The end of Ukraine?

The end of Ukraine?

Putin has dealt a punishing blow to Ukrainian independence. NATO’s inaction may only embolden him to do more.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

“We condemn in the strongest terms Russia’s escalating and illegal intervention in Ukraine and demand that Russia stop and withdraw its forces from inside Ukraine and along the Ukrainian border.” So declared the member states of most powerful military alliance in history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, at the conclusion of its annual summit in Wales last week.

The alliance backed up these words with an announcement that it would conduct small-scale joint exercises with the Ukrainian military near the Ukrainian city of Lviv, which is about as far from the fighting in eastern Ukraine as it is possible to be without crossing the border into Poland.

NATO also pledged to help Ukraine reform its defence and security sectors and to promote greater interoperability between Ukrainian and NATO forces. Lest anyone think such familiarity might be put to use in eastern Ukraine, which has been invaded by Russia and where more than 2,600 people have died in a Moscow-fuelled insurgency, the statement noted that “these efforts are designed to enhance Ukraine’s ability to provide for its own security.”

Ukraine, in other words, will continue to enjoy the privilege of sending its soldiers to risk death on NATO missions in places such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, but when it comes to a war on its own territory it is effectively on its own.

NATO issued its statement the same day that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko endorsed a ceasefire deal signed in Minsk between representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the self-declared rebel republics in the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Despite outbreaks of violence since, the ceasefire has not collapsed. Still, it must be considered extremely fragile.

While no doubt welcomed by many Ukrainians suffering from five months of war, the deal is a turning point in the Ukrainian insurgency that represents a punishing blow to Ukrainian independence, and it’s a boost to Russian predatory ambitions beyond its borders. Alexander Zakharchenko, “prime minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, told reporters in Moscow that the ceasefire talks were a “legitimization” of the rebel republics, and Ukraine has been forced to negotiate with their leaders as if they were genuine politicians rather than “terrorists,” as Poroshenko had previously described them. But the setback for Ukraine is more than symbolic.

“I think it is a serious tactical victory for Mr. Putin,” says Andrei Piontkovsky, a Moscow-based political analyst, speaking of the ceasefire deal. “He created a new frozen conflict,” Piontkovsky continued, comparing the situation in eastern Ukraine to that of Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova that is in practice occupied by Moscow. “Like in the case of Moldova, this tumour on Ukraine’s borders will become his instrument in preventing any undesirable, for him, economic and political development in Ukraine—firstly movement toward the model of European economic and political competitiveness.”

There was a time earlier this summer when it appeared that even without outside help Ukraine might prevail against the Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk. After suffering a series of setbacks against the aggressively attacking insurgents during the spring, Ukraine’s armed forces regrouped in July and August and took back large chunks of the territory they had previously lost.

This presented Russian President Vladimir Putin with a dilemma. Even though he had denied—in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that Russia was involved in the Ukrainian insurgency, the rebels were widely perceived to be Russian proxies, and Putin believed Russian interests demanded that they not lose. “He refused to accept the insurgents’ defeat,” says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Moscow Center. “He put his finger on the scale of the battle in Donetsk.”

Related reading: Is Putin getting away with murder? 

Putin’s finger took the form of columns of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles, including one that in late August attacked the border town of Novoazovsk in southeast Ukraine, opening up a new front where previously there had been no significant rebel activity for weeks. Ukrainian government forces reeled in retreat, leaving behind the charred skeletons of their destroyed vehicles as they limped westward, stunned and often wounded.

Trenin describes what happened during the last week of August and first week of September as a “defeat” for Ukrainian government forces. And it’s true that the balance of power across the conflict zone was radically and perhaps irrevocably changed as Putin demonstrated that he would do whatever was necessary to prevent a Ukrainian victory.

This followed a pattern Putin established months ago. When small numbers of covert forces—the so-called “little green men” who first appeared in Crimea and later spearheaded the takeover of municipal buildings in eastern Ukraine—were not enough, he sent more and better-armed troops. With them came ever more preposterous explanations: When some of these men were captured inside Ukraine, Moscow claimed they were there because they had gotten lost. Some Russian soldiers were fighting alongside Ukrainian separatists, a rebel leader eventually allowed, but said they were on leave and had chosen to spend their vacation fighting for freedom rather than lounging on a beach.

Even the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over rebel territory in eastern Ukraine—an act that killed 298 civilians—did not cause Putin to scale back his support for the insurgents. According to the BBC, locals in the area said men who appeared to be Russian soldiers were seen operating a sophisticated BUK missile launcher shortly before the plane was hit.

NATO and Amnesty International have released satellite imagery purporting to show Russian troops and heavy weaponry operating inside Ukraine. Russia maintains this is all propaganda. But in Russia itself, some soldiers killed in Ukraine have been secretly buried, and journalists trying to confirm their deaths by visiting cemeteries have been attacked. Russian state television channels have more recently shown the funerals of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine, praising their bravery and patriotism but sticking to the Kremlin script that they were in Ukraine solely as volunteers.

Putin’s willingness to continually escalate Russia’s intervention in Ukraine presented Poroshenko with a dilemma of his own. He knew Ukraine’s armed forces could not defeat those of Russia, and NATO wasn’t coming. So he agreed to the ceasefire. The agreement, while providing for prisoner exchanges and amnesty for some fighters, does not outline what an eventual political settlement might look like. It is difficult to imagine one that both sides would accept. Poroshenko has already promised to protect Russian language rights and to decentralize political power. None of this has satisfied the separatist leadership or their patrons in Moscow.

Related reading: Putin strikes again 

If Poroshenko can take any comfort from the predicament in which he finds himself, it might be that he never really had any good options. The much-ballyhooed rapid reaction force that NATO announced is meant to protect existing members of the alliance. And not only has the West not provided meaningful military aid to Ukraine, it has also failed to mobilize sufficient financial resources to support Kyiv, notes Balázs Jarábik, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Ukraine is essentially broke,” says Jarábik. This, in addition to the mounting human cost of the war, has pushed some Ukrainians toward support for a ceasefire that they might have resisted when the insurgency began in April. This, too, plays in Putin’s favour. He can weather a collapse of the ceasefire and a resumption of hostilities far more easily than can Ukraine. The fighting is not on Russian territory, and any public or press opposition to Russians dying in a supposedly Ukrainian civil war can be effectively squashed.

Stefan Rousseau/Getty Images

Stefan Rousseau/Getty Images

Western sanctions are supposed to tilt this balance by making the war more painful for Russia. Canada, the European Union and the United States have levelled several rounds of sanctions against Moscow since Russia annexed Crimea in March. The EU announced its latest round of sanctions on Monday. These have damaged the Russian economy, but they haven’t stopped Moscow.

“Nothing that’s on the table here is strong enough to change Putin’s calculus,” says Andrew Weiss, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. What’s more, he says, the longer the sanctions are in place, the more difficult it will be to maintain Western unity over them. Many European countries have close economic ties to Russia. Western sanctions, and the retaliatory Russian ones, hurt those countries as well. Here, too, Russia is likely willing to absorb more punishment than its adversaries. “Russia is prepared to fight harder to keep from losing Ukraine than the West is prepared to fight to get it,” says Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former American ambassador to Ukraine.

But there’s another factor to consider, says Pifer: “Do the Russians care more than the Ukrainians? How hard are the Ukrainians prepared to fight if this ceasefire collapses?” Putin was no doubt correct when he told European Commission President José Manuel Barroso that Russian forces could take Kyiv within two weeks, but holding it would be another matter. And even the Kremlin’s much more modest military goals, such as conquering enough territory to link to Crimea to Russia by land, would require a sizable Russian investment in troops and money to maintain in the face of a Ukrainian guerilla campaign. Pifer believes the West should provide advanced arms to Ukrainian forces, such as high-end anti-tank weapons, not because these might allow Ukraine to beat the Russians, but because doing so would “drive up the costs to the Russians of invading.”

Poroshenko has said some NATO member states promised Ukraine such weapons, but no donor countries have confirmed this. A spokesman for Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says Canada is not arming Ukraine, although Ottawa has sent non-lethal assistance. Pifer notes that were the West to arm Ukraine, there is no guarantee that Russia wouldn’t simply increase its own military intervention. “But it’s still worth doing because there has to be penalties for this Russian misbehaviour. And if there are not penalties, does the Kremlin come away with the conclusion that this is something that they might try elsewhere?”

“Here’s the scenario I worry about,” Pifer continues. “How would NATO respond if 50 or 75 little green men took over a radio station in eastern Estonia? This could be tempting to Vladimir Putin if he could plausibly say, ‘They’re not mine.’ ”

Only a year ago, such a scenario would seem far-fetched. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea have completely changed what’s predictable regarding Moscow’s behaviour. Putin has fashioned himself as a defender of the “Russian world,” and of ethnic Russians wherever they might live. Many live beyond Russia’s current borders.

Putin’s ambitions might have been restrained had he failed in Ukraine. But so far he hasn’t. It’s not a complete victory—Putin’s aggression has awakened NATO, and the alliance is now focused against Russia for the first time in two decades. And support for foreign wars is difficult to maintain indefinitely, even for a quasi-dictatorship with near total control over the media. But in his confrontation with the West over Ukraine, Putin is winning. There will likely be other fights ahead.


The end of Ukraine?

  1. The United States, Europe, and NATO have overreached in their march eastward to encircle Russia.

    James Baker promised Edouard Shevardnadze that if Russia agreed to German reunification and the former GDR becoming part of NATO, that NATO would not expand eastward.

    Bill Clinton broke that promise.

    Ukraine cannot be armed in any significant meaningful way, because it would mean World War III and nuclear armageddon. The Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine are existential for Russia, and Putin (or whoever worse would replace him if he were too timid) would escalate, and not hesitate to escalate outside of Ukraine’s borders. The American and European plan for the Ukraine was always lunacy. The evolution of Ukraine should have always been a joint project between the US, EU, and Russia.

    Ukraine had to be a bridge between east and west. The United States and Europe were using it as a wedge. The massive blunder will have consequences. Like Kosovo was carved out of Serbia by the US and EU, novo-Russia is going to be carved out of Ukraine by Putin and Russia. The alternative is nuclear armageddon. The West trapped the Russian bear in corner, with no path out except to fight. The West has lost because of gross miscalculation. It is only the scale of the loss at this point.

    It will be interesting to see what Europe and the United States do with the leftover ukrainian-speaking part of Ukraine, bankrupt, economy destroyed, where the “so-called” right sector will feel betrayed and alienated. Blowback is going to be a b$%^#. Good luck keeping those gas pipelines flowing.

    The economic consequences won’t be pleasant for Russia, but that Russia would care is part of the American and European miscalculation and blunder.

    China will take advantage to get favorable energy deals from Russia, knowing that they were the next American target for encirclement with the so-called American PIVOT to Asia.

    • Lord help me[ i don’t know if i’ve ever agreed almost entirely with one of your posts] but i think there’s much truth in this. Kissinger has a good article on it somewhere. Clinton it seems chose to gamble and not to listen to the old realist.

      • Oops…i agree with you that Ukraine was a bridge too far, the rest of eastern Europe ought to have been free to do what they want. The idea of making Ukraine a part of NATO was always nuts without a clear consensus from its citizens that’s what they wanted. Most likely any kind of real attempt to get such a consensus ought to have told the west it wasn’t a good idea. As for joining the EU, that never was any of Russia’s business to begin with.

    • “The Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine are existential for Russia” !!??!? Huh? What does that even mean? (This is what happens when people repeat words that they read somewhere with only a fuzzy notion of what they mean) Of course the Russian Federation can continue to exist just fine without any part of Ukraine. And if “russian-speaking parts” of Ukraine are “existential” for Russia, then so must Russian-speaking parts of Latvia, and Estonia, and Kazakhstan and Kyrgysystan…… and why not Brighton Beach for good measure.

      Do you even have any idea of which parts of Ukraine are Russian speaking? I suspect not, since judging from you comment you don’t know much, except that anything other than abject surrender can only mean “nuclear annihilation”.

    • There’ll soon be a new International Border along the “Dnieper River”, from the Dnieper River Delta following it along with the south-east slice of the Ukraine, soon to be part of Russia.
      …And, The Ukraine will still have to pay back what it owes Russia, which is in the $Billions.
      Russia will not be land-locked by anyone. and they will own the road from Moscow to, and into, the Crimea Peninsula, and with a healthy number of strategic ports of access in and around the Black Sea.

      The West and NATO will look foolish, wasteful and stoopid, along with their idiotic efforts, ’cause that’s all they will amount to.
      And that will be the end of it.

    • No shortage of Leftist Mental Disorder on this thread.

    • China is eying Siberian oil and gas alright, but not in the way that you think.

    • “James Baker promised Edouard Shevardnadze that if Russia agreed to German reunification and the former GDR becoming part of NATO, that NATO would not expand eastward.

      Bill Clinton broke that promise.”

      And Russia promised that it would respect Ukrainian sovereignty if the country gave up its nuclear weapons.

      Putin broke that promise.

      There’s no “the West made Russia” do it at work here. People are responsible for their own actions.

      The realist assumption that this was necessitated by NATO movements is intellectually vacant. First, no realist predicted this (realists have never predicted anything), and second, NATO did not increase its position in the Ukraine in any manner that would have precipitated this. Rather, NATO made it clear that the Ukraine would never become a full part of NATO.

      The notion that this is NATO’s fault is simply a feel-good way of chalking up what’s happening to our failures rather than to admit that things are happening in a manner that is beyond our control.


    There maybe reasons why no one in the west wants to step up for Ukraine, over and above cowardice as you seem to imply.

    “Ukraine in other words, will continue to enjoy the privilege of sending its soldiers to risk death on NATO missions in places such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, but when it comes to a war on its own territory it is effectively on its own”

    Why would they? They aren’t obliged or a member of NATO.

    • Putin has a degree in international law. He traveled the world long before he became leader. He speaks 3 languages.

      His family was devastated by WWII.

      Putin is not some turnip farmer from Siberia….or a thug.

      Don’t claim things about him that aren’t true. That’s western arrogance. He is not ‘evil’ because he’s Russian….he’s a human being, some good, some bad.

      And he has a far tougher job than Stevie Wonder.

      • Oh c’mon, please! He may have had some reasons for distrusting the west; but the man ran the KGB for a while; nice guys don’t get to do that. Putin is also widely rumoured to have had opponents disappeared or murdered. No he isn’t evil cuz he’s Russian – he’s a very bad man because he chooses to be one. That said, i think Kissinger said that demonizing Putin is not a strategy.

        • George Bush Sr was Director of Central Intelligence. Is that proof of evil?

          Lots of US presidents have been ‘rumored to have’…..people ‘disappeared’….Americans included.

          Putin has done nothing ‘evil’. He may not be on any list of possible saints….but he isn’t ‘evil’ either.

          Gawd for years the west was told the Soviets were all monsters….and yet when the curtain fell they turned out to be just people…..and they’d been told WE were monsters.

          Why are we making the same mistakes again?

          • As i said, demonizing Putin, or Russians in general is no substitute for a strategy, a plan for how to deal with him and Russian nationalism.
            Comparing the director of the CIA[ which answers to congress eventually, and the guy who came up through the KGB during Soviet times to eventually head it, is silly…and i think you know it.

        • It’s not in the least silly….stop playing black hat/white hat in your head. The US has tortured, murdered, undermined, sabotaged, assassinated and stolen….since their beginning…. around the world.

          How do we deal with Putin and Russian nationalism? WE don’t deal with it at all. It’s not even in our hemisphere.

          • This isn’t about who is “badder”; it is about stopping a megalomaniac from seizing portions of a neighbouring country. I would hope there would be a similar reaction among our allies (stronger, I hope, than this weak effort) if the US decided it wanted Alberta.

          • Bram if the US decided it wanted Alberta, we wouldn’t HAVE any allies.

            And in any case Alberta would love to go, so I say stick a ribbon on them and wave goodbye.

    • You think that Putin is a bloody menace only because you are brainwashed by MSM. Otherwise you can not give me one fact to support your opinion. Stop repeating what you read in your “fair and democratic” media and start thinking instead.

  3. Emily

    Not evil? Engineering a low level civil war which, to date has cost 2,500 lives is not evil? Even Hitler when he took over the Sudetenland wasn’t that heavy handed during his “warm up” period.

    • No, not evil. Even though he’s Russian!! Isn’t that amazing??

      How many did Dubya kill in Iraq? How many is Obama killing right now?

      Helluva lot more than 2500.

    • Lee,

      I find your comment about an engineered civil war very wise except for the fact that you as most people still believe it was driven by Russia, and this is just a good proof of how manipulation through media works.

      About a year ago Ukraine’s government was strong because it was a Russia ally (both countries have been working together for many years) however, that wasn’t very convenient for some western countries (mainly USA) and their interest in oil and NATO bases (to try to surround/besiege Russia and China), that’s when they started all the pro/anti-russian movements, to destabilize the goverment and society from the inside knowing that Russia was going to respond to protect their people and their own interests as well.

      you can find details of the initial organizers of such pro/anti movements, interestingly, most of them have some link to USA… some of them spent a few months in ‘political workshops’ in USA, or have been working in American companies within Ukraine (companies mainly involved in oil trading).

      George Bush’s tactic to control foreign governments was to seed terrorist attacks and then counter-attack such countries (i.e. Afganistan, Iran, etc.)

      Obama’s tactic has been a little more intelligent, moving people form inside their countries causing ‘internal civil wars’ or the so-called Arab spring (see Libya, Syria, Egypt, etc.) in order to get new governments who are sympathetic of American interests.

  4. Not the end but a fair justice representative Ukraine!
    Kiev Offers ‘Special Status’ for Breakaway Regions
    The president explained that the law contained “de facto elements of decentralization” while keeping Ukraine whole, according to a statement on the presidential website.

    Mr. Poroshenko also said that the three-year life of the law would allow time for changes in the Constitution that would bring “profound decentralization” throughout Ukraine. “There is nothing more important for us than peace,” he said. “These are the key positions that will ensure it.”

  5. No one asked the people of Canada if we wanted to become a part of NATO, our hardcore right wing corporate government forced it upon us, without letting the people of Canada vote in a referendum. Both the Conservatives and Liberals serve the same agenda behind closed doors, no matter what promises they make during electioneering, and this is an act of treason. The citizens of the Ukraine are facing the same treasonous acts by their politicians, especially this Nazi Poroshenko who committed terrorism to force a legally elected leader out of office and backed by the United States and UK. Now they are using every trick in the book including lies and False Flags to start a war with Russia and China, and it is our sons and daughters who will have to fight with NATO Forces and for what? They will get nothing out of it but death, while the corporate/political dictators supplying the military make Billions if not Trillions of dollars during years of warfare. If the West starts a War, the richest men and women had better be leading our working class men and women on the battle field and not hide at their corporate or government offices or face cowardice and treason charges. Politicians and the wealthiest families are not so as important as not to be expendable. Let them face death on the battle field, after all it is they who start and benefit from these conflicts.