Is Ukraine Really Winning Against the Ethnic Russian Insurgents?

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WASHINGTON – The only good way to really end the troubles in Eastern Ukraine would be for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to genuinely recognize that the ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine can and should live peacefully within a democratic Ukraine, now run by a legitimate President, Petro Poroshenko. Having acknowledged this, Russia would stop to support the insurgents in the East, while establishing good relations with the new rulers in Kiev.

Putin not helping the insurgents anymore?

Short of this, expect more problems. True, it looks as if Putin stopped providing material support to the Russian insurgents fighting against the Ukrainian army in the East.

It was and it is obvious that their chances of holding on to their newly declared “independent” provinces rested entirely on getting overt and covert support from Moscow.

Right now, without help from Mother Russia, the ethnic Russians in the East are losing. The Ukrainian army reconquered cities and territories previously controlled by the insurgents.

Ukraine will remain poor and weak

So, can we claim that Kiev is winning, while Putin is losing? I do not think that it is so easy. If Putin’s end game is to prevent a strong pro-Western Ukraine to exercise any “bad influence” on Russia, he has nothing to worry about.

Ukraine is an economic basket case. Most certainly, the expenditure of borrowed resources to fight a nasty insurgency in the East–remember that the country can stay afloat only on the basis of a lifeline extended by the IMF, plus aid pledges from the EU– has not helped economic growth. Not to mention the high cost of the destruction of property and infrastructure due to the fighting, and the damage caused by the cessation of meaningful economic activities in the regions caught up in the conflict.

On top of that, for its very survival, Ukraine still needs to buy Russia’s natural gas. There are no alternatives.

Ukraine now is Europe’s problem

All in all, while Putin may have “lost” Ukraine, (by “lost” I mean the inability to exercise direct control over this former Soviet Republic), now this sorry, impoverished and most corrupt country has become Europe’s problem. And it will take decades, billions of dollars, a lot of good will and luck to engineer a real economic turnaround.

Which is to say that it is very unlikely that a revived, vibrant, democratic, pro-Western Ukraine bordering Russia will be in a position to provide a credible alternative model to Putin’s semi-autocratic style.

Eastern Ukraine will continue to be restless 

In the meantime, even assuming peace in Eastern Ukraine –and we are not there yet– I very much doubt that today’s insurgents will turn into tomorrow’s loyal pro-Kiev citizens. Eastern Ukraine, with its millions of restless ethnic Russians, will continue to be a problem and a net cost for Kiev’s struggling government.

Putin wins

Bottom line: even without a formal secession of the Eastern Provinces of Ukraine, Putin still wins. His strategy is not to destroy Ukraine; but to keep it weak, while forcing Europe and the West to keep it alive through very expensive subsidies.

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