WASHINGTON – Despite its (surprising) military successes against the pro-Russia rebels, there is no way that Ukraine can “win” this Moscow-funded civil war in the East of the country. And I say this keeping in mind that in any conflict there is no victory until your enemy says: “I lost”, and stops fighting –for good. In other words, nobody can declare victory until the other side keeps fighting, or gets ready to resume fighting.
A real Kiev “victory” in this conflict in Eastern Ukraine would imply that Vladimir Putin has given up –for ever– on any and all claims as the defender of ethnic Russians within Ukraine. It would imply that the rebels, lacking Russian supplies, military advisers and cash, have to give up, and essentially “surrender”. A real victory would also imply that the issue of secession has been “resolved” and closed –for good.
Now, I do not see anything even resembling this. Sure enough, it seems that the relatively weak Ukrainian armed forces overall have performed way above expectations. They have regained territory and taken control of cities held by the rebels. This may be good for morale.
Ukraine cannot win against Russia
However, there is no way that Ukraine in the long run can prevail against a much bigger, militarily stronger and better funded Russia. (And do keep in mind that Russia, despite all this, is and will continue to be the main energy suppliers to Ukraine).
Besides, so far at least, the economic pressures enforced by the US and the European Union against Russia in the form of sanctions have not had the desired effect to make Putin stop his (not so) indirect aggression against Ukraine.
Putin can keep this conflict going
In other words, Putin can keep this crisis going for as long as he wants, almost with impunity. And let’s be clear: Russia does not have to win military battles in order to succeed. Success for Russia is keeping an unfriendly pro-Western Ukraine bogged down in a never-ending conflict. Success for Russia is an impoverished, semi-failed Ukraine that will never become a strong partner for Europe, let alone become an alternative model for Russians tired of Putin’s authoritarian rule.
If Putin wants it, he can keep this Eastern Ukraine secession issue going for years. If so, this messy civil war will become the constantly open wound that will sap Ukraine’s meagre resources, this way preventing the government from focusing on the most urgent problems of economic revitalization and development.
No real help to Ukraine from the West
And President Petro Poroshenko should once and for all give up on any hopes to get any real help from the West. It is now abundantly clear that neither the Europeans nor the Americans regard the fate of ethnic Russians within Ukraine something so important that it would justify the freezing of all relations with Moscow or, far worse, getting into a military confrontation with Putin.
Who cares about the ethnic Russians?
Yes, Putin is a thug. He grabs what he wants with not even an attempt at obtaining negotiated solutions. However, his appetites –the West believes– are confined to unresolved ethnic and territorial issues emerging from the sudden (and possibly hasty) dissolution of the old Soviet Empire.
And (privately at least) Western policy-makers would concede that Putin…well… he has a point. After all, he is focusing only on ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, a neighboring country with a long history of deep relations with Russia.
Sure enough, Russia has invented the story of the Russian minority under threat from the neo-Nazis in Kiev . But, there again, Putin concerns are limited to ethnic Russians. He is not threatening the US or other NATO countries.
Give up the East
Given all that, it is quite obvious that the West will not support Kiev in a prolonged war to the bitter end against Russia and its proxies in Eastern Ukraine. And this really means that President Poroshenko is essentially alone in all this.
In a context in which the West will provide moral but not material support, Germany’s invitation to find a negotiated solution in practice is a not so subtle invitation to give up and essentially, (if not formally), surrender: “Please, President Poroshenko, do us a favor and give Putin what he wants, so that this mess will be over, and we can all resume business as usual. This crisis is costing us money”.
In practice this means that Ukraine will have to give up –formally or de facto, by conceding large autonomies that amount to independence– its Eastern territories where most of the ethnic Russians live.
Allowing Eastern Ukraine to secede is only way to end the conflict
I have suggested this unpleasant solution a while ago. And I did so not because this is the “right” way to end this conflict; but simply because I do not see any better alternative for an outnumbered and outfunded Ukrainian government that will never be able to prevail, all by itself, against Moscow.
War or economic development?
President Poroshenko at some point, and I hope sooner rather than later, will have to realize that (sadly) he is the head of an impoverished country that survives today only because of credit lines and loans from the International Monetary Fund and other friends.
If Ukraine wants to create a viable economy, it has to stop this costly and in the end unwinnable war. In order to do so, it should grant total autonomy/independence to the East.