Putin’s long war

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has destroyed the peace
in Europe for a generation

By Elizabeth Pond


2015+09 Medium Russia

A year after Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked Europe by annexing Crimea and fomenting rebellion in Ukraine’s previously quiet Donbas region, his undeclared war on the Russians’ East Slav brothers has become the new-old normal on the continent. It has displaced the seven-decade interlude in which Europeans thought they had established a post-modern peace order in their heartland and made armed land grabs of neighbours’ territory obsolete. It has induced a loss of hope in restoring Europe’s embodiment of the liberal peace first envisioned by Immanuel Kant within less than one or two generations – if at all. It has confronted the West with a stark choice between appeasement of a regional bully or war with no mutually understood restraints in a still nuclear-armed world.

Already the truce hammered out by the Ukrainian, Russian, German, and French leaders on 12 February in all-night negotiations at Minsk has collapsed in reality, if not in name. Separatists in eastern Ukraine and their allied Russian “paid volunteers” never halted their saturation shelling of the town of Debaltseve at one minute past midnight on 15 February, as was agreed, but kept up the barrage for three and a half more days until the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers surrounded there either died, were captured, or managed to retreat under withering fire to contiguous Ukrainian territory. As of this writing, only a few of the heavy weapons that were supposed to begin withdrawing from the designated buffer zone on 16 February have been pulled back on either side. The rebels have not allowed international monitors to take up their designated posts in the ceasefire zone or on the Russian-controlled Ukrainian border.

The truce that was patched up again after the devastation in Debaltseve will probably provide no more than a brief winter respite before a spring offensive by rebels and Russian professional soldiers in eastern Ukraine. (Moscow still denies that any of its troops and modern heavy weapons are there, despite all the direct photographic, electronic, and eyewitness evidence of their presence and the indirect evidence of artillery and multiple rocket shell targeting on Debaltseve with a precision that only well-trained Russian crews could provide.)

Even before this month’s ceasefire, German Chancellor Angela Merkel provided the epitaph for European peace in warning that she could see no realistic scenario in which any arms the West might give Ukraine could trump Moscow’s escalation dominance in the theatre. Russia had the credibility of caring more about its immediate Ukraine environment than any outside power did, and possessed the dominant local military might to enforce its interests by upping the ante ad infinitum over any weapon friends of Ukraine might introduce. The only hope Merkel could offer was that, with strategic patience, the West might eventually triumph, just as it ended the cold war – in tandem with the unmentioned Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev – with the bloodless fall of the 28-year-old Berlin Wall in 1989.

This dark prognosis has only been reached in recent weeks. Throughout 2014, Europeans still hoped that their accustomed peace order could be restored soon. As Russian special forces in unmarked uniforms and masks abruptly ended the quarter century of amicable coexistence of the Russian and Ukrainian fleets in their Crimean port last March and deposed the peninsula’s regional government at gunpoint, US President Barack Obama dismissed post-superpower Russia as little more than a regional nuisance. Chancellor Merkel took Vladimir Putin’s irredentist threat far more seriously. She warned the American president that his Russian counterpart was living “in another world” of czarist-era nationalism that, she implied, precluded any cost-benefit rationality or compromise. Obama, preoccupied with pullback from America’s overstretch in the Middle East and Afghanistan and his pivot to Asia, in effect outsourced second-rank diplomacy about Ukraine to Berlin. For the first time since 1945 Germany had thrust upon it geopolitical leadership of Europe commensurate with the country’s economic clout. And for the first time Merkel, whose hallmark was leading from behind, stepped out in front.

As Putin raced toward annexation of Crimea, Merkel told the Bundestag on 13 March last year that the previous 69 years of reconciliation, peace, and freedom that had been created by an integrating Europe and the transatlantic democratic alliance was a feat that “till today borders on a miracle”. Russia’s heist of Ukrainian territory was unacceptable in 21st-century Europe and represented a reversion to “the law of the jungle,” to “the right of the strong against the strength of rights”, Merkel said. She reprimanded Russia for violating international law and specific treaties that Moscow was a party to, including the 1975 Helsinki ban on changing European borders by force and Russia’s 1994 assurance of Ukrainian borders in return for Kiev’s surrender of its huge arsenal of inherited Soviet nuclear weapons to Moscow.

In dozens of phonecalls she warned a disbelieving Putin that Europe’s hard-won peace order trumped commercial interests and that this time he could not count on Germany’s pro-Russian business lobby to veto European economic retaliation for his provocation. Europe and America announced publicly that they would not intervene militarily to defend Ukraine, a non-NATO member, but would gamble instead on countering Russia’s immediate military faits accomplis with slow-impact financial sanctions on Putin’s entourage.

Merkel was the West’s logical interface with the Russian president. She was the ultimate Putin-Versteher, or “Putin understander,” not in the original coinage of this euphemism to describe German apologists for Putin, but in the sense of someone who grew up in Communist East Germany, spoke Russian, and sensed intuitively the Russian mindset. She understood Putin’s paranoia about being encircled by NATO, even if that alliance expanded not by armed seizure of neighbours’ territory but by responding to the clamour for membership by Central Europeans fearing Russian recidivism to Soviet-style forced hegemony. She comprehended the threat to his own rule that Putin feared from street protests in Kiev; he had served as a KGB recruiter of spies in East Germany in the 1980s and watched the Berlin Wall fall to people power overnight.

Merkel also grasped Putin’s resentment at the subsequent Soviet implosion that he calls the 20th century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” – and at the independent Ukraine that emerged from it and illicitly tempted its people, in his view, to betray their elder brother Russians by no longer obeying them as tradition required. And the humiliation felt by Putin over the cumulative shrinkage of his influence in Ukraine was well-known in Berlin. He first lost all of Ukraine when his protégé, the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, let police snipers murder scores of pro-democracy Euromaidan protesters a year ago. The violence alienated even Yanukovych’s own party and left him no choice but to abscond to Russian exile – thus ensuring that Ukraine would not add its Slavic weight to Putin’s pet “Eurasian Union” project and effectively voiding the enterprise. Putin’s insistence that Kiev join the newborn Eurasian Union, sometimes called the Soviet Union lite, was the original trigger to the pro-European Euromaidan demonstrations.

Putin next lost Novorossiya, as he anachronistically called the eastern third of today’s Ukraine that he suddenly claimed for Russia because Catherine the Great called it that when she seized “new Russia” from the Ottoman empire in the 18th century. He seemed to believe Russia’s own drumbeat propaganda message that discontented Russian speakers in the entire region would rise up if Russian special forces just ignited a rebellion there. Yet the masses failed to revolt. Only in the rustbelt of the Donbas could Russian proxies mobilise ill-paid retirees and buy or coerce enough additional support to set up the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Indeed, in the east as a whole, where many made no clear distinction between Russian and Ukrainian ethnicity, opinion polls showed that a majority still favoured staying within the Ukrainian state.

Moreover, Merkel realized that Moscow’s cost-free takeover of Crimea in the name of restoring Russia’s lost greatness – the greatly outgunned Ukrainian army on the peninsula did not resist the regional coup, and no Russian blood was shed – was boosting popular approval ratings of Putin to more than 80 per cent. This gave him new domestic legitimation even as his decade-old social contract of restoring order and a better life to a new urban middle class in post-Soviet Russia was becoming ineffectual in a time of economic slowdown.

Merkel therefore did not expect to budge the Russian leader from his zero-sum view of international relations and turn him into a cooperative win-win pragmatist, however much his own bank account was profiting from globalism and hydrocarbon rents as he reestablished the authoritarian rule that was the historic Russian default from the Romanovs to Stalin to Putin. Nor did she expect to deflect him from his reversion to the historic Russian sense of victimhood and need for a security so absolute that it required the absolute insecurity of neighbors in its sphere of influence.

She did, however, see Putin as an improvising tactician rather than a single-minded strategist. This made him unpredictable, but it also allowed for movement. In the first stage of the Ukraine crisis she repeatedly offered to help him save face if he would cease his depredations, to the point of suggesting European Union-Eurasian Union talks on a common economic space. She hoped to keep him talking rather than shooting for as long as possible and to nudge him toward a more realistic perception of the advantages he was losing and the tactical costs he was incurring in his drive to punish the Ukrainians and the West for their treatment of Russia as a second-class power.

Merkel first prepared the domestic foundation to support her diplomacy. She forged a close policy partnership with her Social Democratic Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He and others in his parliamentary caucus weaned the Social Democrats from their romantic nostalgia for the old Ostpolitik days of Chancellor Willy Brandt. Together, the grand coalition between the Social Democrats and her own conservatives gave Merkel an 80 per cent majority in the Bundestag in support of targeted sanctions against Russia.

The chancellor then rallied German businessmen to the cause of sanctions – well before the tragic shooting down of the Malaysian passenger airliner over rebel Ukrainian territory in mid-July, an event that is widely credited with causing a change of heart in Germany’s pro-Russian elites.

Finally, Merkel took the sacrifices that German importers and exporters were ready to make – the huge Russian-German trade would shrink by a fifth from 2013 to 2014 – to her EU partners. She argued that the French should make their own sacrifices by not delivering the two Mistral helicopter carriers they had contracted to sell the Russians and that the British should enforce their money-laundering laws in dealing with the many Russian tycoons who have made their second home in London. In the end, she was able to deliver the unanimous vote of all 28 European Union members that was required to approve sanctions – and she saw to it that the authorization was written with enough flexibility to add or subtract names on the target list without making every shift subject to a new vote of unanimity. It was a quiet tour de force.

One task Merkel did not take on was persuading the generally Russophile German public that Putin’s behaviour was unacceptable. That did not matter, however, because foreign policy remains an elite exercise in Germany – and because the Malaysia Air tragedy did change popular perceptions of the Russians and yield 70 per cent public approval of sanctions.

In mid-April Merkel initiated a brief Geneva agreement that put onto paper a basic wish list: stopping the violence, disarming illegal armed groups, returning seized buildings to their rightful owners and giving international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe a monitoring role in eastern Ukraine. By bringing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart together at the same table, the Geneva accord also finessed Moscow’s tacit recognition of the legitimacy of the interim Ukrainian government (appointed by parliament after Yanukovych fled) that Russian propaganda was presenting as the illegitimate result of a fascist coup.

Ironically, in this first stage the West was aided by the weakness of the provisional Ukrainian government. Over five weeks in April and May Putin mounted menacing war games by placing up to 80,000 Russian troops on high alert on Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders. But he did not need to invade in order to extend his influence. Local mercenaries, criminal gangs, and other proxies under the command of Russian special forces were doing quite nicely in occupying administrative buildings in a string of medium-sized towns in eastern Ukraine. And Putin presumably thought he could control whichever leading politicians emerged in Kiev without having to shed Russian blood. In this decision he displayed a tactical caution in preferring the weapon of intimidation to the weapon of military occupation, with its risks of quagmire and perhaps even guerrilla resistance.

The second phase of the Ukraine crisis began with the unexpected landslide election in late May of President Petro Poroshenko, the “chocolate king” oligarch who had served in several previous crony governments but had supported the Euromaidan demonstrations from their beginnings in late 2013. Poroshenko quickly sent the Ukrainian army and militias on an “anti-terror” counteroffensive to recover territory lost to the rebels and their Russian special forces allies. In April the long-neglected, underfunded army had failed miserably in the same mission, in part because hardly any soldiers had such simple protection as Kevlar vests or night goggles, and also because the Ukrainians still couldn’t believe that they must shoot at brother Russians who were shooting at them. There were defections to the pro-Russian side. Some troop carriers were lost because they were surrounded by local pro-Russian babushkas, and the soldiers didn’t want to use force against them.

In summer, however, older Ukrainian soldiers who had once formed the backbone of the NCO equivalent in the Soviet Army helped the ragtag Ukrainian forces and the better equipped militias to get their act together. They gradually recovered most of the territory held by the rebels and by mid-July were besieging the remaining rebel strongholds in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. In Kiev hopes rose that the Ukrainians could prevent further dismemberment of their country. On the rebel side, Colonel Igor Strelkov, the designated Russian military intelligence commander of the local Russian proxies and mercenaries who were being pushed back, complained bitterly that they were being deserted by the Russian leadership and pled for more heavy weapons. The Russians obliged by rolling over the border into the Donbas more multiple rocket launchers, anti-aircraft missile systems, plentiful ammunition, and the powerful Russian ground-to-air Buk missile system that could reach the altitude of 10,000 meters, where the Malaysian Air jet was flying when it was shot down. The Russians apparently also removed Strelkov from his post as defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, however – officially, he resigned – and he returned to Moscow.

From the first half of August, the situation changed fundamentally,” wrote Russian academic and human-rights activist Nikolay Mitrokhin recently in a post on the opposition website Grani.ru that is now blocked in Russia. “The Ukrainian army was no longer opposed by divided and poorly armed groups of militants,” but faced instead a Russian army with dozens of tanks and artillery pieces, under the leadership of an experienced Russian general. In late August the first known direct invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian units of paratroopers followed, rolled back the Ukrainian sieges, and delivered Putin’s clear message that he would not let his proxies in the Donbas be defeated. Some or perhaps all of the Russian airborne troops returned to their home bases after their punitive raid. The third phase was about to start.

President Poroshenko understood Putin’s red line instantly and on September 5 agreed through an envoy on a truce with rebel leaders that made the half of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts then under rebel control a no-go zone for Ukrainian troops. The ceasefire was never fully observed, but it deescalated the fighting to low-intensity shelling, and the frontline was relatively stable for four months.

German diplomacy in this interlude consisted of trying to freeze the conflict by converting the September 5 truce and subsequent protocol into a permanent comprehensive ceasefire or at the least into an acceptance of common constraints on escalation. If that could not be agreed on, the fear was that Europe would enter a new era of acute Russian-Western hostility without even the mutual restraints that the two superpowers settled on for the sake of humanity’s survival at the height of the cold war. The nightmare was only fuelled by Putin’s less-than-veiled threat that he possessed escalation dominance and that he could resort to nuclear weapons to maintain that dominance. He boasted that his troops could be in Kiev within two days if he so ordered and could be in the capitals of NATO member states – Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Romania – just as fast. Indeed, he has been graphically illustrating the point by aggressively testing NATO defenses of the Baltic and Atlantic states daily on the seas and in the air – and endangering passenger flights by sending bombers with transponders turned off into airspace that civilian liners use.

Any deal on de-escalation would have had to rest on a realistic admission in Kiev that all the moral outrage in the West at Putin’s bullying of a weak neighbor would not put Western boots on the ground to defend a non-member of NATO on Russia’s doorstep–and that the least worst outcome for Ukraine would be to surrender parts of the east to Russia de facto if that could prevent deeper dismemberment of the country. It would have had to rest further on an admission by the tactician in the Kremlin that the West’s sanctions, along with the drastic fall in the market price for Russia’s hydrocarbon exports, were already ruining the Russian economy–and that rescuing the national economy should take priority over the czar’s personal grip on power.

Neither precondition was fulfilled. Poroshenko acknowledged the harsh facts with his head but not with his heart, and whatever inclination he might have had to endorse a bitter compromise withered when the first post-Euromaidan parliamentary elections were finally held in October and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s harder-line party outpolled Poroshenko’s by 0.3 percent. And in Moscow Putin held firm in his conviction that politics and will trump economics–and the Russian muzhik’s stoicism in suffering will always trump the West’s effete narcissism in any duel.

The deadlock of the period was ambiguous enough to keep alive a residual hope that the opportunistic Putin might still heed the mounting costs of military overstretch, growing opposition by Russian women to sending their sons and husbands to die in the secret war in Ukraine, revival of a moribund NATO, and consolidation of a new Ukrainian identity in opposition to the Russian enemy. No Russian would, of course, explain to the czar that Russia was in long-term decline demographically, economically, and ideologically, and could not long support a belligerent defiance of the West in a globalized world. Yet realists like Alexei Kudrin, a former Russian finance minister and economics adviser to Putin who remained on good terms with his ex-boss, did enjoy a license to admit publicly that the nation’s economy was already reeling from the sanctions in annual capital flight of $130 billion, a close to 50% drop in the value of the ruble, approaching negative growth of up to 5%, and a drought of incoming Western investment and know-how that would condemn Russia to the stagnation of a pre-modern extraction economy. The problem was that Kudrin never seemed to break through the president’s small inner circle of secret police, rentier oligarchs, and yes-men to persuade Putin of the looming catastrophe.

Now the debacle of this month’s last attempt at truce has killed the last residual hope. What will the fourth stage of the Ukraine crisis look like in 2015?

Clearly the end of today’s neo-cold war will not occur the way its superpower original did a quarter-century ago, when Washington ostentatiously outspent and out-innovated Moscow in weapons as well as general prosperity just as the Soviet economy and society reached a dead end, and Mikhail Gorbachev decided to trade in empire and feud for soft power and animal spirits. Nor will it come alone from Angela Merkel’s strategic patience that the Financial Times’s Philip Stephens parses as long on patience but short on strategy. Nor will it come from Vladimir Putin’s progressive foreclosure of his own options by doubling down militarily after every failure to persuade non-Russians of the splendors of Great Russian hegemony. The only certainty is that the war between Russia and Ukraine will go on.

Elizabeth Pond is a journalist based in Berlin and the author of several books about Germany, Europe and the Balkans. They include “Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification” (Brookings Institution)



Vietnam’s Postwar Generation

By Elizabeth Pond

Hanoi / December 2013


The best way to see Hanoi is to ride pillion on Do Duyen’s motorbike. Duyen, like most Vietnamese drivers (except when they drink too much rice wine at Tet or at weddings) has a sixth sense of how others in the flood of motorbikes and intruding cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, cyclos, and village peddlers with bamboo carrying poles will react. Never mind that motorcyclists routinely make illegal left turns at intersections by plunging left against the three immediate lanes hurtling to the right in order to edge their way, eventually, into the three farther lanes hurtling to the left. Everyone else simply swerves to accommodate this anomaly in his own way, and the collective streams of traffic glide on.

You might call it a metaphor for the course of Asia’s newest tiger, the one that took off in the late 1980s and averaged 7.5% growth over the next two decades, to leap far past neighboring Laos and Cambodia in living standards. This tiger cub’s proportional poverty alleviation, egalitarianism, political openness, and optimism all surpass China’s. In Vietnam the real energy bubbles up from the chaotic bottom to be codified retroactively as government policy (sometimes), without necessarily being filtered through formal institutions or a non-existent civil society. Doi moi (“renovation”) set the pattern in 1986.

As Duyen makes constant micro adjustments to preserve the crucial centimeters of space between us and the rest of the capital’s pulsing humanity, he provides a running commentary. Some of it I catch, despite the warp of words on the way to my ear through his mouth mask and my helmet. Some I don’t catch, amid the roars and honks and occasional screech. There is the downtown park that until a few months ago showcased the Lenin statue that Moscow gave Hanoi in 1982; recently the 5-meter-tall Lenin migrated to the more out-of-the-way Reunification Park. Here on the left is West Lake, on the right Truc Bach Lake, the one John McCain parachuted into when his plane was shot down.

There is the amusement park. Over there is the Hotel Hanoi, the first four-star hotel in the capital, built a decade ago. Today it looks like a relic and gets mostly Chinese guests. On the right is the tower that will be 72 stories high when it is finished, the tallest in Hanoi. It was supposed to have risen to 102 stories, but then the world financial crisis hit, and it got scaled down. Here is Little Korea, where the expat businessmen know from their own experience what it’s like to swoop overnight from rice paddy to urban modernity. There is one of the 28 hotels that mogul PHPLX (name drowned in the gunning of engines as the traffic light changes to green) owns all over Vietnam. He doesn’t invest in stocks, just in property.

See that “Made in Vietnam” outlet? Those shops guarantee quality by selling global-brand clothes that are certified as not made in China. See all the water tanks on top of Hanoi’s narrow-front, 15-meter-long “tube houses”? A Vietnamese traveler noticed them in Taiwan in the early days of doi moi, brought the idea back, and found his niche in providing constant water pressure without your having to pump water up every time you want to use it. That’s what it’s like in such a young economy. There are lots of gaps, and all you have to do to make your mark is to identify and fill them. That’s the way almost half of Duyen’s class at the Hanoi Banking Academy became millionaires (even if half of this half fell back below the magic line when global stock markets dived).

Village to City

Duyen grew up in a village in the mountainous northwest, where he worked hard as a barefoot boy planting, hoeing, and harvesting the family rice terraces. His mother got up at 2:00 a.m. to make tofu in a co-op kitchen for delivery to the government store by 4:00 p.m. Duyen gathered firewood in the hill copses, hauled bamboo to build the family house and fence, and caught fish in the streams to augment the family’s meager diet. He also picked wild leaves to feed the pigs and the rabbit the family was fattening up for sale. In the pre-doi moi decade of severe central planning, food shortages, rationing, and widespread malnutrition, his family had to eat cassava on some days for lack of rice. They had to be on guard against other villagers who might sneak into the house when no one was home and filch their scanty belongings–perhaps with the help of a fishing rod baited with meat to hook the dog’s mouth and keep it from barking an alarm.

Duyen never saw anything beyond his own valley until he was in his late teens and his sister took him along to a larger settlement near the Chinese border to buy slippers. “Everywhere people started trading even though it was illegal. Then the law changed.” The Communit Party ordered the doi moi liberalization that echoed Deng Xiaoping’s earlier breakup of collective farms in China and legitimized the Vietnamese black market that had sprung up to fill the existential consumer gaps. “It was just like water flowing from one rice paddy to the next when a dike breaks.”

Duyen quickly sensed that his future under the newly tolerated market system would depend on gleaning information about the world of business. What better place to do it than at Hanoi’s Banking Academy, a 1961 North Vietnamese wartime institution that was now starting to retrofit Marxism-Leninism for the globalized age? With donations from his family, he crammed furiously to stretch his rudimentary village education up to a level to compete in entrance exams with graduates of the elite Hanoi high schools. By the time he was accepted into the academy as one of 156 out of 3000 applicants, he was also studying that other yuppy prerequisite–the English language–at night school.

At that point Vietnam still had a standard of living close to North Korea’s current level of misery and was only denied listing under the World Bank’s concessionary category of “least developed countries” because the educational drive of this Confucian society had already produced 90-plus percent literacy. At that point Hanoi was still so rough that Duyen hid his money in his underwear whevever he rode the bus.

After getting his diploma, Duyen worked for a cellphone company and earned enough money by 2000 to buy a new apartment for $8,500 and settle his father in it in the center of Hanoi, not far from Little Korea. His timing was perfect. The condo doubled its value in one year and kept on appreciating to its current worth of $120,000. With financial aid, he continued his education in the United States, earning an M.B.A. at Maryville University in St. Louis. He returned to Hanoi, this time to work for a bank. As he thought it over, though, he turned down promotion into the rat race of a prestigious career in finance and opted for the less demanding branch of tourism that would leave him master of his own free time.

When he married, Duyen enlarged his apartment from 39 to 57 square meters by enclosing the balcony; this gave his wife Trong and their twins, Bunny and Chipmunk, ample storage and multi-use space in the open-room layout. And as the five-year-olds grow up, the condo’s size will grow with them. The developers have promised double space to all the current owners, along with free temporary housing when they tear down the current buildings in the next few years and scale up to higher-rise replacements. This leaves the family budget in good shape.

As Duyen has exited the financial sector, he has no need to buy either an expensive golf club membership or a car. The Honda motorbike serves nicely for family outings, and Duyen is under no compulsion to impress business contacts by arriving at negotiations in a Mercedes or a Lexus sedan.

Hanoi’s Old and New Quarters

On Thursday morning I get acquainted with the octogenarian matriarch of my hotel in the bustling Old Quarter, with the help of her great-grandson. He is studying literature at university, trades off reception duty at the hotel with siblings and cousins, and speaks English. The developer who bought their house is waiting for the right time to put up more modern units from this and adjacent tube houses, at prices per square meter that will reach Tokyo levels. For now, the matriarch can continue to stay in the home she has inhabited for most of her life, slip out the door every morning to see friends and buy herbs on the streets that constitute everyone’s front doorstep and shopspace, then slip back in for a nap on her board bed as the spirit moves her.

Duyen picks me up, and we weave our way through the old guild streets, now shrunk to one block for the woodworkers, with their hand-lashed ladders of virgin bamboo trunks; one block for the ironmongers hammering red-hot crowbars into shape over tiny charcoal stoves; additional blocks for the silk and china and broom and flower merchants, and, since this is the beginning of the lunar month, ubiquitous shops with pyramids of red and gold boxes of sweets and packets of Thomas Jefferson two-dollar bills to burn as offerings to ancestors.

We head out through urban sprawl to one of the two rural districts of Hanoi that will soon become city districts. Duyen points out the heroes’ cemetery where Vietnam’s luminaries are buried, with the exception of the two most famous celebrities of all. Revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh enjoys his own mausoleum at the center of the moribund party and government district. General Vo Nguyen Giap, who transmuted his original platoon of 34 men into an army that expelled both the French and the Americans from Indochina, is buried, at his request, in his home province.

As we proceed, the few rice paddies tucked into empty lots between commercial offices grow in number, and some water buffalo appear, nibbling the stubble that remains after the year’s single harvest. Some future high-rise building are already under constrution, as is a stadium that a few years from now might host Asian track and field championships for the first time.

By trial and error Duyen navigates his way through the maze of streets that have materialized since he was last here, and we arrive at the village of Yen Vinh to visit a friend of a cousin. Duyen coached Nguyen Hai Tho some years ago, showing him how to study English more effectively and drilling him until he pronounced the last consonant in English words clearly. The mentoring paid off. Tho now speaks easy-to-understand English, with distinct word endings, and works as a freelance tourguide. He leads us down a pedestrian lane in Yen Vinh’s newest neighborhood, past a motorbike parked in his front pocket garden, and into his one-story cement-block house with a tile roof. His accountant wife is in her office after having dropped their children off at first grade and kindergarten; he will pick them up in the afternoon. The older one is in a magnet school for gifted children and is the best in her class, he notes with pride.

Tho, like Duyen, is from the first Vietnamese generation that has had to invent its own life instead of simply replicating its elders’ subsistence farming or guerrilla privation. Like their friends, he and his brothers are the first in the family to have chosen their own marriage partners rather than following a rational economic pact arranged by their and their spouses’ parents. They are the first to have adopted the strange custom of bringing the toilet from the outhouse right into the middle of the home. They are the first to give their toddlers tricycles and blow-up plastic pools to splash in and let them watch Tom and Jerry cartoons on TV. The first to play a set of tennis before reporting for work in the morning. The first to eat meals sitting on chairs at raised tables (except when grandparents are present and everyone joins them in dining on the floor, even in luxury apartments). And above all, they are the first generation in four millennia to have known only peace in their lifetime.

For now the house is just right for Tho’s family, and a clear improvement on traditional village homes. In three or four years Tho expects to move on to a larger home, though. His and his wife’s incomes should suffice to buy an apartment for $75,000 or $100,000 and pay for public school fees that will increase from the $40 per month per child they disburse now to $200 per month per child in secondary school.

“If only Vietnam had been united before, it could have been as rich as [South] Korea now,” Tho muses. He is glad that America and Vietnam have forged better relations, as deterrence to a greedy China, and he observes that his cohort no longer shares its parents’ views about a predestined clash between communism and capitalism. He appreciates the sacrifice of his elders for the liberation of the country, “but for our generation, we just think it’s good for Vietnam to have good relations with every country, especially the West and America.”

On our way to lunch we stroll past the village “authority office” facing the muddy rice paddies and on to the original heart of the community, with its small Buddhist temple. One plot has been converted after the rice harvest to grow pumpkins and green vegetables for Hanoi palates, another to a cash-crop rose nursery to help supply the capital’s insatiable demand for blossoms. Each swelling bud has been painstakingly swaddled in paper to prevent it from opening before the optimal sale day. Ancient loudspeakers mounted on utility poles blare out the national radio pop songs that have largely displaced the old progapanda and summons to village meetings. A slope leads down to the village pond, where women washed their clothes before they had running water installed in their homes. Today it is used only for rinsing off muddy feet or shovels after weeding the ricefields.

The narrow lanes take us past one woman who looks up from her Japanese sewing machine as we pass by her open window to show us that she is finishing seams on trousers for export. A few doors on, apprentices in the middle of their three-year instruction sit on the floor of the carpentry shop and chisel traditional temple-post designs into jackwood logs that they steady with their toes. We end our tour at the village restaurant that spills out from the cooks’ home onto the street outside and order the local variant of the national dish of pho noodle soup.


The well-dressed Vietnamese woman in her mid-40s looks as out of place as I do as a Westerner. By chance we are both sitting in a street restaurant in a section of the city that is one of three new locales for families who once lived on houseboats on the Perfume River. In recent years they were relocated to apartments here in what seems to have been a miscarried effort to lift them out of poverty. The former fishermen received no vocational training for any occupation on land and are hard put to feed their families on the pittance they get as drivers of ancient pedicabs that are relics from French colonial times.

The woman assesses me with a curiosity that mirrors mine about her. Am I perhaps American, and if so, what city do I come from? Boston! She beams. Her son is studying in Boston, and she just visited him there, where he has a four-year scholarship at MIT. She pulls out her cellphone and displays photos of her son and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as viewed from the Charles River bridge. I tell her that I just saw Dinh Anh Minh’s name that afternoon on the honor plaque at the elite Hue lycée that is as famous today for its pupils’ steady string of gold medals in the international math Olympiad as for its founding-father alumni, Ho Chi Minh and General Giap. My new acquaintance beams again. She is pleased that I already know that Minh was the first Vietnamese to win an Olympiad gold medal in the hard sciences (physics). She introduces herself as Ho Thi Thuy, Southeast Asia Manager for a Russian exporter of Vietnam’s prized highlands pepper.

Her son is both typical and atypical of the new generation of young people who are fanning out to the US, China, Australia, Singapore, and Germany for higher education. He is typical as one of the 106,000 Vietnamese in their early twenties studying abroad in this academic year, for a higher proportion than their counterparts in China. He is also typical of many in receiving full financial support; in the US alone the cumulative list of Vietnamese Fulbrighters specializing in subjects ranging from public administration (at Harvard) to environmental policy (University of Hawaii) to water management (Colorado State University) numbers some 500 by now. Minh is atypical, however, in the size of his generous stipend of $58,000 a year. Remarkably, the nuclear or extended families of the majority of Vietnamese foreign students have to cover the bulk of expenses of their clan’s young scholars, and they do so. Often enough, students keep their costs down by living with relatives in the San Jose or Sydney or Berlin diasporas, and taking shifts at cooking or waitressing in their third cousins’ Asian restaurants.

Thuy extends an invitation to breakfast the next morning in the leafy tropical garden of a restaurant overlooking the riverfront. We see no houseboats, nor even the traditional dredging sampans that have been evacuated to tributaries away from the center of Hue. Local leaders have yet to expand their imagination to think of the tourist value of reinstating the boats and their inhabitants and perhaps even subsidizing some of them to bring back all their ducks and fighting roosters and strung-up fishing nets and to resume laundering their wash at keelside. So far there are no model sampans in the old Nguyen Dynasty capital for vendors to hawk on the bridges that connect the two sides of the city, no picturesque postcards of Perfume River fishermen battening down the hatches of their rising boats as the first monsoon of the season pours down in sheets, The only local souvenirs on offer are GI dogtags that are either macabre or fake. There are not many buyers.

We exchange business cards, and Thuy gives me a jar of peppercorns as a memento. She hopes to visit Minh again soon, and we promise to stay in touch about a possible reunion at the Charles River, where we can at least see sailboats on the water.

Ho Chi Minh City

In this city the motorbike must wait. My first day back here after 43 years has to begin on foot, slowly.

My introduction to 21st-century Saigon—the name natives still use rather than Ho Chi Minh City—starts as I chat with the owner of my hotel. He is ensconced on a chair in the lobby supervising renovation of the property and waiting for the holiday return of his three children, who have been studying at high school and college in the United States for several years. Duyen, whose cousin used to work at the hotel as a receptionist, interprets. The hotel is in the one corner of the First District that still caters to international backpackers, but is gentrifying fast. A stack of new bricks appears in front of the hotel in the morning and is exchanged for an equivalent volume of jagged cement chunks and metal debris in the afternoon. Across the street, a new screen of red, white, and blue plastic sheeting signals that a parallel project is just about to begin there too. The owner’s oldest daughter arrives—and talks and gestures just like any outgoing American co-ed, with no residue of Vietnamese reticence.

I first take Duyen to see the spot where I lived four decades ago. In the park a young woman sits in the midday sun, giving herself a fix with a syringe. No passer-by intervenes. In the early morning, Duyen comments, the parks belong to the rich as they practice tai chi. In the middle of the day they belong to the poor, to the street orphans and cone-hatted vendors who find few customers in the heat and doze on benches instead.

On Le Loi Street there is no trace of the thin metal door that once gave me entry to a cavernous truck garage and the outdoor stairwell in the back leading up to my apartment on the top floor. My corner has already been absorbed by the posh neighborhood that is every day radiating farther out from the opera house. I presume that the fat sluggish rat that used to contest my space has long since been evicted from the premises.

By contrast, the Continental Hotel, the old hangout for wartime correspondents next to the opera, still exists. The state enterprise that now owns the hotel has kept its satisfying four-floor height and refurbished it in keeping with its19th-century origins. On one wall in the lobby Duyen notices a discreet plaque honoring Pham Xuan An, the veteran correspondent for Time magazine and invaluable part-time assistant to the New Yorker‘s Robert Shaplen, me, and perhaps a dozen other American reporters over the years. It is the only tribute to him that I can find in the entire country. After the 1975 fall/liberation of Saigon, it turned out—to the astonishment of all of us who had worked with him and of the American generals who had conversed freely with him as a very well-informed Time correspondent—that An had been a top North Vietnamese spy during the war. He had regularly delivered military intelligence to the Viet Cong’s well-camouflaged headquarters in Cu Chi, a scant 20 miles from the center of Saigon, a site that is today a prime destination for American tourists who might wish to crawl through parts of the 150-mile web of claustrophobic underground tunnels.

In retrospect, it is clear that his intimate knowledge and even love of America that made An an ideal spy. Once the war was over, however, his empathy for the US also made him suspect to his North Vietnamese commanders. He had to endure not only reeducation camp, but also a decades-long ban on foreign travel and any meetings with foreigners. Not until the 1990s was he promoted from the rank of colonel to brigadier general. And only in the months following the death of General Giap last October was An’s exploit widely publicized, six years after the premier agent’s death.

For lunch, Duyen and I choose the pho restaurant immortalized by President Bill Clinton’s visit of reconciliation with Vietnam in 2000. We sit elbow-to-elbow at tables with a clientele that consists of 50% American tourists, 50% Vietnamese yuppies, and 100% photographers with their cellphones. The pho tastes good.

In the afternoon, on the spur of the moment, Duyen calls a classmate and one-time badminton partner from the Banking Academy who moved here four years ago as a “75”—a north Vietnamese who came after the 1975 reunification to join the “54” southerners whose families have lived here since French times or, in the case of many Vietnamese Catholics, fled here after Gen. Giap’s rout of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Dang Tran Dzung accepts Duyen’s invitation to dinner, and we meet him at the Chanel and Gucci shops on the ground floor of his condominium building. Then we ascend escalators through a mall featuring toys and children’s designer clothes to a third-floor restaurant. As course after course is delivered smartly, it strikes me that rookie waiters in Vietnam take their profession just as seriously as any Italian or French maitre d’.

Unlike Duyen, Dzung stayed in the world of finance and has now risen to become the sales manager for his bank in Vietnam’s commercial capital of Ho Chi Minh City. His wife has started her own firm selling herbal cosmetics online and can continue this business wherever they live. Already the couple are Saigon boosters. Dzung finds this city much livelier than Hanoi, and less expensive to live in. He listens attentively as Duyen talks about the memorial to Pham Xuan An in the Continental Hotel and explains that An was an assistant of mine during the American war. I shine by reflected glory. Dzung looks at me with awe and declares, “He is my idol.”

After dessert, we take the elevator up to Dzung’s apartment to meet his family. His wife has her hands full trying to keep their sub-teen son and his buddy from across the hall from wielding their make-believe swords too boisterously. Their teenaged daughter is willing to try out a few words in English and to be coaxed to perform Für Elise on the upright piano in the living room before she disappears to cram with her French and math tutor.

Long An

The next day Duyen rents a Honda and we head west on Vo Van Kiet Street, named after the prime minister from the southern Mekong Delta who launched doi moi in the 1980s. Our destination is Long An, the venue for Jeffrey Race’s classic 1970s’ exploration of the Viet Cong tactic of courting peasants by exacting lower rice taxes and pressganging fewer soldiers than the South Vietnamese goverment did, while intimidating villagers by assassinating the best local leaders who opposed their cause.

Today’s Long An doesn’t look rural until you get off the ribbon of urban sprawl on Vo Van Kiet Street. The highway is lined all the way with wholesale warehouses, outlets selling streetlights imitating 1890s’ European gaslights, salesmen who display serried rows of a few hundred shoes by the side of the road, and scavenger dumps of rusted John Deere tractors, Komatsu mini-excavators, and disemboweled transmissions. A few kilometers past the sign announcing the invisible dividing line between urban Saigon and provincial Long An we turn off on a cinder side road, however, and are soon rewarded with a landscape of emerald Mekong Delta rice fields. In the 1980s, once doi moi lifted restraints on peasants, it was the delta that quickly compensated for the decade of acute malnutrition, fed Vietnam, and even made it the world’s second-largest exporter of rice, after Thailand.

A cheery barefoot farmer with a hoe, a pail, and a satchel approaches on one of the narrow mud dikes, welcomes us to his domain, and invites us to see the new wing of his house. In his lovingly tended flower garden he hacks open two waiting coconuts with a heavy knife and inserts straws for us to drink the milk. We enter the cool interior of his home, and Bay Hoach explains how much better his life is than his father’s was. He possesses the Land Use Right Certificate for the leasehold on his plots and is sure that his daughter—who attended the college of food processing and works in that branch—will inherit his tenure. His father plowed with a water buffalo; he hires someone with a rotor to till the ground instead. His father shelled the rice himself; he sells his 18,000 kilograms of grain each year to a big company to process instead, and with the money he is paid buys much better seed rice than he could grow. Nowadays he needs to work only sixty days out of the year, twenty for each of his three crops. These improvements gave him the extra money to expand his house and install a flush toilet—and enough free time to swing in his hammock and watch TV.

I ask what it was like for him during the American war, and in what could be a three-sentence reprise of Race’s War Comes to Long An, he replies, “I wasn’t for the Americans. I wasn’t for the North. And I wasn’t for the South.”

On our way back to Saigon, Duyen phones a second cousin who was born in the same village as he was, to see if we might drop by. Tran Thi Ha lives in a villa in a semi-gated community in Saigon’s new Seventh District, as befits the path she mapped out for herself as Vietnam globalized. She began as a guide for investors who were visiting Hanoi, became a facilitator in purchasing their airline tickets in the era when foreigners were barred from buying them directly, then founded a ticket agency that has become one of the largest in Saigon. She quickly realized that Korean businessmen were settling down in Vietnam in large numbers—by now there are 80,000 in Saigon alone—so she learned Korean as well as English and seguéed into a successful realtor with a large Korean clientele.

She welcomes us enthusiastically and goes off with Duyen to buy the ingredients for the banquet she instantly plans in our honor and will spend two hours cooking. Her junior-high daughter, whose fluent English derives from attending a bilingual Vietnamese-English school, entertains me in the meantime, in the hour before her tutor is due to appear. She first shows me around the neighborhood, then interprets for me when her grandmother hears our voices and comes downstairs to greet the newest foreign guest in the house.

After the feast, Duyen and Ha exchange multiple gifts for various family members. Duyen receives fruit, a soup powder made from a vegetable root, special ginger for his sister, and rare gourmet Korean mushrooms for him and his wife. As he flies back to Hanoi the next day for a surprise party for Trong he will be hard put to persuade the stewardess to treat all his bundles—including the bottle of soapy water with wand he has bought for Bunny and Chipmunk to make rainbow bubbles—as his carry-on allotment.

This is the new face of Vietnam.

Elizabeth Pond covered Vietnam in 1969/70 and South Korea in the early 1970s for The Christian Science Monitor.

© Elizabeth Pond

Links updated December 3, 2015

Truce At Last?

The fighting seems to be dying down in eastern Ukraine. This would mean “advantage Kiev.”

Elizabeth Pond

There are growing signs that twelve months after the first Minsk agreement was signed, an armistice is taking hold in eastern Ukraine. It would be no victory for Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s undeclared hybrid war, though. Rather, it seems the Kremlin has lowered its goals.


© REUTERS/Kazbek Basaev

The biggest surprise in Ukraine this month is the dog that didn’t bark. In the first week of September not a single Ukrainian soldier was killed in the Ukrainian-Russian battleground in the eastern tip of Ukraine – and the big guns have now been silent there for two weeks. The combined Russian and local rebel forces “still violate [the year-long] ceasefire up to ten times a day” in skirmishes, says Andriy Lysenko, Ukraine’s presidential defense spokesman, but they have stopped shelling the Ukrainian lines with heavy weapons.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak calls this reprieve “the lowest number of shootings over the past year-and-a-half” in Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine. It follows twelve months in which heavily armed Russian/rebel forces, breaching the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, have driven Ukrainian troops out of pockets along the truce line in bloody firefights and made incremental gains – but have not been able to break through Ukrainian defenses in any major offensive. Even NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, after a summer in which NATO generals were expecting a new Russian attack at any moment, admits that “so far it looks like the ceasefire is now more respected than it has been for a long time.”

Could a fortnight of unwonted quiet presage a solution to what Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London Lawrence Freedman describes as a crucial conundrum in the fluid post-superpower world: how to convert a military deadlock into a stable political settlement? (For German efforts to bring this about see Berlin Policy Journal’s interview with Markus Ederer, State Secretary at the German Foreign Office.)

The judicious answer to the question would be No to any formal agreement ending Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 17-month war on Ukraine – but Yes to the second-best of a stable truce with only low-level violence. Only the boldest of commentators, Ulrich Speck, goes so far as to assert that Putin is now shifting his focus to Syria because he finally sees his neighborhood war as counterproductive in pushing Russia’s fellow East Slavs in Ukraine to embrace an unprecedented Western identity – and he cannot reverse this shift “without a major war.

What the relative quiet in eastern Ukraine does not mean – pace analysts who lament this supposed Russian victory in mainstream American media like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal – is that Russian president Vladimir Putin has won his war. On the contrary, Putin has long since given up his expectation that eastern Ukrainians would rise up against Kiev if only they were nudged into revolt by Russian special forces infiltrated into the region – and that such rebellion would lead to the “return” of Catherine the Great’s 18th-century “New Russia” territory to Moscow. In this light the Russian president’s continued saber-rattling toward Ukraine now looks less like a real threat than a mimicry of threat to maintain his macho domestic image.

The clearest measures of Putin’s lowered goals are the conspicuous absence of that long-awaited offensive in the optimal summertime by up to 24,000 Russian regular troops already in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and 50,000 Russian troops massed in nearby Russia – along with the squabbling among Russia’s proxy rebels in the Donbass. Both fall and spring are bad times to attack because the seasonal muddy “roadlessness” of rural Russia and Ukraine is treacherous for heavy tanks. Moreover, it appears that Moscow is now damping down the militancy of its unruly Donbass proxies by demoting hardliners and promoting those who favor political over military conquest of Ukraine.

Western analysts who regard continuing deadlock as a victory for Putin’s “hybrid war” argue that Moscow is creating another “frozen conflict” and could manipulate the Donbass at will to sabotage the Kiev government, on the pattern of the quarter-century-old “frozen conflicts” in Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Yet now that Putin has single-handedly consolidated a newfound national identity in Ukraine by attacking it, his army would have to occupy the whole country in order to control it. The half-measures of deniable hybrid warfare – Russian officials still claim, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that there are no Russian regulars in Ukraine – have shown their limits.

The biggest deterrent to overt occupation is the prohibitively high costs, as Putin seems to be acknowledging for the first time in his new-found restraint. These include the rising numbers of dead Russian soldiers; the prospect of a quagmire of guerrilla warfare in Ukraine itself; military overstretch and a shortage of Russian troops for other contingencies in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and abroad; increasing Western financial sanctions; and consequent domestic economic degeneration.

To outsiders, the deaths of anonymous Russian soldiers in Ukraine might not appear to be a real disincentive to belligerence for a ruler who enjoys almost 90 percent popularity, exercises vast power over domestic media, and has jailed the few political dissidents who have dared to cross him. Nor would it seem possible that the West’s long-term financial sanctions could have damaged Russia’s economy so fast.

Yet in retrospect Western analysts credit the casualties of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan with Moscow’s withdrawal of those troops in the 1980s. The extraordinary buildup of the ragtag Ukrainian army of early 2014 to a force that almost routed Putin’s Donbass proxies a year ago and were themselves routed only by the first invasion of Ukraine by Russian regulars in August 2014 is another deterrent to Putin. So is the measured Western response to Russian belligerence in giving small-unit military training to Ukrainian troops and conducting joint military exercises in the Baltic and Black Seas – while refraining from sending “lethal” weapons to Ukraine. These moves have signaled NATO’s determination to defend alliance members and to give Kiev help for self-help without escalating the war in a dramatic gesture that would prompt Putin to trump the escalation.

The upshot is that by now the Donbass stalemate – or “exhaustion”, as Freedman terms it – is actually beginning to look like something of a victory by default for Ukraine. As the attacker, Moscow loses if it does not seize any more of the Ukrainian territory Putin has claimed for Russia. As the defender, all Kiev has to do is to maintain the stalemate. Freedman suggests that at this point “Russia might be more vulnerable to exhaustion than Ukraine…. The longer the conflict continues along the current path, the more time Ukraine has to reform its military and economy and deal with corruption.”

By contrast, time is no longer on Putin’s side. The trick will be to “prepare for the point at which the most exhausted side can slide away from its previous stance under the cover of implementing an established agreement.” In this case, that would of course be the much-maligned Minsk agreements.

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.”

This is the longer version of the blog at


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


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.”


(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.”


© 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


Russian Escalation in Donbas

IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations    29 January 2015

by Elizabeth Pond

Ever since Russia snatched the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last March and ended Europe’s seven-decade ban on coercive border change, Moscow has possessed enough raw military might to occupy mainland Ukraine as well. Throughout 2014, however, for tactical reasons, the Kremlin held back in its undeclared war on Ukraine from the radical option of full invasion. Now the upsurge in early January in the flow of Russian soldiers and heavy weapons over Ukraine’s unguarded border to bolster pro-Russian local rebels, along with last week’s resumption of a major offensive by Russian marines and paratroops and allied mercenaries after a lowered level of fighting over the previous four months, raise the question of how much longer Moscow’s relative restraint may last.

Some Western analysts now expect President Vladimir Putin to settle for carving out a viable puppet state in the Donbas as this fourth and most dangerous stage of the Ukraine crisis begins. Independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, by contrast, thinks that Putin is playing a longer game and intends eventually to return all of Ukraine to Russian control, as in the old days before his protégé and then Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled in disgrace to Russian exile a year ago. Felgenhauer believes that Putin has not yet decided on his tactics to this end.

Either way, with no intrinsic or mutually understood limits on the violence, the sheer momentum of kinetic war now risks spiraling escalation out of control.

The chronology explains the concern raised by the Russian and pro-Russian offensive. On January 21 efforts to turn the interim truce of September 5 into durable deescalation petered out with one last Berlin meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promised that pro-Russian militants would respect the truce line (albeit while slipping in a new map that granted the rebels some 500 more square kilometers they had gained in the skirmishes over the “ceasefire” period), remove heavy weapons from the agreed buffer zone, and finally let the revived Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitor the Moscow-controled Ukrainian border that is a highway for sending Russian personnel and heavy weapons into the Donbas separatist territory. Yet within days Lavrov’s words were belied by battles on the same scale that to date has already killed more than 5000 Ukrainian civilians, a still secret but devastating number of Ukrainian belligerents and an even more closely-held number of Russian soldiers, and driven more than a million Ukrainian refugees out of their homes. On January 21, too, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced grimly that the clandestine Russian military buildup in the Donbas had reached 9000 troops and 500 tanks and armored vehicles.

On January 22 German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered Moscow the prospect of a common economic space between the European Union and Putin’s new-born Eurasian Union–if the Russian president agrees to a comprehensive peace in eastern Ukraine. Putin himself first proposed just such “a harmonious economic community from Lisbon to Vladivostok” in 2010, but has not responded to her latest trial balloon.

On January 23 Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, renounced peace talks altogether and said the separatists would mount an operation to bring all of Donetsk oblast under insurgent control–and would take no prisoners.

On January 24 those 9000 professional Russian soldiers in Ukraine’s Donbas and their local warlord allies launched their broad offensive against Ukrainian troops. At the southern end of the frontline in eastern Ukraine they rained a rocket barrage onto both military and civilian areas of the port of Mariupol, the only major city in the Donbas that Ukraine still controls and the main barrier to any Russian thrust to build a land bridge to Crimea. At the midpoint they finally expelled Ukrainian “cyborgs” from the Donetsk airport rubble they had been defending for 242 days, killing some of the Ukrainian soldiers after capturing them and urging passers-by to spit on them. And to the north they tried to close the last gap to encircle the Ukrainian garrison town of Debaltseve.

Even more ominously, Russia’s state media, which for a year have vehemently denied that any Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine, seem to be preparing the public for Russian military casualties in Ukraine and are intensifying the war propaganda. The drumbeat, Western diplomats report, portrays the confrontation in Ukraine as a war against Russia and sees Ukraine as no state, but only a “Western project” aimed at Russia. It calls the fighting in Ukraine a third Western attempt to carry out a “Russian holocaust,” and dismisses Ukraine as verging on collapse.

The new eruption of fighting dashed Western hopes that the huge damage to Russia’s economy wrought last year by the fall of oil prices and Western financial sanctions over Moscow’s Ukrainian conquests might prod Putin to damp down his war to get sanctions eased and save Russia’s economy.

Instead, Putin seems to be acting more like the rat of his childhood memory that when cornered suddenly turned to attack its pursuers. The signals suggest that the few advisors in Vladimir Putin’s tiny inner circle who are counseling tactical restraint have lost ground to the Russian president’s propensity to up the ante after any setback.

Independent military analyst Felgenhauer explains, “Putin believes that under pressure, Russians will unite and perform miracles like previous generations did, that maybe it’s a good thing that we are under sanctions. We will find our national identity, unite China and India against the West. He’s living in a kind of dream world as Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel once said. ”

Nonetheless, Felgenhauer argues that Putin must realize that any major Russian invasion of Ukraine today would cost far more in blood and treasure than it would have last spring, when he held back from giving the coup de grace to an improvised Kiev government that was weak and in shellshock. Putin is still playing a longer game, he believes, and is pinning his hopes on regaining control of Kiev rather than just the Donbas province or the eastern third of Ukraine that he calls by its 18th-century tsarist name of New Russia.

What makes this fourth stage of the Ukraine crisis so dangerous is that in each earlier stage the Russian president–who acts arbitrarily and has consolidated power so fully that observers deem him the sole author of Russian policy–has gambled on doubling down. Previously he could do so by flexing his military domination in the theater without actually resorting to invasion and occupation. Yet his past choices have progressively narrowed his options. Today he seems to think that he must either escalate the military confrontation once again or else be exposed as the emperor who has no clothes.

In the first stage, after Russia’s blitz takeover of Crimea in March, shattered Europe’s 69-year ban on changing borders by force, Putin turned down Merkel’s offers to help him save face if he would stop his dismemberment of Ukraine. Yet he did not think it necessary to invade Ukraine in order to control it. Instead, he relied at first on infiltrating Russian military intelligence officers to lead, supply, and fund local proxies of warlord gangs to declare insurgent “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas. He apparently believed that this action would ignite an uprising by Russian speakers in the eastern third of Ukraine that he began calling “New Russia,” the 18th-century tsarist term for the region. When this rebellion failed to occur, he relied next on the German business community–despite Chancellor Merkel’s repeated warnings that he was mistaken–to veto European sanctions on Moscow in order to preserve its huge trade with Russia.

In the second stage, after the European Union did join the United States in imposing initial financial sanctions over Moscow’s land grab of Crimea, Ukraine’s very weakness saved the state. Putin apparently believed he could easily coerce the chaotic interim government appointed by parliament after Yanukovych fled Ukraine. To emphasize his point, Putin massed up to 80,000 Russian troops on high-alert exercises around Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders for more than a month in April and May.

Even after the landslide election of new Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko on May 25, Putin apparently believed he could steer the “chocolate king” oligarch without resorting to direct invasion. In this phase, however, the ragtag Ukrainian army–which had sensibly not resisted the Crimean takeover by far better armed Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms–pulled itself together and began regaining territory lost to Russian-led separatists in the Donbas. By August the Ukrainians reduced the pro-Russian strongholds to two enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk.

At this point Putin signaled that he would not allow his proxies to be defeated and for the first time sent in regular units of Russian paratroopers (temporarily) to repel the Ukrainian army and allied militias. The heavily armed Russian regulars decimated the outgunned Ukrainians and set the third stage of the Ukraine crisis. There was a respite that lasted from the quick truce of September 5 until last week’s surge of violence. It raised hopes that the two sides might grope their way to a mutual understanding on keeping the intensity of fighting at a low level.

However, diplomacy failed to establish a more durable equilibrium in this window of opportunity. Putin’s obduracy was the main barrier. But Poroshenko, lulled by the relative stability of the front line and pressed by more hawkish political rivals, also failed to nail down the agreement that Berlin tried to broker between Kiev and Moscow. Instead, he attempted to regain lost turf militarily. without heeding Putin’s red line of late August.

In the meantime Russia has built up for the first time in the Donbas a permanent military presence not only of thousands of elite marines and paratroops, but also of Russian-manned anti-aircraft missiles and radar and vast stockpiles of ammunition. This force could now be used either to guarantee control of the land already under pro-Russian rule or to spearhead a full invasion of Ukraine.

In two weeks the EU heads of government will therefore be considering proposals to impose more severe sanctions on Russia or even to begin providing defensive weapons to Ukraine. They will also be watching the shadowy Ukrainian oligarchs who are funding multiple parties in the newly elected parliament in Kiev to see if they manage to thwart the economic and political reforms that the EU requires before it will bail out Kiev’s basket-case economy.

For his part, Putin will be watching the EU outcome and calculating how much longer he can subordinate Russia’s economy to maintenance of his personal power and Russian grandeur without killing the golden goose. At least subliminally, both he and Poroshenko will be watching to see whether the Ukrainian or the Russian economy implodes first. And all will be asking how much higher the escalation of violence will go and how many more people will be killed.

It’s no wonder that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, while traveling in far-off North Africa last week, admitted, “After so many grueling, nerve-wracking Ukraine crisis talks in the past few days and weeks, I long for clear, simple answers. How lovely it would be if they existed. But the truth is: They don’t exist.”

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Germany and the Ukraine for the past 30 years and is the author of The Rebirth of Europe

A version of this blog was posted on 29 January 2015 on the site of the IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin

© Elizabeth Pond