On Ukraine, Russia, and untimely ceasefires

Guest post by Aleksi Roinila. 29 July 2014.

Aleksi RoinilaPutin will not back down unless the West makes the price of further aggression so high that not even his closest supporters are willing to risk paying it, writes Aleksi Roinila, a political science graduate student at the University of Tampere. Aleksi has studied Strategy and Defence at the Finnish National Defence University, International Relations at Aberystwyth University, and served as an analyst with the Finnish Defence Forces in the ISAF and KFOR operations for nearly three years.

"Game changer?"
”Game changer?”

When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, some hastily predicted that it would be the beginning of the end for both the Russian separatist forces in Ukraine and Putin’s aggressive and adventurous foreign policy against his neighbors. An article on Foreign Policy released a day after the crash predicted that “Putin will almost certainly have to back away from the insurgency”. In the days that followed, however, that development started to seem less and less likely. Instead, the macabre reality is that the murder of 298 civilians over Ukrainian airspace is turning into an unqualified victory for the very people who committed the atrocity.

Like any schoolyard bully, Putin will not stop as long as he keeps getting what he wants

The initial response to the downing of MH17 from both the United States and the European Union was so docile that Russia only proceeded to escalate the conflict by increasing its support to its proxy-soldiers in Eastern Ukraine. This escalation has already reached a point where Russian artillery has started firing across the border on Ukrainian positions. Instead of an immediate show of strong support to Ukraine and demanding Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, the West responded by making tepid suggestions about a ceasefire and demanding an “impartial international investigation”, both of which Russia enthusiastically agreed with. In fact, Russia has been the greatest proponent of both an immediate ceasefire as well as an “investigation” of the MH17 “crash”.

While both demands sound entirely reasonable to any peace-loving and rational human being on the face of it, Russia has a sinister motive for supporting them; They only serve to further Russia’s political and military aims in Ukraine.

Why a ceasefire now would be a bad idea

A ceasefire before the surrender or defeat of the Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine would allow Russia to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and to solidify its de facto control of Eastern Ukraine, permanently dividing Ukraine’s territory. Meanwhile the demands for “a thorough investigation” into the downing of MH17 only lend credibility to Russia’s outrageous propaganda that seeks to muddy the waters around otherwise already well-established facts. While investigating all of the details of the incident is certainly necessary and worthwhile, we should not allow our need for closure to be used as an excuse for stopping Ukraine from restoring its territorial sovereignty or to deflect blame from Russia.

Forcing Ukraine to agree to a cease-fire with the separatists now would condemn East Ukraine to the same fate as Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia before it – to a perpetual limbo of frozen conflict and Russian occupation, with no resolution to the conflict in sight. It would also effectively reward the Russian separatist proxies of Donetsk and Luhansk, and Russia itself, for the murder of nearly 300 civilians aboard the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17; Instead of becoming the disaster for the rebels that some pundits predicted in the immediate aftermath of the downing, it would turn the incident into a decisive victory that saves the rebels from an otherwise inevitable defeat at the hands of the Ukrainian armed forces, all the while saving Putin’s aggressive foreign policy from a humiliating defeat at home.

Hitting Russian state-owned banks does not stop Russian tanks from crossing into Ukraine

A ceasefire would reaffirm any doubters within Putin’s inner circle that Putin’s high-stakes gamble has been a stroke of genius rather than a disaster-in-waiting – just as the Münich treaty of 1938 silenced the doubters of Adolf Hitler after he successfully gambled that neither France nor the UK dare go to war with him over Czechoslovakia. But despite the bloody lessons of the last century, an untimely ceasefire is exactly what Washington and the European powers may yet end up forcing upon Ukraine.

While the new sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union today have finally revealed a West more willing to act in the face of Putin’s aggression, the West still remains as hesitant as ever to directly confront it in any concrete terms; The sanctions don’t lift a finger to Russia’s gas economy and France is still set to deliver a Mistral-class amphibious assault ship to the Russian Navy. While slowly awakening from its slumber, the West is still paralyzed by the very reasonable fear of further escalation. But while wishing to avoid unnecessary conflict and bloodshed is certainly a highly desirable characteristic in any individual, the leaders of the West have become blind to the cold Machiavellian calculus that Putin is betting all his chips on (although this hasn’t escaped from the European press); He knows he cannot afford, let alone win, a wider war, nor is his military likely to agree to him openly risking one. But as long as the West is more concerned about their short-term economic interest than about long-term stability in Europe, Putin knows he can bluff the West into an agreement on his terms.

A political maskirovka

This may indeed be what Russia has planned all along. It likely isn’t interested in annexing Eastern Ukraine or even seeing the region officially seceding from Ukraine. Rather, it may have instigated the trouble in Ukraine’s East solely to move attention away from its annexation of Crimea, its primary prize, and to subsequently use its ability to “mediate” a cease-fire with the rebels in the East to make Kiev agree to a “compromise” over Crimea. This strategy has already proven wildly successful: No longer is the discussion in Washington or Brussels about returning Crimea to Ukraine and ending the Russian occupation there. No longer are Europe’s leaders arguing that Russia should avoid new sanctions only if it returns Crimea to Ukraine. Instead, with the unrest that Russia has stirred up in eastern Ukraine, Russian control of the Crimean peninsula has become a fait accompli that few in the West dare even question – all of this mere months after Russian forces invaded the peninsula.

Of course, the idea of Europe or the U.S. allowing Russia to act as a “mediator” in a conflict it has itself instigated would be an absurd proposition – but only if it hadn’t already happened before. In Syria, Russia armed Assad’s regime and protected it in the UN Security Council before mediating an ad-hoc disarmament deal between Assad and the United States, all to avoid U.S. military action against Assad’s regime in the wake of his use of chemical weapons against his own people. There, too, Russia achieved everything it wanted: Assad remained in power and could continue his massacre of Syrian civilians unabated, ultimately without even giving up all of his chemical weapons as promised. The only thing the United States got in return for handing Russia its greatest diplomatic victory since the post-Georgian-War “reset” was a less-than-graceful exit from a conflict it really didn’t want to get involved with.

No amount of appeasement will convince Putin to stop

Now, less than a year later, Russia is applying the lessons of Syria in Ukraine, confident that the West will back away from any real confrontation for another empty “peace in our time” proclamation. And while the West will undoubtedly celebrate its Chamberlain moment, having forced a ceasefire on Ukraine, Putin will celebrate victory and plan his next conquest. For it is not only Ukraine that he is interested in – he intends to upend and redefine the political landscape of Europe, all the while waging an all-out ideological war on Western culture, civilization and the paradigm of universal human rights and political freedoms they stand for. Every dictatorship needs enemies. For Putin, it seems, the chosen archenemies are sexual minorities and Western liberalism.

This is no idle observation that has no relevance in the supposedly pragmatist and realist realm of foreign policy. The expansionist, ultranationalist propaganda that Putin has unleashed to control his own people, and to legitimize his war in Ukraine, has severe consequences for his freedom of movement when it comes to negotiating with the West: He can no longer back down in Ukraine without at least a manufactured victory over the West, and he will not back down unless the West makes the price of further aggression so high that not even his closest supporters are willing to risk paying it.

What to expect

So far the threat of economic sanctions has done nothing to force Putin to back down. If anything, West’s initial passivity and half-hearted threats after the MH17 incident only encouraged him to double down on Ukraine while he still held the initiative. He interpreted the impotent threats of European and American heads-of-state not as a sign of their resolve to resist Russian expansionism, but as a sign of their collective weakness – and quite rightly so. Today’s new sanctions, while for the first time something that Putin cannot simply laugh off, are not enough to change his perception. Hitting Russian state-owned banks does not stop Russian tanks from crossing into Ukraine, and Putin has plenty of time to finish his campaign in Ukraine before the Russian economy starts to feel the hurt of the sanctions. Viewed from the Kremlin, the West still hasn’t committed to anything that could actually stop Russia from realizing its goals in Ukraine and elsewhere. And, like any schoolyard bully, Putin will not stop as long as he keeps getting what he wants.

With the use of military force making such a dramatic return to the European continent after a long hiatus, everyone is understandably wary of needlessly escalating the conflict. And with the centennial of the start of the Great War upon us, this year may make it tempting to draw poetic and fearful parallels between the war in Ukraine and the summer of 1914. No one wants a rerun of the guns of August. But we should also bear in mind that only two decades after the faithful events of 1914 it was endless appeasement of another aggressive dictator — not a firm resolve to resist him — that brought about even greater suffering and death.

What we are witnessing in Ukraine is not a re-enactment of the events that led to the Great War a hundred years ago. If the appeasement continues, however, this year may well prove to be the replay of a much more faithful year in European history – that of 1938. Though Putin’s position at Russia’s helm may already seem strong, his very survival as the New Czar may depend on which path the West chooses to take in Ukraine. Putin’s path is already set, but whether his ambitions are ultimately emboldened or thwarted, Ukraine is for him what the Münich Agreement and the Anschluss were for his ideological predecessor. No amount of appeasement will convince Putin to stop.

//Aleksi Roinila


You can follow Aleksi (@aleroi) on Twitter.

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