Russia and Ukraine: From sanctions to deterrence –– or war

Guest post by Aleksi Roinila. 7 August 2014. (Edited 7 Aug 8.17 pm GMT)

Aleksi RoinilaThe United States and the EU have a chance to stop further escalation in Ukraine and to avoid having to resort to military force themselves further down the line – but only if they act swiftly and resolutely enough. Sanctions that hit the Russian economy will only hinder Putin if they are turned from after-the-fact punishments to an actual deterrence, writes Aleksi Roinila.

Aleksi is a Master of Social Sciences from the University of Tampere and 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.

Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Russia is currently preparing the invasion and occupation of Eastern Ukraine. It has stationed tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, some of which have for months been equipped with the insignias and markings of Russia’s “peacekeeping forces”. Russia will attempt to justify its invasion of Ukraine by mimicking the precedent set by the Kosovo War of 1999: It will cite the humanitarian crisis in Eastern Ukraine – a crisis which it has itself both created and fabricated – pleading the UN Security Council to authorize a “humanitarian” intervention. Once it fails in acquiring a UN mandate, it will invoke the Kosovo precedent and invade anyway, under the guise of “peacekeeping”. The first phase of this operation is already being executed: Russia called the UNSC to an emergency session on Tuesday. The second phase, an open war against Ukrainian armed forces, may begin within hours, days or weeks, depending on the state of Russia’s own political, military and propaganda preparations and the tactical situation on the ground in Ukraine: the Russian separatist army in Eastern Ukraine is on the verge of collapse, and the window of opportunity for Putin to save them is rapidly closing. Given that the humanitarian crisis of Eastern Ukraine – the only available source of any legitimacy for an intervention – is over as soon as the separatists fold, Putin may have to act sooner rather than later.

Contrary to Russia’s best spin-doctoring to claim otherwise, in reality there are no grounds for invoking the Kosovo precedent in Ukraine. Unlike in Kosovo, where Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia tried to violently crush the autonomy of the country’s Albanian-majority province, there is no humanitarian crisis or ethnic conflict in Ukraine apart from the ‘shadow war’ started by none other than Russia itself. And unlike in Kosovo, where the NATO Allied Force and Kosovo Force operations enjoyed broad support from the international community – including from non-NATO members such as Sweden and Finland – no UN member state apart from Russia has yet supported a Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Russia is unfazed by the prospect of inflicting civilian casualties

It is true that Ukrainian civilians have been killed and injured in the crossfire between the separatists and Ukrainian armed forces. The separatists’ resistance stiffened considerably after Russia equipped them with surface-to-air missiles, multiple-rocket launchers and other heavy weaponry. When the Ukrainian forces still kept closing in on the last rebel strongholds, Russia launched artillery strikes across the border on Ukrainian troops. To overcome such resistance the fledgling Ukrainian armed forces have had to resort to heavy weaponry of their own, to include artillery, rocket and air strikes. The Ukrainian armed forces lack the GPS-guided precision munitions that we have become accustomed to seeing in the 21st century wars waged by the United States and its allies; munitions that would allow them to hit targets in or in close proximity to built-up areas with limited collateral damage.

Russia is well aware of this limitation, and so are the separatists, and they do not shy away from using it to their advantage.  Russia is unfazed by the prospect of inflicting civilian casualties even when it is directly responsible for causing them, as was the case with the shooting-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 some three weeks ago. If Russia would truly care about the suffering of civilians as its propaganda suggests, it would have withdrawn its support from the separatists immediately after the downing of the MH17, at the very latest. If protection of civilians were a priority, Russia would have found no difficulty cooperating with the OSCE and the Ukrainian government to see peace restored and humanitarian aid delivered to the war zones of Donetsk and Luhansk. Instead, Russia’s reaction has been completely the opposite: Moscow has only increased its materiel and direct armed support to the separatists after the downing of MH17.

Ukraine became a proving ground for [Putin’s] strategy even before the invasion of Crimea.

Russia’s indifference towards civilian casualties should not come as a surprise to anyone, however. Russia’s complete disregard of the fates of Ukrainian civilians is entirely consistent with Russia’s previous wars in Moldova, Chechnya and Georgia, as well as with its ever-increasing violent oppression of its own citizens. With both its ongoing ‘shadow war’ in Eastern Ukraine and its no-holds-barred propaganda campaign, launched since before its invasion of Crimea, Russia has tried to manufacture a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and to foster a conflict between Ukraine’s different language groups. Its aim has likely been from the start to use both to either justify a possible later military intervention, now drawing near, or to create a situation where it can achieve its objectives through negotiations rather than military force: Whichever the method, Russia’s most likely intention is to secure its continued influence over Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy and to force Ukraine to recognize the annexation of Crimea in return for peace in the East.

It is unlikely that Russia would seek to annex the East Ukrainian oblasts into Russia-proper as it did with Crimea. Instead, it likely considers it more beneficial to see the eastern provinces gain a measure of “autonomy” from the central government in Kiev, whether officially or through Russian occupation, thereby ensuring that Eastern Ukraine becomes a Russian vassal in a fashion similar to South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Transnistria in Moldova. Unless Russia can make Ukraine and the Western powers to agree to a formal peace agreement to that effect, it is likely to be content with simply ‘freezing’ the conflict – with or without direct occupation. Any one of these outcomes guarantees that Ukraine cannot function as an independent, sovereign state, and cannot therefore defy Russia’s dominance of its “near abroad” by getting too close with either the European union or NATO.

While a plan to invade Eastern Ukraine may have been on the table from the start, it seems highly likely that Putin nevertheless hoped that his objectives in Ukraine could be met without an open invasion of Ukraine. However, Russia overestimated the willingness of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population to stand up in open revolt to Kiev led by Kremlin’s thugs, while simultaneously underestimating the morale and battle-readiness of the Ukrainian armed forces. Already on the path to defeat several weeks ago, Russia’s “special war” strategy was finally dealt a self-inflicted lethal blow with the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17: The separatists can no longer win or even hope to stabilize the situation in Eastern Ukraine without direct and overt Russian intervention. However, despite the separatists’ looming defeat Russia’s objectives in Ukraine haven’t yet escaped its reach.

Having succeeded first in manufacturing a one-part real, one-part imaginary humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and then in convincing its own public at home, as well some portion of the Western audience, that the crisis is not of its own doing, Russia can now invoke both the Kosovo precedent and the UN-approved “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) principle to legitimize its invasion of Ukraine as a “humanitarian intervention”. In addition to serving its primary geopolitical objectives, the operation will also serve Russia’s domestic, ultra-nationalist and anti-Western propaganda-drive by “saving” the Russian-speaking population of Eastern Ukraine. Putin has made “protecting” the ‘Sudeten Russians’ living beyond the borders of Mother Russia a cornerstone of his expansionist, nationalist ideology, and Ukraine became a proving ground for his strategy even before the invasion of Crimea. Unless the European Union and the United States succeed in stopping Putin with measures strong and clear enough to deter Russia’s aggression, Putin will win a propaganda victory in Ukraine matched only by the victory given to Adolf Hitler with the Münich Agreement of 1938 which, together with the subsequent invasion and occupation of the actual Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, sealed Hitler’s rule at the helm of the Third Reich. After such a victory no economic sanctions will hold Putin back.

The West is left with either accepting the situation, intervening militarily, or a prolonged trade-war

For now, though, the United States and the EU still have a chance to stop further escalation in Ukraine and to avoid having to resort to military force themselves further down the line – but only if they act swiftly and resolutely enough. Sanctions that hit the Russian economy will only hinder Putin if they are turned from after-the-fact punishments to an actual deterrence. Like a nuclear deterrent, an economic deterrent is only effective if its contents are known in advance, their effect is sufficiently immediate and powerful, and they will be triggered automatically should Putin invade Ukraine. To function as an effective deterrent, the sanctions must, if triggered, be so prohibitively expensive for Russia that Putin’s backers cannot even begin to contemplate accepting them.

The EU, struggling with its own economic woes, is understandably wary of enacting sanctions that would be hard-hitting enough to actually act as a deterrent. But both the European and the American leaders must re-learn the vital lesson of the Cold War that a successful deterrence is cheaper than any after-the-fact sanction imposed upon Russia to this date. Sanctions decided upon and enacted only after Russia’s transgressions do nothing to stop further aggression – as they haven’t – but end up being far more expensive to both their target and their source than a successful deterrence.

If the European Union and the United States fail to create a sufficiently strong deterrence against Russia in the next hours or days, the result will very likely be an open invasion of Ukraine by Russian armed forces. If that happens, Eastern Ukraine and Crimea will fall under a permanent Russian occupation – no amount of sanctions will force Putin to back down from positions already occupied. The West is left with either accepting the situation, intervening militarily, or a prolonged trade-war costly to all sides. A trade-war will not change the situation in Ukraine nor will it make Putin to change course after having just won one of his greatest victories in Ukraine. It would be folly to expect that after seizing his objectives in Ukraine, Putin would simply return to a peaceful and constructive cooperation with the West. Russia’s propaganda war against the West and its liberal values has already become a self-reinforcing phenomenon, requiring Putin to take new action both at home and abroad. Should Russia succeed in Ukraine, one can only guess which country Putin will target next. However, countries in the highest risk category include with certainty at least Moldova, Georgia and Belarus – should anyone rock the boat in the latter, as happened in Ukraine this spring. The threat hangs over all of Russia’s neighbors, however – including the Baltic States and Finland. Russia has already launched preparatory propaganda campaigns against all of them.

//Aleksi Roinila


You can follow Aleksi (@aleroi) on Twitter.

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