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.

Ukraina ja Venäjä: Pakotteista pelotteeseen – tai sotaan

Vieraskynä 7.8.2014, Aleksi Roinila.

Aleksi RoinilaMikäli Eurooppa ja Yhdysvallat eivät onnistu riittävän pelotteen luomisessa Putinin pysäyttämiseksi seuraavien tuntien tai vuorokausien kuluessa, on seurauksena todennäköisesti Venäjän avoin hyökkäys Ukrainaan ja Itä-Ukrainan sekä Krimin niemimaan pysyväksi jäävä venäläismiehitys, kirjoittaa Aleksi Roinila, valtio-opin maisteriopiskelija Tampereen yliopistolla. Roinila on opiskellut strategiaa Maanpuolustuskorkeakoululla, kansainvälistä politiikkaa Aberystwyth Universityssä ja palvellut lähes kolme vuotta tutkijana ISAF- ja KFOR-operaatioissa.

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

Venäjä valmistelee parhaillaan Itä-Ukrainan valtausta ja miehitystä. Se on keskittänyt Ukrainan vastaiselle rajalleen kymmeniä tuhansia sotilaita, joista osalla on jo pitkään ollut ”rauhanturvajoukkojen” tunnukset univormuissaan ja panssariajoneuvoissaan. Venäjä pyrkiikin oikeuttamaan hyökkäyksensä Ukrainaan matkimalla Kosovon sodan luomaa ennakkotapausta: Se vetoaa osin keksittyyn ja osin itsensä aiheuttamaan humanitääriseen kriisiin, pyytää YK:n turvallisuusneuvostolta valtakirjaa ”humanitääriselle interventiolle”, ja sitä saamatta lopulta hyökkää maahan ”rauhanturvajoukoillaan” ilman YK:n valtuutusta. Näistä ensimmäinen ja toinen vaihe ovat jo toteutusvaiheessa; YK:n turvallisuusneuvoston Venäjä kutsui koolle eilen. Kolmas vaihe – avoin sota Ukrainan asevoimia vastaan – voi alkaa tuntien, päivien tai viikkojen sisällä riippuen siitä, miten Venäjän omat sotilaalliset, poliittiset ja propagandavalmistelut etenevät ja kuinka sotilaallinen tilanne Itä-Ukrainassa Venäjän varjoarmeijana toimivien separatistijoukkojen ja Ukrainan asevoimien välillä kehittyy.

Todellisuudessa Kosovon ennakkotapauksen soveltamiselle Ukrainassa ei ole minkäänlaisia perusteita. Toisin kuin Kosovossa, jossa Slobodan Milosevicin johtama Serbia yritti väkivalloin murskata maan albaaniväestön itsehallintopyrkimykset, ei Ukrainassa ole muuta humanitääristä kriisiä eikä muuta väestöryhmien välistä väkivaltaa kuin Venäjän itsensä aloittama ja johtama varjosota maan laillista hallintoa vastaan. Ja toisin kuin Kosovossa, jossa Naton Allied Force ja Kosovo Force -operaatioilla oli kansainvälisen yhteisön laaja tuki – myös Natoon kuulumattomilta mailta kuten Suomelta ja Ruotsilta – ei Venäjän interventiota Ukrainaan ole toistaiseksi tukenut mikään muu YK:n jäsenvaltio kuin Venäjä itse.

Venäjää sodan aiheuttamat siviiliuhrit eivät tunnu häiritsevän

Totta on, että ukrainalaisia siviilejä on kuollut ja haavoittunut Ukrainan asevoimien ja separatistien ristitulessa, kun venäläisseparatistien vastarinta on kiihtynyt Venäjän aseistettua asejoukkoja muun muassa ilmatorjuntaohjuksin ja raketinheittimin. Venäjä on myös itse ampunut tykistöllään rajan yli Ukrainaan separatisteja vastaan taistelevien ukrainalaisjoukkojen asemiin. Näihin iskuihin Ukrainan asevoimat ovat joutuneet vastaamaan ilmaiskuin ja raketinheittimin – sen enempää Ukrainan heikossa kunnossa olevilla asevoimilla kuin separatisteillakaan ei ole käytössään Yhdysvaltojen viimeaikaisista sodista tuttuja satelliittiohjattuja täsmäaseita, joilla asutuskeskuksissa ja niiden lähettyvillä taistelevia separatisteja vastaan olisi mahdollista iskeä tarkasti ilman suurten oheisvahinkojen riskiä.

Niin Venäjä kuin separatistitkin tietävät tämän. Venäjää sodan aiheuttamat siviiliuhrit eivät tunnu häiritsevän edes silloin, kun se aiheuttaa niitä suoraan omalla toiminnallaan – kuten Malaysia Airlinesin reittilennon alasampumisessa kolme viikkoa sitten. Jos Venäjä propagandansa mukaisesti välittäisi siviilien suojelemisesta, se olisi viimeistään Malaysia Airlinesin matkustajakoneen tuhoamisen jälkeen vetänyt tukensa separatisteilta ja pyrkinyt yhdessä Ukrainan hallinnon ja Euroopan turvallisuus- ja yhteistyöjärjestön kanssa palauttamaan järjestyksen Donetskin ja Luhanskin sotatoimialueille. Venäjän reaktio on kuitenkin toistaiseksi ollut täysin päinvastainen: Putinin hallinto on lisännyt niin materiaalista kuin suoraa aseellista tukeaan separatisteille MH17:n alasampumisen jälkeen.

Venäjä on onnistunut luomaan Ukrainaan osin kuvitellun ja osin todellisen humanitäärisen kriisin

Venäjän siviiliuhreista piittaamattomuuden ei kuitenkaan pitäisi tulla kenellekään yllätyksenä: Venäjän täydellinen välinpitämättömyys Itä-Ukrainan väestön kärsimyksiä kohtaan on täysin johdonmukaista jatkoa maan Moldovassa, Tshetsheniassa ja Georgiassa käymille sodille sekä sen omaa väestöään vastaan suuntaamille ja alati kiihtyville sortotoimille. Venäjä on sekä Itä-Ukrainassa masinoimallaan varjosodalla että jo ennen Krimin miehitystä alkaneella propagandallaan pyrkinyt aktiivisesti luomaan Ukrainaan humanitääristä kriisiä ja väestöryhmien väkivaltaista vastakkainasettelua. Sen tavoitteena on todennäköisesti alusta pitäen ollut joko oikeuttaa mahdollinen myöhempi suora sotilaallinen interventio tai luoda tilanne, jossa Venäjä voi neuvotteluteitse turvata sekä vaikutusvaltansa Itä-Ukrainassa että pakottaa Ukrainan tunnustamaan Krimin niemimaan liittämisen Venäjään vastineeksi rauhasta Itä-Ukrainassa. Venäjä ei todennäköisesti pyri Itä-Ukrainan alueiden liittämiseen Venäjään Krimin niemimaan tavoin; Sille on todennäköisesti edullisempaa, että alueet saavat ”autonomian” tai että ne muutoin irtaantuvat Kiovan keskushallinnosta, muuttuen pysyvästi joko venäläisjoukkojen – ”rauhanturvaajien” – miehittämiksi tai muutoin Venäjän hallitsemiksi Kremlin vasallialueiksi Georgian Etelä-Ossetian ja Abhasian sekä Moldovan Transnistrian tavoin. Mikäli Venäjä ei saa Ukrainaa ja länsivaltoja taipumaan haluamaansa lopulliseen neuvottelutulokseen, riittää sille todennäköisesti myös konfliktin ’jäädyttäminen’, miehitysjoukoilla tai ilman; Mikä tahansa näistä lopputuloksista takaa, ettei Ukraina kykene toiminaan itsenäisenä ja suvereenina valtiona ja siten uhmaamaan Venäjän etupiiriajattelua lähentymällä liiaksi Euroopan unionia tai Natoa.

Putin on todennäköisesti toivonut, että maan tavoitteet Itä-Ukrainassa olisi mahdollista saavuttaa ilman Venäjän asevoimien avointa hyökkäystä Ukrainaan. Venäjä kuitenkin yliarvioi Ukrainan venäjänkielisen väestön halukkuuden nousta kapinaan venäläisseparatistien johtamina ja aliarvioi Ukrainan asevoimien taistelumoraalin ja iskukyvyn. Kuolonkorinoissaan jo viikkoja olleen strategian viimeinenkin mahdollisuus onnistua tuhoutui viimeistään MH17:n mukana. Siitä huolimatta Venäjän ja Putinin tavoitteet ovat vielä kaikkea muuta kuin tavoittamattomissa. Venäjä on onnistunut ainakin omien kansalaistensa silmissä luomaan Ukrainaan osin kuvitellun ja osin todellisen humanitäärisen kriisin, jonka turvin se voi esittää sekä Kosovon esimerkkiin että YK:n hyväksymään suojeluvastuun periaatteeseen nojaten, että sen hyökkäys Ukrainaan on ”humanitäärinen interventio” maan venäjänkielisen väestön ”pelastamiseksi”. Samalla operaatio palvelisi Putinin rummuttamaa kansalliskiihkoista ja länsivastaista propagandaa ’sudeettivenäläisten’ suojelemisesta Äiti-Venäjän rajojen ulkopuolella. Ellei Euroopan unionin ja Yhdysvaltojen onnistu pysäyttää Putinia tarpeeksi kovalla ja ennakkoon tarpeeksi selvällä taloudellisella tai sotilaallisella pelotteella, saa Putin Ukrainasta todennäköisesti propagandavoiton, joka kalpenee ainoastaan Hitlerin vallan lopullisesti sinetöineelle Münchenin sopimukselle ja Tšekkoslovakian sudeettialueiden miehitykselle vuonna 1938. Sen jälkeen Putinia ei enää talouspakotteilla pysäytetä.

Vaihtoehdoiksi lännelle jää joko tilanteen hyväksyminen, sotilaallinen interventio, tai kauppasota Venäjää vastaan

Euroopan unionilla ja Yhdysvalloilla on kuitenkin vielä mahdollisuus estää Ukrainan sodan eskaloituminen ja välttää sotilaalliseen voimankäyttöön turvautuminen, mikäli ne toimivat riittävän nopeasti ja päättäväisesti. Venäjän talouteen iskevät pakotteet hillitsevät Putinia ainoastaan, mikäli niistä tehdään rangaistusmuodon sijaan pelote. Ydinasepelotteen tavoin myös talouspakotteisiin perustuva pelote on tehokas ainoastaan, mikäli pakotteiden sisältö on ennakkoon tiedossa, niiden vaikutus tarpeeksi välitön ja voimakas, ja ne astuvat voimaan automaattisesti Venäjän hyökätessä Ukrainaan. Toimiakseen pelotteena pakotteiden on käytävä toteutuessaan Venäjälle niin kalliiksi, ettei Putinin lähipiiri voi edes harkita niiden hyväksymistä. Omissa talousvaikeuksissaan rypevälle Euroopan unionille riittävän kovat pakotteet ovat syystäkin epämieluisa ajatus, mutta niin Euroopan kuin Yhdysvaltojenkin on ymmärrettävä, että onnistunut pelote on halvempi kuin mikään tähän mennessä Venäjälle asetettu – ja täysin epäonnistuneeksi osoittautunut – pakoterangaistus; Jälkikäteen rangaistuksenomaisesti asetetut pakotteet eivät aggressiota pysäytä, mutta käyvät niin kohteelleen kuin asettajilleenkin monin verroin onnistunutta pelotetta kalliimmaksi.

Mikäli Eurooppa ja Yhdysvallat eivät onnistu riittävän pelotteen luomisessa Putinin pysäyttämiseksi seuraavien tuntien tai vuorokausien kuluessa, on seurauksena todennäköisesti Venäjän avoin hyökkäys Ukrainaan ja Itä-Ukrainan sekä Krimin niemimaan pysyväksi jäävä venäläismiehitys. Vaihtoehdoiksi lännelle jää joko tilanteen hyväksyminen, sotilaallinen interventio, tai pitkittyvä ja kaikille osapuolille kalliiksi käyvä kauppasota Venäjää vastaan. Kauppasota ei Ukrainan tilannetta kuitenkaan muuta, eikä Putin Ukrainassa onnistuttuaan käännä kelkkaansa ryhtyäkseen rauhanomaiseen ja rakentavaan yhteistyöhön länsimaiden kanssa; Venäjän propagandasodasta länsimaita ja länsimaisia arvoja vastaan on jo tullut itseään ruokkiva ilmiö, joka edellyttää Putinilta uusia toimenpiteitä niin Venäjän sisällä kuin sen rajojen ulkopuolellakin. Ukrainan jälkeen Venäjän tähtäimiin joutuvaa maata voi vain arvuutella, mutta korkeimpaan riskiryhmään Euroopasta kuuluvat vähintään Venäjän etupiiriinsä Ukrainan tavoin laskemat Moldova ja Valko-Venäjä. Uhka koskettaa kuitenkin kaikkia Venäjän rajanaapureita, Suomi mukaan lukien. Valmisteleva propagandasota on jo käynnissä.

//Aleksi Roinila

Tiesithän, että voit seurata Aleksia Twitterissä.

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.

#MH17 and the laws of war

Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down in Ukrainian airspace, between Donetsk and Luhansk, on July 17. All 300 passengers and crew members were lost.

MH17 turmapaikka.
The MH17 crash site.

Firstly, I offer my condolences to all those bereft in this horrible tragedy. As a soldier I feel great pain in that such are the grim aspects of my profession. It would be hypocritical to assert that this doesn’t apply to Finland. If we were to defend our country in a future war, risks such as these would be likely to appear.

Therefore, I find it necessary to examine this in the context of the laws of war (jus in bello). Arto Pulkki, a military expert for the magazine Suomen Sotilas, wrote a very good piece on the case of flight MH17 titled Responsibility and Irresponsibility, considering intention and liability from a criminal law perspective. I warmly recommend this as a primer.

First I shall consider intention, as it is easier to approach the subjects of guilt or fault using legal principles. A word of warning, though, I must say that I don’t speak proper legalese, especially in English, so read carefully with caution. Nonetheless, mens rea needs to be considered in order to find out which principles of the laws of war are applicable.

Intention as opposed to negligence or carelesness is easily established in this case; if the firing button was pressed with the express purpose of launcing the missile, negligence or carelessness is ruled out. A negligent or careless act would require that, for example, an external event — say an explosion nearby – startled the ”missile operator” or rocked the vehicle causing the operator to inadverently press the launch button.

The issue left is to assess the level of intention. Assuming that there was no intent to down a civilian flight, then the degree of culpability of the operator is low. An obvious and possible outcome of firing a missile is for it to hit civilian aircraft or for the missile to stray and cause damage to civilians.

To assess the culpability of the superiors and other actors we will need to look at the principles governing the use of force in war. Only one principle striclty applies to this case. When considering the prerequisite of targeting, distinction, the case is clear – military force was used on a civilian target. The debate on admissibility ends here; other principles discussed in the case of MH17, such as proportionality and necessity, don’t even come into play.

The principle of distinction catergorically rules out any use of military force against civilian airlines, exempt 9-11 cases. Cases where civilian property can be targeted (as military targets) are usually restricted to infrastructure that contributes to enemy war efforts. Such civilian property then becomes a military target by rules of distinction. In such cases the principles necessity and proportionality need to be addressed: Does striking the military target help in the military defeat of the enemy? AND is the collateral damage caused to civilians or civilian property excessive in relation to the military advantage of on attack?

A good example of applying these principles — and the problems and dilemmas that arise — is the decision taken by NATO forces to target the Lužane bridge in Serbia during operation Allied Force (Kosovo, 1999). During that strike a bus was on the bridge resulting in the loss of life of 23-70 civilians.


The only case where proportionality doesn’t apply are military engagements in areas where no danger to civilian life or property exists. To destroy an enemy combatant with small arms fire is equally proportional to an air strike; destroying an enemy hardpoint with a hand grenade is equally proportional to a cruise missile barrage.

The underlying requirement in applying these principles is the call for precautions. The principles don’t suddenly become valid only in the moment of an attack or decision to attack. Or post-attack as in some cases… The requirement of protecting civilian life and property comes with a specific call for precautions in both planning and executing the use of force. The belligerents (Parties) must be able, to at all times and in all circumstances distinguish between civilians, civilian property, and military targets. Force may only be used on military targets. In practice this means that standards and mechanisms for identifying targets, assessing damage pre-strike, and choosing systems of engagement must be put in place, be upheld and controlled by responsible commanders.

Thus, in order to assess the culpability of the operator launching the missile and his superiors, the relevant questions are:

  • Did the operator take care to properly identify the target, i.e. did he positively identify the target as military?
  • Did the operator act in accordance with the Rules of Engagement (ROE) and the identification criteria set therein?
  • Was the identification criteria such that by using them a reliable identification would be acquired? (identification by two or more systems, e.g. radar AND visual, or a positive challenge-and-reply identification)
  • Did the higher command (superiors) make sure that no civilian aircraft were in the dangerous zone, for example by maintaining and distributing a recognized air picture?
  • If it was known that civilian air traffic was in the zone, were decisions taken to limit or cease the use of air defence forces?
  • Or was a deliberate decision taken to continue the use of force, disregarding the risks to civilian air traffic?

State actor culpability is harder to address, but asking: ”Did Russia equip the rebels with powerful and dangerous long range weapons systems such as the BUK surface-to-air missile and the Grad rocket launchers without providing for the required situational awareness systems, thus creating a considerable risk of indiscriminate and non-distinctive use of force?” helps. Such a question may help assess the culpability of Russia as a State actor.

Assuming that the rebels’ possession of BUK-systems was known to Ukrainian authorities, the Ukrainian culpability can be easily assessed as an airspace control issue, asking: ”Did the State take prompt and responsible action to control and regulate the use of its airspace in order to remove the danger to civilian air traffic — knowing in advance either that the rebels were in possession of SAMs with ranges in excess of 5 km, as demonstrated by the downing of a AN-26 cargo plane on Wednesday, or knowing that the SAMs had been captured from the Ukrainian armed forces in the end of June?

But State responsibility is a whole new subject, best left for another post.