Eulogy for Ukraine: The country is again borderland playground for mightier neighbors

By Elizabeth Pond

Kiev has lost eastern Ukraine to Russia. The turning point came on August 27, as the first direct invasion of Ukraine by Russian regulars broke the Ukrainian army’s siege of pro-Russian rebel strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk. The truce of September 5 echoed Thucydides’ maxim that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Last week Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko faced an urgent Hobson’s choice between accepting assured minimal triage of Ukrainian territory at once or/and likely maximal triage later. This week Russian President Vladimir Putin still faces his chronic Hobson’s choice between pursuing Russian glory at the expense of domestic stagnation or forfeiting imperium to win humdrum progress in Russia’s wretched living standards.

The difference is that Poroshenko has made his bitter choice, while Putin still refuses to acknowledge his need to make a bitter choice at all.

Poroshenko’s selection of the lesser evil of a frail truce that in fact shuts the shattered Ukrainian army out of the country’s two easternmost provinces marks his loss of hope in rescue either by NATO military intervention or by some Finnish scenario. NATO leaders welcomed the Ukrainian president to their summit on September 4 with lavish praise, but they also informed him that they would not go to war with Russia to save a non-member of the alliance from dismemberment. And the sudden Russian rout of Ukrainian soldiers dispelled any illusion that Moscow would ever let the Ukrainians defeat its proxies – or that the stream of Russian corpses repatriated home from the Ukrainian battlefield might convince Putin, like Stalin in Finland in 1939, that Russian casualties are too high for him to continue the invasion of a smaller neighbor for meager gains.

On September 5 Poroshenko therefore accepted a deal that tacitly conceded that the Russian military juggernaut could always overpower the small, ill-equipped Ukrainian army. To save Ukrainians from further war casualties on top of this summer’s more than 2600 deaths and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, Poroshenko is withdrawing the army from the fight in the east.

The truce leaves heavily-armed Russian forces and their motley local pro-Russian allies free to end the ceasefire and resume their westward advance whenever they wish. Already Russian textbooks are replacing Ukrainian books in Luhansk schools, plans to replace the hryvnia with the ruble are in place, and Poroshenko’s political rivals are beginning to profile themselves in Ukraine’s parliamentary election campaign by taking a somewhat harder line on resisting the Russian incursion.

As for Putin, he was at least reminded of his Hobson’s choice this week by the EU’s imposition of tougher sanctions on Russian state-owned oil firms to promote “a change of course in Russia’s actions destabilizing eastern Ukraine,” as EU Council President Herman van Rompuy put it. Rosneft, Transneft, and Gazneft – but apparently not yet the state gas monopoly of Gazprom – will be blocked from the lifeblood of major borrowing in Europe. The nuclear option of barring Russian firms from the international SWIFT payments system is still being held in reserve as the West ratchets up penalties for Russia’s continuing defiance of Europe’s 69-year taboo on changing  borders by force.

Russian officials are responding by threatening tit-for-tat penalties of their own such as barring Western airlines from time-saving Russian over-flights on Asian routes and penalizing importers of Russian gas like Slovakia that have retrofitted pipelines to re-export Russian gas to Ukraine this winter. More to the point Putin still mocks such measures by trumping the West’s long-term economic weapon with his short-term military weapon and creating faits accomplis, and by boasting that the Russians’ mystical capacity to endure suffering will always exceed that of spoiled Western populations.

None of the Russian president’s former economic advisers – or even the generals he has reportedly fired for expressing misgivings about the costs of his belligerence – has yet broken through Putin’s inner circle of KGB hardliners to convince him that Russia must cooperate with the West to get the technology it urgently needs to keep up current oil and gas production and exploit new Arctic wells. Even under Russia’s tight censorship some critics do argue discreetly that Putin’s course condemns Russia to remain an extractive economy with high capital flight, a probable negative growth this year, and life expectancy, alcoholism, and rural poverty close to the bottom of global tables. Yet they cannot penetrate the Kremlin apparatus.

Moreover, one deterrent that played an important role in the peaceful end of the Cold War as Soviet divisions withdrew 1000 miles from Central Europe back to Russia two decades ago is now absent. That was the Russians’ (misplaced) historical fear of German military and technological prowess, should Berlin break free of NATO control. The classic formulation of this post-Hitler definition of NATO’s purpose was to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. By now  Putin has finally realized that it would be impossible to rouse today’s pacific Germans to militarism. In Russia the curse words of “fascist” and “Nazi” apply now only to the mythical Ukrainians of “Russia Today” TV, not to Germans. In his three-dozen phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the Ukraine crisis, there has been no whiff of historical Russian fear of Berlin. Putin has concentrated instead on ridiculing her insistence that restoration of the European ban on violating neighbors’ borders takes precedence over commercial interests, and that  any financial and energy war would hurt Russia far more than the West.

What then are the implications of this constellation for Ukraine in the next few years? How far will Putin go in dismembering Ukraine?

If the stop-and-go pattern is repeated, the likely next step by Russia, after it has exhausted the tactical advantages of the current Thucydian ceasefire, would be to complete the conquest of Mariupol on the truce line and build a land corridor along the thinly defended Azov seacoast to the Crimean peninsula that Russia annexed last March. Such a corridor from Russia to Crimea would free the peninsula from dependence on Ukrainian water and electricity and facilitate Russian military reinforcement there. It could easily be extended later to Odessa – the storied Black Sea port that pro-Russian agitators failed to take in May – and link up with the Russian garrison in the Transnistria breakaway from Moldova.

This would then outline in Ukraine’s south, along with Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, the whole lower basin of the Dnepr River that Catherine the Great expropriated from the Ottoman Empire. Certainly Putin’s rhetoric in recent days has focused on demanding “statehood” for “Novorossiya,” the anachronistic 18th-century term for the region that he resurrected this year. Today that territory comprises Odessa, Donetsk, Luhansk, and six other Ukrainian provinces that pro-Russian secessionists failed to capture earlier this year.

Beyond demanding statehood for Novorossiya, Russian propagandists this week began to demand wide “federalization” (a euphemism in the Russian lexicon for foreign-policy autonomy) for other parts of Ukraine. An early target for this campaign could be Kharkiv province in Ukraine’s northeast, where local criminals thwarted a pro-Russian takeover in gang warfare last spring.

Just after Russian paratroopers decimated the Ukrainian army in late August, Putin displayed his determination by reminding young Russians at a summer camp that “Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations” and warned the West not to mess with it.

In the short run Ukraine’s position is weak, while Russia’s is strong. In the long run the reverse may be true. The problem for the West in the interim is that hard military power wins instant victories, while soft economic power, if it works, will do so only in the long run.

In this interim period Ukraine is again playing its historical role as a borderland playground for mightier neighbors. In the long run its fate will depend on a new generation of Ukrainians – and Europeans and perhaps Chinese.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the German Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and WIIS. She has covered Ukraine for over 30 years and is currently a non-resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. Previously she worked as a journalist for The Christian Science Monitor in Asia and Europe before publishing a number of books including The Rebirth of Europe in 2002.


* Phote Credit: picture alliance/AP Photo