tanks, rocket launchers, and drones into the Donbas, amass some 50,000 troops on the Russian side of the Russian-controlled border, and fire artillery from Russian soil onto Ukrainian strongpoints. Last January Moscow also sent “rotating commanders” into the Donbas to lead the secessionists’ renewed surge there and push the truce line westward along the 400-kilometer front.

Neither financial sanctions nor diplomacy can stop “the Russian war plan,” Clark argued. Therefore, Ukrainians – who are fighting “the battle of Western civilization” for all of us – should be provided with the lethal defensive weapons that would enable them to repel “the next wave of the attack” that Clark expects the Russians to mount in the next few weeks. Specifically, he wants the West to equip the Ukrainians immediately with portable Javelin fire-and-forget anti-tank missiles.

The Mearsheimer View

Mearsheimer also perceives the Ukraine crisis in black and white; however, he flips the colors by declaring that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis.” The trigger was not Russian actions, but NATO enlargement in the past quarter century as “the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” American and European leaders “blundered in attempting to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border.” This threatened Russia’s “core strategic interests.” Putin was understandably displeased, as he demonstrated in 2008 by invading NATO applicant Georgia and in 2014 by seizing Crimea. The Russian president feared that Crimea “would host a NATO naval base,” and he therefore began working “to destabilize Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.”

Mearsheimer continues, “The EU, too, has been marching eastward….In the eyes of Russian leaders, EU expansion is a stalking horse for NATO expansion.” Moreover, “[t]he West’s final tool for peeling Kiev away from Moscow has been its effort to spread Western values and promote democracy in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, a plan that often entails funding pro-Western individuals and organizations” like the pro-Europe demonstrations by Ukrainian activists in the center of Kiev at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014. “[T]he West’s triple package of policies – NATO enlargement, EU expansion, and democracy promotion – added fuel to a fire waiting to ignite.” It was therefore understandable that Putin would not tolerate more Western meddling in the “buffer state” that has long been the gateway to Russia, just as Washington would not tolerate a Chinese attempt to incorporate Canada or Mexico into a military alliance.

Mearsheimer does agree with McCain in dismissing financial sanctions as ineffective. But his policy prescription is diametrically opposed to McCain’s: “The United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia … And the West should considerably limit its social-engineering efforts inside Ukraine.” The super-realist rejects any protest that the independent state of Ukraine should be free to determine its own future as unrealistic. “The sad truth is that might often makes right when great-power politics are at play.” Since Ukraine is not a vital interest for the United States, Washington should simply reject Kiev’s clamor to join the European Union and NATO and not let Ukrainian wishes “put Russia and the West on a collision course.”

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the past 30 years. She is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe” and “Endgame in the Balkans.”

http://berlinpolicyjournal.com/what-next-for-ukraine/

(Part 2)

Berlin Policy Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations   May 8, 2015

A Farewell to Arms?

by Elizabeth Pond May 8, 2015

Analysis of the Ukraine crisis by Ukrainian-American historian Alexander Motyl and German Chancellor Angela Merkel differs sharply from that of John McCain and John Mearsheimer in that it regards Russia as the loser rather than the winner so far. This view by no means belittles the dangers in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s zero-sum adventurism, but it sees a glimmer of hope that diplomacy could help deescalate Putin’s aggression. Such hope is conspicuously absent in McCain’s drive to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons, and in Mearsheimer’s appeal to let Moscow rule unchallenged in its own sphere of influence.

Beyond the role of diplomacy, there are some areas of overlap between the four views. In part, Motyl, Merkel, and McCain implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) heed the constraints of Mearsheimer’s realpolitik. Motyl argues that, pragmatically, Kiev should cede to Moscow both of the “two economic sinkholes – Crimea and the Donbass” that Russian troops and local separatists already control physically, the better to transform and modernize the remaining nine-tenths of Ukraine. The West as a whole has tacitly accepted Russian control of Crimea, and even McCain, by rejecting the risky deployment of Western boots on the ground, has implicitly endorsed the consensus fear that Russia’s 771,000-strong armed forces and 20,000 tanks could quickly trump a tiny Western augmentation of Ukraine’s 121,000 servicemen and 2000 tanks. In an era with fewer agreed taboos on state violence than existed during the Cold War, all want to avoid sleepwalking into tit-for-tat escalation that could unwittingly build momentum toward a nuclear showdown.

In today’s most urgent policy debate, Motyl and McCain both support arming Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons. Both Merkel and Mearsheimer oppose this move, the former because of the danger of uncontrolled escalation, the latter because the West shouldn’t meddle in Russia’s hegemonic “near abroad.”

The Motyl View

Motyl builds his case on the premise that Russia no longer possesses the “escalation dominance” it enjoyed in Ukraine a year ago from its regional military superiority, its fierce perceived national interest in subduing a neighbor, its ability to export heavy weapons and soldiers at will across Ukraine’s unprotected eastern border, and Kiev’s lack of allies. What may by now be making even Putin rethink a new offensive – one that NATO commanders believe to have already been planned – is the unexpected cost, in blood and treasure, of Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine.

The Russian president never dreamed that the fractious West could agree on financial sanctions that would lead Russia to a projected GDP drop of some 4 percent this year and block key new investments from the West. Or that the weak interim government in Kiev would survive. Or that Russian-speaking peasants in eastern Ukraine would decline to rally to the secessionist cause, even after Russian Spetsnatz officers lit the fuse of rebellion. Or that the Russian army would be overstretched by the intervention. Or that Russia’s incursion would prove counterproductive in accelerating the formation of a distinctive Ukrainian identity unified against Russian aggression, resuscitating the NATO alliance, sparking closer Scandinavian defense coordination with NATO and the formation of a joint Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian brigade, and condemning the Russian economy to stagnation at the level of mineral extraction.

Above all, Putin never guessed that the ragtag Ukrainian army and volunteer militias would take up a doomed fight against the Russian behemoth and kill an embarrassing number of Russian soldiers. In fact, the Ukrainian forces would actually have defeated Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine last summer, had Putin not sent Russian paratroopers with devastating firepower to rescue the insurgents. And although the “cyborg” Ukrainians who held out for months at the Donetsk airport and the Debaltseve salient failed to stop the final fall of those enclaves to insurgents under clandestine Russian command in January and February 2015, they took a heavy toll on Russian combatants. If Putin were to escalate from mere seizure of Ukrainian territory to a far more demanding occupation, he would have to expect high casualties from guerrilla forces, similar to those inflicted by western Ukraine’s two-year underground resistance to Soviet takeover after 1945. This (despite official denials that any Russian troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine) would make it impossible for the Russian populace to remain ignorant of the combat deaths of Russians, which the Russian army is doggedly hiding at the moment from the mothers and wives of the dead.

Motyl does not by any means think that the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian forces could win set battles against the mix of Russian regulars, local mercenaries, and criminal gangs in eastern Ukraine by themselves. What he argues instead is that if the Ukrainians and their Western supporters can hold Putin to a stalemate, they will have won the war. Motyl summarizes: “Anything short of such a victory amounts to a defeat for Russia. Having destroyed the Russian economy, transformed Russia into a rogue state, and alienated Russia’s allies in the ‘near abroad,’ Vladimir Putin loses if he doesn’t win big. In contrast, Ukraine wins as long as it does not lose big. If Ukraine can contain the aggression, it will demonstrate that it possesses the will and the military capacity to deter the Kremlin, stop Putin and his proxies, and survive as an independent democratic state.”

Former US presidential security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski agrees, saying the West should offer Russia “genuine accommodation, and at the same time convince Russia that crossing certain lines is prohibitively expensive for Russia itself.” He sees an “analogy here between the German general staff after Anschluss, warning Hitler that if he pursues the efforts against Czechoslovakia too energetically, he will plunge the Germans into a war for which it is not yet ready but will be ready in about four years.”

The Merkel View

Chancellor Merkel’s approach is less an analytical school than a psychological reading of Vladimir Putin and a pragmatic guideline to the crisis diplomacy that she is leading. She is the Western head of government best equipped to talk with Putin, and she has stuck with the need to do so, no matter how fruitless the dialogue has been.

As a Russian speaker who grew up in the Soviet client state of East Germany, she understands Putin’s bitterness at the abrupt loss of Moscow’s empire in 1989 and the loss of all of Ukraine last year through the political failure of Viktor Yanukovych. She sees the Russian president’s fury at a Ukraine that gutted his pet project of a Eurasian Union by not joining it. She famously warned President Barack Obama early on that Putin was living “in another world.” She declined to elaborate, but Western pundits take this as meaning a poisonous paranoia that regards Russia as all-powerful militarily in its own neighborhood, but simultaneously as the greatest victim of Western exploitation when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to withdraw Moscow’s armed forces from Berlin and Central Europe a thousand miles to the east.

Merkel’s diplomatic goal might best be described as operationalizing, incrementally, what Brzezinski defines as the “balance between deterrence and accommodation.” Her method is to maintain contact so as to be available for compromise whenever Putin finally realizes that the costs of his present belligerence – including being forced to accept a junior role in a new partnership with China, rising jihadism among Russia’s Chechens and other Muslims, Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s tentative moves to put more distance between Belarus and Moscow, and continued capital flight and brain drain from Russia – far outweigh the benefits. Her mantra is that there is no military solution in Ukraine. For her this truism excludes delivery to eastern Ukraine of Western lethal weapons, which could be matched and surpassed instantly by Russia’s heavy weapons anyway and risk pushing Putin to up the military ante and blame the West when he feels cornered. But it also requires Putin to keep his own military and the trigger-happy proxies he has empowered in the Donbas on a short leash.

Thus, in May and June of last year, she played the West’s weak geopolitical hand to get Russia’s signature on a Geneva agreement, however ambiguous, that she could measure Putin’s future actions against – and to win time for the fledgling Ukrainian government to pull itself together. Simultaneously, she successfully rallied support for financial sanctions on Russia from businessmen in the pro-Russian German industrial lobby, and achieved the required unanimous approval of all 28 members of the European Union. In September, after Putin revealed his red line – he would not let client insurgents in eastern Ukraine be routed – she choreographed a truce that at least deescalated the violence. Last February she renewed the imperfect truce to provide a three-month relative lull, one that the United States and Britain – soon to be joined by Canada and Poland – are now using to send a modest few hundred trainers to western Ukraine to drill Ukrainian troops. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also used the lull to get NATO and the Russian military to reintroduce a hotline for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

If Chancellor Merkel’s instincts are right, President Putin might play the peace card and roll over today’s uneasy ceasefire for another few months to encourage dissenting EU members to balk at extending sanctions at the EU’s next decision rounds in July and December. If Senator McCain’s instincts are right, the truce could explode into a heavy battle in eastern Ukraine within weeks.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the past 30 years. She is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe” and “Endgame in the Balkans.”

http://berlinpolicyjournal.com/a-farewell-to-arms/

© Elizabeth Pond

Do not arm Ukraine

Sending guns to Kyiv will only escalate the conflict

By Elizabeth Pond

Now is not the time to play to Russia’s military strength by flooding Ukraine, the world’s tenth-largest exporter of arms, with advanced Western weapons that Kiev’s armed forces have not been trained to handle.

Instead, the smart approach is to play to the West’s own strengths of soft and restrained power and hold Russia to the “Minsk package”–the truce in eastern Ukraine that Moscow has already endorsed–by linking violations to more severe financial sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s billionaire coterie.

There are three reasons for this. First, abstention from sending lethal weapons to Ukraine would help evade sleepwalking into the world’s first nuclear war. Second, it would be much cheaper to send ten executives on sabbatical from Boeing to Kiev and Kharkiv to modernize, fast, the substantial production of heavy weapons that remains from the days when Ukraine was the war smithy for the Soviet Union. Third, abstention from providing a third trough of billions of loose dollars–now that the opportunities for personal enrichment in backroom Russian gas deals and embezzled defense appropriations have dried up–would avoid tempting Ukrainian oligarchs to revert to business as usual as the shock of Russia’s year-old attack on Ukraine wears off.

True, delivering lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, as Senator John McCain, NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, and dozens of Congressional Rambos urge, would make Washington feel good. But–given the ratio of Ukraine’s 121,000 to Russia’s 771,000 active servicemen and just over 2000 Ukrainian to 20,000 Russian tanks–Western arms injections could hardly save Ukraine from further dismemberment in the undeclared war the Russians are imposing on their junior East Slav brothers. Indeed, a demonstrative influx of Western arms into Ukraine would simply force any risk-averse demurrers in the Kremlin to unite in defiance of the American bogeyman with the ultranationalists whom Putin has empowered.

Hawks in the West are already starting to say that this moment of political uncertainty in the Kremlin is precisely the time to pump modern weapons into Ukraine to show Moscow that the United States is not feckless. Yet they tacitly admit–in a rejection of putting Western boots on the ground in non-NATO Ukraine that is as firm as President Barack Obama’s–that Moscow holds “escalation dominance” in its own backyard. As US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained colloquially in defending Obama’s skepticism about funneling lethal weapons to Kiev, “Anything we did as countries in terms of military support for Ukraine is likely to be matched and then doubled and tripled and quadrupled by Russia.” Or, as policy wonks explain the same phenomenon, not only does Russia enjoy escalation dominance as the regional military giant that can instantly trump each Western military initiative in any upward spiral. It also flaunts its will to up the ante at every stage because of its claims to an existential geopolitical interest in next-door Ukraine that trumps the distant West’s half-hearted interest.

Where Western hawks fail the sobriety test is in not following the logic of their own tacit admission by specifying how they would respond in the next weeks and months if a game of chicken proceeds on Russian rules and Moscow keeps raising the stakes all the way up to the nuclear level, as Putin has repeatedly threatened to do. Hawks never say whether they would really risk sleepwalking into Armageddon over a peripheral interest in a scary era when even the rudimentary mutual rules of restraint worked out by the superpowers in the original Cold War have expired.

But is the alternative policy advocated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel–“strategic patience” in countering Russia’s breach of international law and the seven-decade taboo on changing Europe’s borders by force-really feasible? Is there a golden mean that helps Ukraine but does not taunt Moscow into another military tantrum?

Fortunately, yes. The West’s surprisingly effective sanctions have already exacerbated plunging oil prices to produce record capital flight in Russia, an abrupt halt to crucial Western investment and technology transfer, 20% inflation, and a GDP drop of up to 6 percent this year. For the first time since Putin rose to power on the basis of high oil revenues and a social compact of restoring order after Russia’s post-Soviet chaos and building a new urban consumer class, Putin now faces growing impoverishment in Russia. He cannot forever compensate for this concrete drop in living standards by appealing to abstract Great Russian glory and sacrificing the lives of ever-more Russian soldiers to a war in Ukraine that he claims not to be waging. Time, which last year favored Putin’s improvisational military faits accomplis, may this year begin to favor the West’s strategic soft power of prosperity and stability.

To be sure, the potential transmission belt from general impoverishment to political moderation is not obvious. A population inured to fatalism over centuries is unlikely to revolt. The Russian elites have only a weak liberal impulse. And all nascent Kremlin factions of kleptocrats and brass-knuckle enforcers unite so far in outrage over Russia’s loss of empire in the Soviet implosion of 1991 that Putin calls the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.

What might in the future, however, divide the oligarchs from the enforcers–or the clans of enforcers from each other–is the public blame that ultranationalists already heap on Putin for his timidity in not finishing the military conquest of eastern Ukraine and the private fears that more cautious cronies may nurse about Putin’s “adventurism,” to use the classic Soviet term for dangerous goading of the more powerful West.

In this constellation, German–and therefore European–policy is to seek tacit mutual acceptance of relatively stable de-escalation that could brake any incremental spiral to unintended nuclear war. To keep up the pressure, Merkel has already changed the European agenda from easing financial sanctions by summer if Russia does not seize more Ukrainian territory before then to strengthening sanctions if Russia violates the ceasefire before the end of the year.

This makes more sense than sending sophisticated Western weapons to Kiev that would require months of training before Ukrainian forces could use them, and would risk their capture by Russians. The West stands to gain far more by helping the Ukrainians to maximize their own substantial arms production. Ukraine still turns out solid Soviet-era tanks and missiles (and exports spare parts to Russia, oddly enough, to keep Moscow’s warplanes and helicopters flying). The tanks may not match the high tech of the West’s Leopards or Abrams. But Ukrainian soldiers know how to operate them, and they are suited to the kind of hybrid war in which the Russians avoid close air support for their professional soldiers and mercenaries in eastern Ukraine in order to maintain the deniability of their crucial role in the war.

The US Congress should certainly keep the threat of delivering lethal weapons to Ukraine on the docket. NATO should continue to demonstrate its determination to defend all alliance members (and, tacitly, Sweden and Finland), by conducting joint exercises in the Baltic states and Poland and intercepting Russian bombers flying in European airliner zones with their transponders shut down. It should continue to train Ukrainian forces and conduct modest joint military maneuvers in western Ukraine under the “distinctive partnership” that NATO granted Kiev as a consolation prize in the 1990s, when the alliance signed a grander “Founding Act” with Russia. It should use the timing and intensity of war gaming to signal responses to Russian threats or overtures.

The West should further nudge Kiev to replace the top dysfunctional command of the Ukrainian army and promote the majors and captains who have already had extensive training in the West.

It should upgrade Ukraine’s existing heavy weapons by providing enough unarmed surveillance drones and intelligence and electronics to facilitate real-time targeting and counteract Russian jamming of Ukrainian communications in the east. It should insist on Russian compliance with the Minsk truce –including the provision for Kiev’s control of Ukraine’s own borders in the east by the end of 2015–as a prerequisite for easing sanctions. And it should broaden the sanctions if the Russian Goliath, despite the ceasefire, powers its way through the Ukrainian Davids defending Mariupol and Kharkiv in a bid to partition Ukraine and shut out Kiev from control of the east. It should also use all its influence to promote urgent economic reform in Ukraine–and bar Ukrainian oligarchs from divvying up state wealth in the forthcoming round of privatization and rescue funds from the International Monetary Fund.

Above all, the West should help Russia’s rulers recognize their own internal “contradictions” (to borrow another apt Soviet term) and abrade the hardliners’ grip in the Kremlin. And it should help all the latent Kremlin factions realize that Putin is incurring very high costs in his adventurism. He lost all of Ukraine as a client state after his protégé, then President Viktor Yanukovych, hadpeaceful pro-European demonstrators shot on Euromaidan Square a year ago and had to flee to Russian exile. He lost most of “Novorossiya,” Putin’s anachronistic name for the eastern third of Ukraine, when the masses there failed to follow Russian military agitators and rise in rebellion against Kiev. By now he has preserved only a Crimea that is a drain on Moscow’s budget and the desolate war ruins of half of the Donbas.

More broadly, Putin has brought growing turmoil to the Caucasus, overstretch to the Russian army, as a recent RUSI analysis documents, and a rising toll of “Cargo 200” military corpses in Ukraine that the army is doing its best to keep secret. By his threats he has revived a moribund NATO, and he has bestowed on the Ukrainians a new sense of consolidated non-Russian identity. He now administers a Russia that is, yet again, in secular decline.

What the West should do at this stage, then, is to trust the efficacy of sanctions and Russia’s own resolution of “contradictions”. What it should not do is to play Vladimir Putin’s game by rushing to export lethal weapons to Ukraine.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of several books on Germany, Europe, and the Balkans.


This essay appeared in a shorter version in The World Today, Chatham House, April/May 2015

http://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/do-not-arm-ukraine

The Next Stage in the Ukraine Crisis

By Elizabeth Pond

On Black Tuesday of this week soft economic power trumped hard military power for the first time since the Ukraine crisis began. The threatened meltdown of the Russian economy could put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to dial down his undeclared war on Ukraine in return for some easing of Western financial sanctions.

Ever since masked armed men with no identifying insignia snatched Crimea from Ukraine last February the West has strived to avoid two contrary hazards. In a nuclear age it must shun any repetition of the sleepwalk into world war in 1914, when competitive, destabilizing mobilizations cascaded into disaster. But it must also avoid supine surrender of Europe’s most cherished achievement over seven decades in establishing on this war-prone continent a taboo on any nation’s seizure of another’s territory by force.

It was indeed the revolutionary peace order in Europe that Putin violated when he severed Crimea from Ukraine and annexed it, despite Moscow’s explicit commitment to non-violence in Europe in treaties going back to the 1975 Helsinki agreement. His landgrab shocked Europeans who had come to take post-modern reconciliation and peace for granted. Pundits concluded that their Kantian peace was no eternal verity after all, but only an interlude between eras of more normal violent international anarchy.

The immediate anti-sleepwalk reaction of Washington and the European Union was to rule out sending their own troops to defend non-NATO member Ukraine. But its corollary, intended to show that turning the other cheek militarily did not mean acquiescience in armed aggression, was to impose financial sanctions on Russian politicians and oligarchs close to Putin over Russia’s transgression of international law. Political scientists could hardly design a better experiment of a clash between short-term hard power and long-term soft power.

In fact, even though the annexation of Crimea gave Putin’s sagging popularity a chauvinist surge at home, Russia’s military juggernaut performed surprisingly poorly thereafter in advancing Putin’s claim to seigneurial privilege in Ukraine and wherever else Russian minorities live in “the Russian world.”  “I think we have done better than we realize,” former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt told a Berlin audience last week. The West’s diplomacy managed to limit Putin’s options, without resort to war, he maintained.

In Bildt’s analytical framework, Putin started this year with all of Ukraine as his client state, administered by the Russian president’s protégé, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Yet the Russian president squandered this deep hegemony by overreach. The tenacious pro-democracy demonstrators in Kiev’s Independence Square, far from being cowed by the killing of a “heavenly hundred” of their number by riot police sniper fire in January and February–reportedly at Putin’s instigation–held their ground and even saw their ranks swell with new supporters. The shock of the deaths made Yanukovych’s own clientelist party desert him, and the disgraced president fled the country to Russian exile. Parliament appointed an interim president and government. “Chocolate king” oligarch Petro Poroshenko subsequently won the presidency in a landslide vote.

The ragtag Ukrainian army, after a poor start, learned how to fight on the job by resisting Russian takeover. Steady Western diplomatic engagement with Russia–based on the correct gamble that Putin wanted to reap victories through cheap “hybrid” warfare of irregulars led by Russian intelligence officers rather than through a messy direct invasion of Ukraine by Russian army regulars–gradually shifted the environment. Putin agreed–perhaps because he thought he could manipulate Poroshenko as he had manipulated the willing Yanukovych–to stop demonizing the newly elected president as the leader of an alleged fascist coup and to negotiate with him at the same table.

In July the Ukrainian army and allied militias began a serious counteroffensive that gradually reduced territory held by pro-Russian separatists to two enclaves in eastern Ukraine. In late August Putin signalled his red line: he would not tolerate a victory over his proxies by the upstart Ukrainian army. At that point he did send in paratroopers from airborne regiment 331 and other units in a direct invasion. The heavily armed professionals easily routed the Ukrainian forces in a few days.

President Poroshenko understood the kinetic message immediately. On September 5 he, Putin, representatives of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and an official of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as the monitoring agent agreed on a truce, a buffer zone, and closure of the Russian-controled bilateral border to further passage from Russia into Ukraine of heavy weapons and military personnel.

In the ten weeks since then no buffer zone has actually been implemented, and the Russian-Ukrainian border has not been closed. Yet the uneasy ceasefire has at least deescalated the violence and confined the exchange of shelling to the pre-existing battle line. Talks about talks to turn the truce into a more lasting ceasefire have started.

In Bildt’s view, Putin can hardly be happy with this shrinkage of his original claim on full Ukrainian allegiance to claims only on the eastern half of Ukraine under the resurrected 18th-century name of New Russia, and finally only on half of Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces.

The State of Play This Week

On Black Tuesday the ruble suddenly hit a new low at 50 percent of its value last January, capital flight continued to mount toward a 2014 high of $125 billion, and forecasts projected a likely drop in domestic product next year of close to 5 percent if oil continues to fetch only $60 per barrel. On the next day Putin and Poroshenko joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in a joint late-night call to reconvene the “contact group” of Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE as soon as possible. The group should turn the September 5 truce into a durable peace agreement, implement the already agreed buffer zone and exchange of prisoners, and allow Kiev to send desperately needed humanitarian help to needy civilians in the zone held by pro-Russian separatists, they prescribed.

The best Western guess now seems to be that Putin would like to deescalate fighting in Ukraine, either as a tactical pause or as an effort to stave off the financial meltdown that looms under the impact of sanctions and the plummeting price of Russia’s all-important hydrocarbon exports.

This new stage in the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine could be very dangerous, in part because of Putin’s impulsiveness, in part because of the lack of mutually understood constraints in a post-superpower but still nuclear world.

So far this year Putin’s default reaction to each setback–the implosion of Yanukovych, the sure-footedness of President Poroshenko, the stout performance of the Ukrainian army and militias, the failure of east Ukrainians to rally to the pro-Russian cause, the failure of German businessmen with lucrative Russian trade and investment deals to block Chancellor Merkel’s financial sanctions on Moscow, the counterproductive impact of Moscow’s new intimidation in alienating a Germany that has long been Russia’s best Western friend, in accelerating the EU drive to free Europe from its addiction to Russian energy, and in consolidating a still tentative sense of Ukrainian identity into a new conviction that Ukrainians have a common European calling–has been to resort to military threats. His assumption has been that he can raise the stakes with impunity because Moscow holds escalation dominance, thanks to geography and Russia’s raw military might.

Certainly Putin’s instinct today is still to up the ante by periodic nuclear saber-rattling and by aggressive Russian air and sea probes of NATO and non-NATO defenses in the Baltic, with transponders shut down. Yet with this week’s financial crisis in Russia, even Putin–who in the past has scorned Western sanctions as pinpricks–can no longer deny that the sanctions are wreaking serious damage on Russia’s economy and on the vast wealth that he and his inner circle have accumulated in the Russian kleptocracy. Far sooner than the authors of Western sanctions anticipated, the vector of soft long-term economic power has crossed the vector of hard short-term military power in the middle-term of real-time policy. “Only a Russian exit from Ukraine can begin to restore confidence,” concludes the Financial Times.

And, the paper might have added sotto voce, although it’s far too late by now for Vladimir Putin to get “off ramp” and still save face (as both President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel repeatedly offered last spring and summer), it’s not too late for him to exit from Ukraine and save the Russian economy.


ELIZABETH POND is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of books on Russia and Europe.

A version of this blog appeared on the IP-Journal site of the German Council on Foreign Relations on December 17, 2014.

© Elizabeth Pond

The End of Deterrence?

Ukraine is at the mercy of Moscow now, the West is watching helplessly

IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations  September 23, 2014

by Elizabeth Pond

With two agreements about the future of eastern Ukraine now in place – one official brokered by the OSCE, one still secret between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Putin-aide Vladislav Surkov – the country’s fate seems sealed. Western-anchored near-neighbors “feel vulnerable.”

photo: REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Deals struck over the weekend after Washington rejected Kiev’s plea for delivery of modern weapons to resist Russian dismemberment of Ukraine confirm Western acquiescence in the victory of Russia’s direct invasion of Ukraine on August 27 and subsequent truce. The Minsk pact brokered on Saturday by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe between the Ukrainian government and secessionists in eastern Ukraine freezes in place Russian and pro-Russian control of Ukraine’s two easternmost oblasts, Luhansk and Donetsk, with a 30-kilometer buffer zone free of heavy weapons between the Ukrainian army and Russian-led forces. Adherence to truce terms is monitored only by unarmed OSCE observers, who have understandably refrained from inspecting areas on the Russian-Ukrainian border whenever pro-Russian forces have said they could not guarantee the inspectors’ safety.

A further, still secret agreement between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Vladislav Surkov, a senior aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is said by a knowledgeable Western source to contain harsher terms for Kiev than the public Minsk truce. Surkov ranks high on Western lists of sanctions imposed on Russian officials involved in Russia’s land grab of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine this year. Former Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleksandr Chalyi, in Oslo for the annual meeting of the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies, confirmed that Surkov was in Kiev over the weekend and also that the Ukrainian government had not, as of Sunday, published the text of the Minsk agreement that may quickly be superceded by the alleged Poroshenko-Surkov deal.

Chalyi further acknowledged that Ukraine has very little choice – after the Obama administration and American lawmakers gave Poroshenko a rapturous welcome in Washington last week but turned down his urgent appeal for weapons – other than to accede to Russian demands for cooperation with Moscow. He did not confirm the existence of any new pact between Surkov and Poroshenko, however.

As the belligerents on both sides of the ceasefire line now begin pulling back armored vehicles and artillery with a caliber greater than 100mm from the buffer zone, the situation seems to be that for an interim period Kiev can still formally call the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces part of Ukraine. However, Ukraine has already lost control of this region. In the area bordering Russia technicians are  ripping out electrical connections with the rest of Ukraine and installing new connections with Russian grids. And in an operation reminiscent of the Soviet stripping of East German industry after World War II, Russians are dismantling Ukrainian weapons plants in the region – which have supplied the Russian army for decades – and hauling them away to Russia in truck convoys.

Kiev also has no guarantee that Russia will not dismember more of Ukraine by force in future months and years. A buffer zone emptied of heavy weapons leaves Ukraine with no way to defend the Azov Sea port of Mariupol against future Russian takeover. Russia is free to continue sending heavy weapons across the border up to the buffer zone, while Ukraine has no natural geographical defense line to resist any sudden future surge by Russian regulars to take Mariupol and, say, set up a land corridor to Crimea or even to Odessa or Transnistria. Certainly there is no let-up so far in rhetorical Russian claims to all of the “Novorossiya” that Catherine the Great seized from the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century – a name that Putin has now revived to refer to the vast territory that currently covers Donetsk, Luhansk, Odessa, and five other Ukrainian oblasts.

Since the August 27 invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian paratroopers, Putin has boasted that if he wanted to, he could put Russian troops into Kiev in two days as well as into the capitals of NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. To emphasize the threat, Russian warplanes have recently been making quick probes into Swedish and Finnish airspace, and Russian agents on the ground kidnapped an Estonian security officer on Estonian territory earlier this month and paraded him in Moscow as a “spy” – two days after President Barack Obama visited Estonia.

Poroshenko had gambled that Ukraine’s underdog army could rout Putin’s proxy mercenary and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine – as it was poised to do on August 26 – without triggering a Russian invasion. He lost this bet – as well as his corollary bet that once Ukrainian forces had shown their determination to resist dismemberment of Ukraine, the United States would feel morally bound to provide at least defensive weapons to enable Ukrainian forces to mount a suicidal resistance and raise the costs of any Russian invasion.

The Obama administration, however, in this centenary year of World War I, refused to get drawn even indirectly into any ground war with a Russia that holds full escalation dominance through its military muscle, proximity, and existential interest in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine is not a member of NATO – though some rivals to Poroshenko in the current parliamentary pre-election campaign, tasting political blood, are criticizing the Ukrainian president for weakness and are sponsoring a bill to hold an inflammatory referendum on NATO membership for Ukraine.

Against this backdrop, the somber consensus at the IISS conference in Oslo this year was that the whole post-World War II system of deterring international bullies is at risk. The West is now in the unhappy position of talking loudly about the inviolability of borders, but carrying only a tiny twig to enforce this precept. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt talked of “a sense of feeling vulnerable” in a Europe that thought its soft power of reconciliation and integration since 1945 had banned change of borders by force on this once bloody continent.

The default conclusion at the conference was that all the West can do now to help whatever rump Ukraine emerges is to pour enough money and on-the-ground advisers on economic and institutional reform into it to prevent a slide into a failed state. This gives small comfort to the beleaguered Ukraine and President Petro Poroshenko.


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

https://ip-journal.dgap.org/en/blog/eye-europe/end-deterrence

© Elizabeth Pond