WASHINGTON – The now chronic crisis in Eastern Ukraine is getting worse. The cease-fire did not work. The Russia-backed rebels are on the offensive, while the weaker Ukrainians are slowly losing ground.
Restraint did not work
These developments have prompted some in the West to advocate a totally new strategy. Here is the new thinking. US and European military restraint, highlighted by the refusal to give more than token, non lethal assistance to the Kiev government, did not work.
Instead of convincing Putin that there is room for an honorable diplomatic solution, by signaling to Moscow that we are not going to take any serious action on the military front, we produced the opposite effect. Western restraint in fact emboldened Putin. Right now he can correctly calculate that, even if he escalates, there will be no consequences beyond the economic sanctions currently in place.
Fine. This may be indeed so. However, it is by no means obvious that a US-Europe reversal –by sending offensive weapons to Kiev– would lead us to a negotiated peace. Likewise, it is really foolish to maintain as some have that arming the Ukrainians would create a deterrent. Arming the Ukrainians may prevent a further deterioration of the situation on the ground, but it will not bring the conflict to an end.
Putin wins by forcing Ukraine into virtual bankruptcy
Let’s get a few things straight. Putin does not need “to win” in the old-fashioned sense of the term. Keeping this conflict going in a sense is already “victory”. He simply wants to bleed an already impoverished Ukraine to death.
It is no secret that the new Ukraine, now led by President Petro Poroshenko, is a sorry mess that is surviving only because of Western loans and other temporary fixes. In this context, by forcing Ukraine to spend money that it does not have to fight a conflict that it cannot win, Putin accomplishes a political goal.
Since the Ukrainians refused to be reabsorbed into Russia’s sphere of influence, they will be no asset to Europe or to anybody else. In fact, with their economy in total ruin, they will become a huge liability for the West.
As for the idea that giving real offensive weapons to the Ukrainians will create a new deterrent, those who think this are really dreaming. A real deterrent is a formidable force, ready and deployable at a moment’s notice, under the command of a determined political leadership. This leadership has successfully conveyed to any potential hostile power that this formidable force under its command will be used swiftly and massively in case of any aggression. In other words, a good deterrent is a preponderant force combined with the unmistakable signal that it will be used in case of aggression. Faced with the assurance of a swift massive retaliation, the would-be aggressor will not act. This way, deterrence worked. The force is so large that the threat to use is enough.
It is obvious that sending some weapons to the Kiev government will not create a deterrent. In fact it will have the opposite effect. It would be the equivalent of pouring some more gasoline into the fire. A real deterrent would require arming the Ukrainians up to the point in which they would defeat the Russia-funded and trained rebels.
Fear of a certain defeat may change Putin’s calculus. But all this presupposes an American willingness to escalate what is now an unplesant but still local conflict that does not threaten America directly, while it is technically outside of the areas protected by the NATO alliance. And I see no sign that President Obama wants to engage in what would be in effect a war by proxy with Russia.
Ukraine cannot win
From all of the above, it is clear to me that Kiev will never “win” this regional conflict. It does not have the economic and military resources, nor the outside help necessary to prevail. Getting a few offensive weapons from the West may help a little.
However, unless these Western weapons come in massive amounts, with an American pledge to give as many as it takes for as long as it takes until the final defeat of the rebels backed by Russian aid, some military aid will not change the basic dynamics of an unwinnable war.
In the meantime, as the costly conflict drags on, miserable Ukraine gets even more deeply into debt, while the economy is in ruin. Sadly, a patriotic war does not feed hungry people.
Let the East go, focus on the economy
I said it before and I repeat it now, this war is unwinnable. Therefore it would be wise for the Kiev government to concede defeat, cut its losses and get out of Eastern Ukraine.
Let the Moscow-backed rebels win. Let them create their own pseudo-state or join Russia. The only way to have closure here is to give up the dream that somehow it may be possible to recreate national unity in these provinces inhabited mostly by hostile ethnic Russians. This is now utterly impossible.
Admitting defeat is very unpleasant. But I see no other good option. Once this costly conflict will be over, the Kiev government will have a chance to refocus on the real problem: economic reconstruction.