A Useful Stalemate in Ukraine



Photo credit: Nicolas Raymond / freestock.ca¹

By Elizabeth Pond

Elizabeth Pond argues that Putin’s undeclared war on once-fraternal Ukraine has destroyed Moscow’s influence on Kiev, forged genuine Ukrainian identity in resistance and ended in a roughly stable stalemate in the eastern 3{5f0f57c44bc297437706deade099e6516fe1db1b31ab604b564d60e47f160dcd} of Ukraine that Russia now controls. However bitter that stalemate is to Putin, to Ukraine, and to the West, the least bad option may now be to prolong gridlock while diminishing casualties in Ukraine’s Donbas coal region.

The full article was published on IISS – Politics and Strategy: The Survival Editor’s blog and can be accessed here.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author. She has contributed several articles to Survival, most recently ‘Serbia Reinvents Itself’, in Survival, vol. 55, no. 4, August–September 2013, pp. 7–30.


1. Photo Title: “Ukraine Grunge Flag”. Originally posted on: http://freestock.ca/flags_maps_g80-ukraine_grunge_flag_p1080.html at http://freestock.ca/. No changes have been made.


by Elizabeth Pond

Hawks in Washington are arguing that the West should deliver lethal defensive weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces. At a moment of political uncertainty in Moscow, their view is that the NATO alliance should show the Kremlin it is not feckless when faced with Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

Such a policy would certainly make the congressional Rambos feel good. But flooding Ukraine with advanced weapons which its troops have not been trained to use would be dangerous and almost certainly lead to an escalation that would play to Russia’s local military superiority while failing to bolster Ukraine’s capabilities.

There are three reasons for this. First, sending lethal weapons to Ukraine could sleepwalk the world into its first nuclear war, at a time when the rules of restraint worked out by the superpowers in the original Cold War have expired.

Second, it ignores the fact that Ukraine, once the war smithy of the Soviet Union, is the world’s tenth largest arms exporter. It would be far cheaper to send ten executives on sabbatical from Boeing to Kyiv to advise Ukraine on modernizing its own heavy weapons production.

Third, given Ukraine’s history of corruption, deliveries of billions of dollars of weaponry could tempt Ukrainian oligarchs to revert to business as usual as the shock of Russia’s year-old attack wears off.

Western arms injections could hardly save Ukraine from further dismemberment, given the ratio of Ukraine’s 121,000 active servicemen to Russia’s 771,000 and just over 2,000 Ukrainian tanks to Russia’s 20,000. Indeed, a demonstrative influx of western arms into Ukraine would simply force any risk-averse demurrers in the Kremlin to join in common defiance of the American bogeyman with the ultranationalists whom Putin has empowered.

Hawks in the West tacitly admit that Moscow holds ‘escalation dominance’ in its own backyard by barring any western boots on the ground. As Antony Blinken, the US deputy secretary of state, explained in defending Barack Obama’s scepticism about funnelling weapons to Kyiv: ‘Anything we did as countries in terms of military support for Ukraine is likely to be matched and then doubled, tripled and quadrupled by Russia.’

Russia, the regional military giant, can instantly trump each western military initiative in any upward spiral. Its claim to an existential geopolitical interest in neighbouring Ukraine also trumps the distant West’s half-hearted, peripheral interest.

Where western hawks fail the sobriety test is in their refusal to specify how they would respond in the next weeks if a game of chicken proceeds on Russian rules and Moscow keeps raising the stakes all the way up to the nuclear level.

This is not idle speculation. Putin has said that he was ready to put nuclear forces on alert to defend his original takeover of Crimea a year ago.

At the other end of the scale  is Chancellor Merkel of Germany, who advocates strategic patience in countering Russia’s breach of international law and Europe’s seven-decade taboo on changing borders by force. Is there a golden mean that helps Ukraine but does not taunt Moscow?

Fortunately, yes. The West’s surprisingly effective sanctions have exacerbated plunging oil prices to produce record capital flight in Russia, an abrupt halt to crucial western investment and technology transfer, 20 per cent inflation, and a drop in GDP of up to 6 per cent this year.

For the first time since Putin rose to power on the basis of high oil revenues and a social compact of restoring order after Russia’s post-Soviet chaos and building a new urban consumer class, the Russian president now faces growing impoverishment at home.

He cannot forever compensate by appealing to abstract Great Russian glory and sacrificing the lives of Russian soldiers to a war in Ukraine that he claims not to be waging. Time, which last year favoured Putin’s military faits accomplis, may this year begin to favour the West’s strategic soft power of prosperity and stability.

To be sure, the potential transmission belt from impoverishment to political moderation is not obvious. A population inured to fatalism is unlikely to revolt. The Russian elites have only a weak liberal impulse. So far, all Kremlin factions are hanging together.

What might in the future divide them, however, is the public blame that ultra-nationalists already heap on Putin for his timidity in not finishing the conquest of eastern Ukraine and the private fears that more cautious cronies may nurse about Putin’s ‘adventurism’ – to use the Soviet term for dangerous goading of the West.

German policy is to seek tacit mutual acceptance of relatively stable de-escalation. To keep up the pressure, Merkel has changed the European agenda from easing financial sanctions if Russia has not seized more Ukrainian territory by the summer, to strengthening sanctions if Russia violates the terms of the Minsk package ceasefire before the end of the year.

This makes more sense than sending sophisticated western weapons to Kyiv that would require months of training before Ukrainian forces could use them – and could be captured by Russians.

The West stands to gain far more by helping the Ukrainians to maximize their own arms production. Ukraine still turns out solid Soviet-era tanks and missiles (and exports spare parts to Russia, oddly enough). The tanks may not match the high tech of German Leopards but Ukrainian soldiers know how to operate them.

The US Congress should certainly keep the threat of delivering lethal weapons to Ukraine on the docket. NATO should continue to demonstrate its determination to defend all alliance members, by conducting joint exercises in the Baltic states and Poland and intercepting Russian bombers.

It should continue to conduct modest joint military manoeuvres in western Ukraine under the ‘distinctive partnership’ that NATO granted Kyiv as a consolation prize in the 1990s, when the alliance signed a ‘Founding Act’ with Russia, and it should use the timing and intensity of war gaming to signal responses to Russian threats or overtures.

The West should further nudge Kyiv to replace the dysfunctional senior command of the Ukrainian army and promote the majors and captains who have already had extensive training in the West. It should upgrade Ukraine’s existing heavy weapons by providing enough surveillance drones and intelligence and electronics to facilitate real-time targeting and counteract Russian jamming of Ukrainian communications in the east.

It should insist on Russian compliance with the Minsk truce – including the provisions for Kyiv’s control of Ukraine’s own borders in the east by the end of 2015 – as a prerequisite for easing sanctions. And it should broaden the sanctions if Russia, despite the ceasefire, overwhelms Mariupol and Kharkiv in a bid to partition Ukraine and deprive its government of control of the east.

It should also use all its influence to promote urgent economic reform. Ukrainian oligarchs must be prevented from divvying up state wealth in the the form of privatization receipts and rescue funds from the International Monetary Fund.

Above all, the West should help Russia’s rulers recognize their own internal ‘contradictions’ (to borrow another Soviet term) and loosen the hardliners’ grip in the Kremlin. And it should help all the latent Kremlin factions realize that Putin is incurring very high costs in his adventurism. He lost all of Ukraine as a client state after his protégé, President Viktor Yanukovych, had peaceful pro-European demonstrators shot on Euromaidan Square a year ago.

He lost most of ‘Novorossiya,’ his anachronistic name for the eastern third of Ukraine, when the masses there failed to follow Russian military agitators and rise in rebellion. He has preserved only a Crimea that is a drain on his budget and the desolate ruins of half of the Donbas.

More broadly, Putin has brought growing turmoil to the Caucasus, overstretch to the Russian army and a rising toll of Russian military corpses in Ukraine that the army is doing its best to keep secret. By his threats he has revived a moribund NATO, and by converting the Russians from brother East Slavs into enemies, he has bestowed on Ukrainians a new sense of consolidated non-Russian identity.

What the West should do at this stage, then, is to trust the efficacy of sanctions and Russia’s own resolution of ‘contradictions’. What it should not do is to play Putin’s game by rushing to export lethal weapons to Ukraine.

By Elizabeth Zolotukhina

January 30, 2015

The crash of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 (hereafter, MH17) on July 17, 2014 was pivotal to the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The Boeing 777 aircraft, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over Snizhne, Ukraine killing all on board. Investigation into the disaster is ongoing, but allegedly has been hampered by various actors. These include, but are not limited to; the pro-Russian separatists active in the area, the Ukrainian military, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The pro-Russian separatists are suspected firstly of utilizing a Moscow-supplied, Soviet-era surface to air missile (SAM) system, known as the Buk SAM system, to shoot down the airliner. Subsequently, they are accused of restricting investigators’, journalists’, and international observers’ access to the crash site, as well as failing to preserve the chain of evidence, desecrating the victims, and looting their possessions. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been charged variously with supplying the separatists with heavy weaponry, including the above-mentioned Buk SAM system allegedly used to shoot down MH17 and for failing to withdraw support. Critics claim that Putin could, instead, choose to broker an effective and lasting cease-fire between the separatists and the Ukrainian government in Kiev. In fact, such an accord has been concluded several times – most recently in September 2014 – but fighting nevertheless persists in the region. The situation poses a myriad of unresolved questions. Perhaps one of the most enigmatic is who in fact shot down the airliner – members of the Ukrainian military, Russian-backed separatists, or Russian military personnel?

One explanation of the disaster advanced by the Kremlin is that the Boeing was shot down by an air-to-air missile fired from a Ukrainian fighter jet. There are several problems with this theory. The first is that it contradicts the physical evidence from the crash site. Namely, fighter pilots are trained to attack a plane from the rear, its blind spot. By contrast, MH17 was hit by “‘objects with high energy’ from above and the front at a high speed and with such force that the rump broke apart in the air.” The damage sustained by the airplane is consistent with that inflicted by a surface to air missile which “was fired from the ground and not from a fighter jet.”

Although a Ukrainian fighter jet – a SU-25 – was reportedly sighted in the vicinity of MH17 immediately prior to its demise and therefore has been held responsible for the same, those claims are likely false. A SU-25 is an improbable culprit for several reasons. Not only are its speed and flight ceiling lower than that of the Boeing 777, but the ordinance it was allegedly carrying – R-60 air-to-air missiles – is inconsistent with the damage sustained by the airplane. Downing by Russian-backed separatists also is a dubious, if attractive, scenario.

American diplomats have accused Russian-supported separatists in Eastern Ukraine of shooting down MH17 using a Buk SAM, a charge which the fighters have denied. Despite allegations, there is a lack of consensus among U.S. intelligence officials as to the guilty parties, as well as the hardware used to down the airliner. Nevertheless, Washington might have hoped that such a move would force President Putin to admit to the presence of Russian troops, or at least military advisors, funding, and materiel in the region, without accusing Moscow of direct involvement in the disaster. Putin has steadfastly refused to adopt such a position. However, there are reasons to believe the separatists’ denials of connection to the tragedy. First, the rebels did not possess a Buk SAM system at the time of the downing of MH17. Second, and more importantly, to fire a missile from a Buk launcher “requires a specialized team operating in coordinated fashion from three locations. The crew requires at least six months of special training, which rules out a missile launch by irregular separatist forces.” The separatists themselves have conceded that “we don’t have and didn’t have specialists who can operate such high precision weapons systems.” If not the Ukrainian military, or the Russian-backed separatists, who is the most likely culprit in the MH17 catastrophe?

A recent independent investigation into the crash concluded that MH17 “was shot down by a trained Russian crew,” most likely from the 53rd Russian Air Defense Brigade, based in Kursk, Russia. Broadly, several factors underpin this conclusion. The Buk SAM system and its Russian crew were seen traveling between Kursk, Russia and Snizhne, Ukraine, the site of the disaster. The Buk SAM system has been traced to the aforementioned brigade utilizing its identification number. In Snizhne, a witness described seeing a missile shoot down a passenger plane. Later that day, the same missile system is photographed returning to Kursk via the single road connecting the two cities with one of its missiles missing. Having established that the system utilized to down MH17 was of Russian origin, identifying its operator becomes easier. Russian military doctrine severely restricts the type of person who could have affected such an event. Specifically, only a specially trained Russian officer – not a conscript – can authorize a Buk missile launch. Having identified both the hardware used in the MH17 shoot down and the most likely system operator as Russian, it is useful to outline the implications of this finding for the ongoing conflict in the region, and for U.S.-Russian relations.

The evident presence of uniformed Russian troops, in addition to the Moscow-backed separatists, in Eastern Ukraine suggests that the Kremlin views ensuring victory in the conflict as being of paramount importance. Their presence compromises the Kremlin’s ability to deny direct involvement in the crisis, although that does not stop Moscow from continuing to attempt to invoke plausible deniability. The shoot down also demonstrates the dangerous lengths to which Moscow is willing to go when its perceived core interests are at stake. U.S.-Russian relations suffer a serious setback when such a catastrophe cannot be thoroughly investigated by an international panel of experts, despite knowing “who and where the suspects are who may have killed 298 innocent civilians aboard the Boeing 777.” By admitting its role in the shoot down, even if only via back channels, Moscow could mitigate the downturn in U.S.-Russian relations. However, such a development is highly unlikely.


Elizabeth Zolotukhina earned a M.A. degree in Russian and East European Studies from the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. Her research interests are; nonproliferation, arms control, and Russia. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Strategic Security, World Politics Review, the International Affairs Forum, among others.



By Elizabeth Pond

Willy-nilly, the Ukraine crisis turned German Chancellor Angela Merkel into the geopolitical as well as financial leader of Europe.

President Joachim Gauck, in the company of Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and newly-minted Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, started to campaign for a more muscular German foreign policy at the Munich Security Conference last February. But it took Russia’s seizure and impending annexation of Ukrainian Crimea in March to make Merkel drop her instinctive leading from behind, a style that was especially conspicuous in foreign policy.

The chancellor’s uncharacteristic summons to a robust Western response was issued in the Bundestag on March 13, two days after the new government that had been installed in Crimea by force of Russian arms declared independence from Ukraine and asked to join Russia—and three weeks after Russian security officials were implicated in the shooting of more than a hundred peaceful demonstrators for democracy in central Kiev.

“Relations among European states were marked for centuries by rivalry, changing alliances, and over and over again by terrible bloodshed” that culminated in the Shoah, she began. The fact that this “terror” was succeeded by more than a half century of European integration and resulting “peace, freedom, and prosperity […] still borders on the miraculous.”

For the daughter of an East German pastor who won a doctorate in physics and entered politics only in her mid-thirties after the Berlin Wall fell and the two Germanys were unified as a single democracy, this was no boilerplate. It was a statement of sorrow that that miracle of peace had been shattered by the first military land-grab in heartland Europe since 1945—and of determination that this recidivism to might-makes-right must be stopped from spreading.

Despite the interdependence of today’s globalization, Merkel explained in her somber speech, the seizure of Crimea reverted to the “conflict of spheres of influence and territorial claims” practiced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “a conflict we thought we had overcome.” The forthcoming referendum on Crimean secession on March 16 was illegal under the Ukrainian constitution and violated the country’s territorial integrity. “The law of the mighty is being pitted against the might of law.”

Neither the European Union, the United States of America, “nor indeed Russia, none of us can still confine itself in the twenty-first century to thinking only in its own interest” regardless of others. Any country that does so “will harm itself sooner or later. […] The action of Russia in Ukraine is an unambiguous breach of the principles of international law,” she proclaimed.

Both the U.S. and the EU flatly ruled out military intervention in Ukraine, which had puny armed forces clustered in the west rather than on the eastern border with Russia, was not a member of the NATO alliance, and lay on the “borderlands” where Moscow had both a vastly higher stake in the outcome than the West did and a looming powerful army that would dominate any escalation of violence. The West therefore countered Russian President Vladimir Putin’s near-term conquest in Crimea with financial sanctions that could bite only in the long term. The challenge would be to calibrate the response in the indeterminate medium term by walking a fine line that avoided both historic mistakes of sleepwalking into World War I in 1914 and appeasing a bully in 1938.

To keep the balance, Merkel would have to perform four roles. She must coax the EU’s twenty-eight diverse members to unite in a fraught and costly common task of rescuing the economic and political basket case of Ukraine, a task they shrank from. She must coordinate Europe’s Ukraine policy with an American president who tended to view foreign policy as a distraction from his primary domestic calling and from constituents who had wearied of being the world’s policeman. She would soon be, in effect, the only Western leader still able to communicate with a Russian president who was bent on revenge for the Ukrainians’ humiliation of him in making an empty shell of the Eurasian Union he had designed to restore Russian greatness. And at home she would have to revive what American analyst Paul Goble calls the “potent alliance within Western countries” that existed during the Cold War “between those concerned with the promotion of democracy and human rights and those concerned with the pursuit of economic profit.”

Europe and Ukraine

The European Union promised at its formal inception two decades ago that all European countries that met its high free-market and democratic standards were welcome to join the club. Six Central European countries that had belonged to Moscow’s external empire during the Cold War and the three Baltic states that had belonged to Moscow’s internal Soviet empire rushed to reform their economies and governance after the Berlin Wall fell and by 2004 and 2007 were accepted for membership. At that point President Putin distinguished between the West’s NATO military alliance and an economic European Union that had only hesitant embryonic military pretensions. The former he viewed negatively, the latter positively, as a potential partner in a “Greater Europe” that would let Russia preserve or reestablish its hegemony over Ukraine and the post-Soviet Central Asian states.

The European Union experienced growth pangs with its new members and shied away from adding to them the manifest problems of a Ukraine that had a larger population than any existing member other than Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Spain and could easily overwhelm the balance in internal decision-making. After the peaceful “Orange” street revolution in Kiev protested rampant voting fraud in 2004 (when Soviet-style Viktor Yanukovych claimed victory) and forced a rerun of the election that the Orange candidate won, the EU humored Kiev and opened talks about a far-off candidacy for membership. The Orange leaders squabbled among themselves, however, and alienated their electorate so thoroughly that Yanukovych won the presidency in a fairer vote in 2010. He quickly stole the Orange clothes and called for signing an exploratory free-trade “Association Agreement” with the EU—provided that he could do it his way and would not have to reform Ukraine’s oligarchic system or kleptocracy to do so. He just as quickly acquired a reputation as the most extravagant beneficiary of state wealth in the country, a man who seemed never to have learned the folly of killing the golden goose. By 2014 economists calculated that the money siphoned off the state during his term in office by the president’s family and friends could pay off Ukraine’s entire budget deficit of $30 billion accumulated in the same period.

Under the circumstances, Angela Merkel was the most skeptical voice in the EU about the provisionally scheduled signing of the Association Agreement with Ukraine last November. In a stance that critics saw as an excuse for rebuffing Ukraine, she insisted that the minimal rule-of-law precondition for association was release of the ailing Yulia Tymoshenko, a political rival and former Orange prime minister whom Yanukovych had jailed on flimsy charges.

In the end the EU was spared a final decision. Yanukovych, despite being a Putin loyalist, angered his patron by trying to start a bidding war between Brussels and Moscow for Kiev’s favor. Putin famously viewed the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the twentieth century’s greatest catastrophe and never perceived post-Soviet Ukraine as a real state.  Along with many other Russians, he regarded Ukrainians as younger and more rustic east Slav brothers who should defer to their Russian elders. He suddenly scotched the Ukrainian attempt to leave the Russian orbit by offering new loans to Kiev while threatening to raise the price Ukraine had to pay for crucial imports of Russian gas. Under this pressure, Yanukovych withdrew his application to the EU.

By then Putin viewed the EU as negatively as he did NATO. The European Union, long since resigned to being deprecated by its own citizens as little more than a bureaucratic labyrinth, was astounded to discover that Putin now regarded the EU as a serious geopolitical challenge to his pet project of a Eurasian Union that critics see as the reconstruction of a Soviet Union lite.

What happened next astonished the EU even more. A generation of young Ukrainians who had grown up in the country’s first durable state in history were so passionate about their love for the EU that they set up a tent city in Kiev’s Independence Maidan (square) to fly Ukrainian and EU flags, demand association with the EU as well as democratic reforms, and protest against Ukrainian corruption. An estimated million participants maintained a vigil at “Euromaidan” over three months of below-freezing weather. By 22 January 2014 Yanukovych grew impatient with the standoff and authorized his riot police to use lethal force; three demonstrators were shot dead.

In the next three weeks six more protesters were killed in Kiev, but instead of intimidating demonstrators, the violence simply spread protests to other parts of Ukraine. On a German initiative—and with the prod of phone calls from Merkel to the resistant Yanukovych, as well as to Putin, President Barack Obama, and other EU leaders—the German, Polish, and French foreign ministers met in Kiev on February 21 just after the bloodiest night of all to mediate between Yanukovych and Euromaidan. Snipers had killed more than seventy demonstrators and riot police had been pushed back from the Euromaidan’s burning barricades by street fighters armed with little more than wooden shields, staves, and Molotov cocktails. After the chancellor told Yanukovych bluntly that this was his last chance to end the confrontation peacefully, he agreed to early presidential elections, a return to the less autocratic 2004 constitution, and formation of an interim coalition government. The Russian representative whom the EU had invited Putin to send to the mediation sat in on the talks but declined to sign the agreement.

Yanukovych’s followers in his clientelist Party of Regions quickly deserted their leader and voted with the erstwhile parliamentary opposition to appoint the new caretaker government. Police vanished from the government district in Kiev. On February 22 Yanukovych fled across the border to Russia, and parliament appointed an interim president and set a vote for May 25 to elect a new one. On March 1 and 2 Putin began sending masked special forces in uniforms without insignia into Ukraine’s Crimea. The outgunned Ukrainian armed forces on the peninsula did not resist. On March 13 Merkel delivered her somber warning to the Bundestag.

Deterrence and Sanctions

Ukraine and the West did not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, nor did the UN General Assembly. They tacitly accepted it as a fait accompli, however, and a special case, given the original quixotic gift of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s.

For the Western alliance, crisis management now turned to the riddle of how to deter any further Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory without putting its own boots on the ground. The issue became increasingly acute as Putin branded the interim Ukrainian government illegal and fascist, ordered Russian military exercises on a 300-degree arc around Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders, talked of “Novorossiya” as Russian, and in April began sending into eastern Ukraine the same kind of masked, well-armed “little green men” who had installed a pro-Russian government in Crimea. “Novorossiya” was Catherine the Great’s term for a territory that covered eight of today’s oblasts in southeastern Ukraine.

Deterrence was relatively simple on the borders of new NATO members that felt endangered by Putin’s threat to “protect” Russian ethnic minorities (or even just Russian speakers) in Ukraine and other neighboring lands. President Obama rejected Warsaw’s appeal to establish a permanent NATO base in Poland—a step the alliance had avoided in deference to Russia ever since NATO’s first eastern enlargement in 1999. He did, however, deploy eighteen additional fast jets and 600 extra troops to rotate into and out of Poland and the Baltic states.

Other NATO members, including Germany, contributed to the modest buildup. This time around, there was no repetition of Merkel’s 2011 refusal to join NATO enforcement of a United Nations-approved no-fly zone in Libya that extended even to abstention on the key UN Security Council vote and withdrawal of German air force members temporarily from the alliance’s multinational AWACS surveillance crews.

Deterrence of further Russian military encroachment on non-NATO Ukraine was a much harder problem. For various military reasons—including the Russian army’s recruitment cycle and hardening of wet spring earth to support tanks, on top of apparent Russian military caution about mounting an invasion that would succeed quickly but could lead to a lengthy quagmire of guerrilla warfare—Russia’s window of greatest opportunity and Ukraine’s window of greatest danger would be the month leading up to Kiev’s presidential election on May 25.

The West’s main answer to the conundrum was financial and travel sanctions. American intelligence eavesdropping over the previous decade had improved to make digital financial transfers easier to trace. Longstanding Western sanctions finally seemed to be having a positive effect on Iranian nuclear negotiations. And Russia’s economy was sufficiently globalized by 2014 that it would suffer tangibly from financial sanctions over time.

The problem with using this blunt tool for immediate deterrence was threefold. It would take time for the effect of sanctions on the Russian economy to become apparent. It would take even more time for the economic damage to become apparent to Putin, who surrounded himself with an inner circle of fellow ex-KGB hardliners and rarely let economic advisers get through the carapace to tell him about the effect of the Ukraine crisis on capital flight from Russia or the drying up of new foreign investments. Moreover, it would be almost impossible either to fine-tune or, eventually, at a discreet moment, to drop the sanctions, especially in the U.S. Congress.

For these reasons, Merkel wanted to proceed more slowly with escalating sanctions than some in the Obama administration. She wanted to postpone ratcheting up sanctions on individual persons and firms to draconian sectoral levels in order to keep intermediate levels of tougher measures in reserve for signaling. Inevitably, her preference for restraint was interpreted by many in the American commentariat as an attempt—at the cost of principled transatlantic toughness on the geopolitical issues—to protect the huge €79 billion two-way annual German-Russian trade and the 6,000 German firms and 300,000 German jobs that depend on it. Nonetheless, she lobbied successfully with Washington for her preferred course of action.

After a transatlantic spat in early February in which a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State cursed the Europeans for refusing to join the U.S. in threatening sanctions if Ukrainian leaders killed any more Euromaidan demonstrators, the allies made up. The outcome was an initial set of travel bans and freezing of assets held in the West by individuals close to Vladimir Putin (who was held responsible for the violence once Yanukovych deserted his post), followed by two rounds to date of tougher sanctions on select individuals and firms that circled ever nearer to Putin himself. The U.S., Canadian, Japanese, and European lists were coordinated and displayed considerable overlap, but were not identical. Some in Washington argued that imposing ever higher costs on the Russians at a fast pace would impress Putin more, but Merkel managed to persuade Obama to allow for a breathing space and set the May 25 Ukrainian election as the next target date for measuring Russian behavior and responding accordingly.

Merkel and Putin

Tactically, a further advantage of gradualness was to keep Putin engaged in an exchange with the West during the dangerous window of opportunity for any invasion of Ukraine. While talking did not necessarily prevent shooting, it at least inhibited it at the margins. And every additional day in which the Russians did not invade gave Putin one more day to rethink his original rage and humiliation over the Ukrainians’ treason in seeking a European rather than an East Slav and Eurasian identity—and, perhaps, to begin hearing what his own economic advisers were telling him about cost-benefit analyses of the damage that even the initial sanctions are already inflicting on the Russian economy through the fall of the ruble and the projected fall of 2014 GDP as well as capital flight and stalled investments.

Initially, all the major Western heads of government and their foreign ministers participated in a free-for-all of phoning their counterparts in Moscow. The first joint Western attempt to play for time was the April 17 meeting in Geneva to defuse tensions that brought together the foreign ministers of Russia, the provisional Ukrainian government, the U.S., and the EU. Besides getting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to sit at the same table as the foreign minister of a Ukrainian government the Kremlin was still calling illegal, the diplomats reached an agreement to disarm illegal militias, return illegally occupied buildings to their proper owners, grant amnesty to those separatists who did not have blood on their hands, and start “a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies.”

The ragtag local pro-Russian gangsters and mercenaries who had been handed buildings in eastern Ukraine by the little green men who had captured them in order to set up the self-declared People’s Republic of Luhansk and People’s Republic of Donetsk in April paid no attention to the Geneva agreement and did not evacuate their premises. Western skeptics therefore dismissed the Geneva exercise as a failure. They dismissed as well the roving “round tables” set up for Kiev and oblast officials to discuss what kind of reasonable local self-government might eventually let oblasts in the east take more local initiatives as an alternative to the kind of decentralization that pro-Russian separatists in the east were championing as a precursor to seceding and joining Russia.

What the skepticism missed was that every added day in which the Russian tanks on high alert did not roll over the Ukrainian border was a gain. It also missed three other points. The first was that while Putin’s denial that Russian soldiers were involved in the original seizure of buildings was easy to disprove, the groups of locals from both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian border who then occupied the buildings had their own agendas. They were freelancing by such acts as taking hostages—including OSCE monitors—to use in bargaining with their Russian handlers to obtain more weapons. The second was that Putin may have begun entertaining some doubts about how far he really wanted to go in empowering these deniable but fractious freelancers who might one day bring blowback to Russian border areas. The third was that—according to Ukrainian government officials—Putin may have believed the Russian propaganda about Ukrainian persecution of ethnic Russians in the east and expected them to rise in rebellion in all of Novorossiya, including Odessa. Instead, pro-Russian agents were able to destabilize only two of the eight oblasts.

Merkel was intensely interested in all of these developments, especially as she had to intuit whom she could negotiate with to gain the release of the captured German OSCE monitors (as she did).

A source familiar with some of the content of her subsequent phone conversations with Putin described them: “She never poses the grand questions” about the difference between the European and Slav worlds. Nor does she ever offer “a profession of faith [about freedom], like the Americans.” Instead, she is almost apolitical. She asks with good common sense, “Where can we cooperate? What can we do together?” This pragmatic approach has “served her well” both in the amorphous give-and-take of the European Union and in dealing with Russia. In addition, when Putin argues that financial sanctions on Russia will hurt Germany, she tells him again and again that that is true, but Germany is ready to pay that price, and in the end his present course will hurt Russia more than Germany.

The source continued, “Merkel knows she must not close one door without leaving another door open. It makes no sense just to say no. She has shown herself as not only shrewd, but also intelligent. Putin lies or expounds on the holy Russian culture, and that doesn’t help. It’s unbelievably frustrating. […] But however frustrating it gets, there is no alternative to Europe. […] Ukraine must always remain on the strategic and geopolitical map of Europe.”

He concluded, “Merkel wants to save face for Putin, but the longer the crisis goes on, the harder it is.”

As for Merkel’s final leadership task of reviving Paul Goble’s alliance between Western captains of industry and promoters of human rights, the German chancellor has only begun to fight. She has started to tell the powerful German business association that defends Germany’s €79 billion trade with Russia that it must now subordinate its profits to the higher priority of restoring a rules-based system of peace in Europe. There is little in the public record so far to show that German exporters and importers accept this demand (or that French exporters of helicopter carriers to Russia or British investors of Russian oligarchs’ wealth do either). Already, however, a few German CEOs are said to be acknowledging this necessity in private. And if push comes to shove, Merkel has an 80 percent majority in the Bundestag for enforcing this priority.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s geopolitical leadership of Europe may not be military, but it is robust.

This article was first published by the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at John Hopkins University and can be viewed in its original format here: http://www.aicgs.org/publication/merkels-leadership-in-the-ukraine-crisis/

Elizabeth PondElizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist, the author of The Rebirth of Europe, and a former AICGS Fellow.

Words of Encouragement

By Elizabeth Pond


They came to celebrate, to mourn, and to warn.

Over five days in mid-May global glitterati gathered in Kiev to hail the moral victory of Ukraine’s new democrats on Independence Maidan square, who stood their ground even after government snipers killed more than 70 of those protesting rule by crony kleptocrats. By their resolve, they revolutionized Ukrainian politics and induced Soviet-style President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia in February.

In parallel, the visitors skewered the Western political class for its flabby response to the “existential” danger to European peace posed by Russia’s revenge for the fall of its Ukrainian protégé. In March President Vladimir Putin executed the continent’s first coercive land grab since 1945 and began a war of stealth to split eastern Ukraine from Kiev and destabilize the interim Ukrainian government appointed by parliament.

In the near term, the visiting intellectuals were more successful in their first mission of comforting Ukraine’s beleagured civil society than in their second mission of transforming the West’s public discourse about Ukraine.

Conference co-organizer and New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier set the tone as the symposium on “Ukraine—Thinking Together” opened earlier this month, with massed Russian troops still threatening an imminent invasion over the country’s southern, eastern, and northern borders. He thundered, “The Russian war on Ukraine is one of the proving grounds of principle in our time. The Maidan is one of the primary sites of the modern struggle for democracy. History sometimes provides hours and circumstances that expose, and test, one’s beliefs, and the beliefs of the politics and the culture of one’s society. The crisis in Ukraine is such an hour and such a circumstance. Here in Kiev you are not only clarifying yourselves; you are also clarifying us.” He compared today’s test of the West with “the struggle of Western intellectuals…against the Stalinist assault on democracy in Europe” in the 1950s.

The second conference co-organizer, Yale historian Timothy Snyder, concurred. “Europe’s futures depend on Ukraine’s futures just as much as Ukrainian futures depend on European futures,” he told his listeners. “A revolution happened in Ukraine and the Western countries haven’t noticed it.” There has been “a lack of political reaction.” Yet “history doesn’t happen by itself. There are periods in history, but we make those by ourselves….It is an existential moment. The [Ukrainian] revolution happened.”

The likes of Poland’s Adam Michnik and France’s Bernard-Henri Levy could offer no guns for Ukrainians to defend themselves against the vastly larger Russian army. They did offer solace and the empowerment of narrative, however. Again and again, the visitors proclaimed “You are not alone” and “You have our solidarity.” They saluted the grit and maturity of the Maidan demonstrators for a European future opposed to the clientelism that has prevailed ever since Ukrainian independence in 1991.

In particular, Snyder continued in this symposium his long fellowship with Ukrainian academics and activists in revising the perceived history of this country to accord Ukrainians an agency long denied them. Bloodlands, his own heart-wrenching study of Ukraine, necessarily presents Ukrainians as the most numerous victims of Stalin’s deliberate famine in the 1930s and of World War II brutality in the 1940s. But throughout, he rejects the premises of Putin in treating Ukrainians as passive younger brothers to the Russian leaders of the East Slav family. Nor does he accept the image of Ukrainians as especially vile antisemites.

Certainly the conference mounted a robust challenge to both these stereotypes and to the focused effort of Russian propaganda to perpetuate them in the ongoing war of nerves. Putin has pressed these images relentlessly—with disdain for factual truth—not only to appeal to his domestic constituency of chauvinists, but also encourage Western popular opinion inclined to indifference about “a quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing,” as one conference panelist said, quoting the words of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938.

Panelists united in refuting the barrage of Russian accusations that the interim Kiev government is run by far-right fascists and antisemites, who persecute and discriminate against ethnic Russians in Ukraine. They pointed out that all the specific incidents of ethnic persecution claimed so far on Russian TV have proved to be deliberate and not very skillful falsifications. Early videos said to show Russians fleeing over Ukraine’s borders to Russia to escape maltreatment were quickly identified as the mini-congestion of Ukrainian drivers on their way to shop in Poland. A more recent photo that allegedly showed a murdered Russian in Ukraine turned out to be the exact photo that had been displayed in the past as a corpse in Chechnya.

Most substantially, in refuting the Russian charges of rampant Ukrainian fascism, conference panelists highlighted the friendly relations between Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim adherents among demonstrators on the Maidan and in society as a whole. Leaders of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, an organization started six years ago to promote reconciliation between Jews and Ukrainians, described their Shared Historical Narrative and other projects. Staff from the largest Jewish community center in the world that opened last fall in Dnipropetrovsk told of its role as a cultural magnet for the entire city.

Most movingly of all, Frank Foer, editor of the New Republic, shared some family history. In the 1930s and 1940s his grandfather lived in Galicia, an area that was then in Poland and because of shifting borders is now in Ukraine. Ukrainian Christian and Jewish families lived side-by-side in the village as friends; the only difference between them, he was told by his mother, was that on Fridays the Jews ate chicken. This changed when the Germans occupied Galicia and forced the Jews in the village to live in one segregated area. One day his grandfather, who was handy at fixing things, was called away from his house to repair windows elsewhere. When he returned home, he found that all the Jews in the shtetl, including his own family, had been massacred.

At that point a Ukrainian neighbor took him in and hid him until World War II ended. Despite several close calls, the grandfather survived. The great granddaughter of his grandfather’s benefactor was one of the protesters in the three-month-long Maidan occupation, Foer continued, and was in the conference audience. There was not a dry eye in the hall as she went to the podium and the two hugged.

Perhaps the conference was a good omen. As it ended, Putin had softened his belligerent tone toward Kiev and hinted that he would be willing to work with whoever is elected president in Ukraine’s crucial vote on May 25. For the first time in weeks it looked as if the window of opportunity for a Russian invasion of Ukraine would close on May 25 without incident. Rinat Akhmetov, an oligarch who financed the Yanukovych political machine in Donetsk stopped hedging his bets (maybe) and sent his steelworkers to confront separatists in the east. The mayor of Kharkiv, a booster of Ukrainian unity, was recovering in a Haifa hospital from the life-threatening gunshot wounds he suffered three weeks ago in an apparent assassination attempt and was talking with his staff by phone every day.

There are no illusions in Kyiv, Odessa, or Donetsk. What comes next will be a long, hard slog to catch up after the stagnation in Ukraine’s 23 years of statehood, rescue the economy, give muscle to the tiny army, establish rule of law, and build the missing political, judicial, and police institutions.

But already the conference to “think together” about Ukraine has further empowered those who against all odds empowered themselves at Maidan.


A version of this blog is published on the IP Journal page: https://ip-journal.dgap.org/en/blog/eye-europe/words-encouragement



  Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author of The Rebirth of Europe. She has reported on Ukraine over the past three decades.


By Elizabeth Pond

Ukrainian desire to be European tragically matured at the wrong time

Protests pressing the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to drop the country’s fealty to Moscow and sign an association agreement with the European Union instead sparked the present crisis. With Russia now threatening to invade Eastern and Southern Ukraine as well, perhaps the obverse question is even more relevant: Does the West think of Ukraine as European?


Are Ukrainians Europeans? This is a question I began asking randomly in Ukraine in the early 1990s. The answers were mixed then, as might be expected in a country that had statehood thrust upon it overnight in the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In western Lviv, a town that during the 123-year partition of Poland belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire, the answer was a clear “yes.” In eastern Donetsk, founded in the 19th century under the Russian empire, the answer was a clear “no.” In the central capital of Kiev there was no consensus.

However, in one morning’s epiphany, I saw a Kievan bus advertising “wedding gowns from Europe,” and took the shrewd promotion industry’s judgment as a definitive “no” — combined with a longing to enjoy the European lifestyle in some utopian future.

Fast-forward to 2014, and what has looked at times like a realization of that utopian dream now at times looks like the utter destruction of it. For the first time in history a whole cohort of 20-somethings has grown up in a Ukrainian state. These young people have watched next-door Poland — which started on a par with Ukraine economically only 23 years ago — shoot up to living standards triple their own as Warsaw accepted European political and economic norms and curtailed corruption. They have seen Russian activists for democracy move to Ukraine to be able to speak and write freely.

They — with the support of their elders in the growing middle class in the west and their own generation in the east — voted with their feet last winter. They camped out on Kiev’s Euromaidan for three freezing months and braved the government snipers who eventually killed more than seventy of their number. The whole purpose of their protest was to press the Ukrainian kleptocracy to drop its fealty to Moscow under President Viktor Yanukovych and sign an association agreement with the European Union instead.

The tragedy of the Ukrainian longing to be European — Gallup and other opinion surveys in 2013 and again in March of this year found a majority in both west and east favoring a unitary Ukraine oriented toward Europe — was that it matured at the wrong time. To be sure, it benefited from the 23 years in which citizens have come to take for granted the existence of the Ukrainian state that finally emerged after centuries of East Slav subordination of younger-brother Ukraine to older-brother Russia.

But it collided with the surging of President Vladimir Putin’s resentment of Russia’s loss of empire in 1991 into a determination to avenge this humiliation by old-fashioned military might. In a pattern reminiscent of repeated Soviet suppression of uprisings in East Germany (1953) and Hungary (1956), and of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia (1968), Moscow at first pushed for a forceful end to the demonstrations and then, with the annexation of Crimea, executed the first direct land grab in a neighboring state in Europe since the end of World War II.

The Ukrainians’ rising sense of a new European identity was also poorly synchronized with America’s exhaustion of wars overseas and leadership fatigue — and with the EU’s intrinsic believe that all disputes can be solved by soft power alone. 100 years after Europe sleepwalked into World War I, in a contest in which Putin’s existential stake and local military superiority would always trump the West’s local military inferiority and third-order stake in Ukraine in any escalation, the US and the EU flatly ruled out putting NATO boots on the ground.

This left Ukraine facing a Russian army surrounding it on three sides that Kiev’s interim Interior Minister Arsen Avakov describes as a hundred times stronger than Ukraine’s army. And it leaves the West with only economic sanctions to deploy in defense of Kiev. These sanctions may prove to be effective in the long term. In the short term, however, they have not deterred a small core of Russian commandos from their creeping seizure of official buildings in eastern Ukraine, a destabilization of the region to prove Putin’s claims that Ukraine is a failing state.

It is not yet clear how ongoing Russian intimidation will influence Ukrainians’ new sense of belonging to Europe. One independent Russian commentator, Oleg Shro, argues that by making Ukraine an enemy, Moscow is only uniting patriotic Ukrainians in “Russophobia” in a mirror image of Putin’s own soaring domestic popularity after his annexation of Crimea.

It is true that the east Ukrainian population has not rallied in the numbers anticipated by the Kremlin in support of the takeover of at least nine local police and administrative headquarters by well-armed masked gunmen in identical unmarked uniforms, suggesting they were Russian commandos. Yet the “spetsnaz” special-force spearheads followed an effective plan B in the past two weeks: they seized poorly defended security posts; set up barricades and checkpoints; distributed captured weapons to a spectrum of local mercenaries, criminals, and the disgruntled; surrounded the posts with babushkas nostalgic for Soviet stasis; kept behind-the-scenes command; and dared the reluctant Ukrainian army to shoot its way through the old women to oust the occupiers. Efforts by Ukrainian security forces to retake the posts have failed.

As preparation for potential full-scale military intervention accelerated in the last few days, the pro-Russian forces staged an alleged attack by Ukrainian “fascists” whom they accused of maltreating ethnic Russians in what could be a pretext for a Russian invasion. Evidence of the purported attack outside of Slovyansk included on-the-scene TV clips that were marked as having been filmed a day before the supposed attack and even a convenient business card of a Right Sector leader in the nationalist Ukrainian southwest. Russian TV stations ran the footage again and again. A local pro-Russian supporter petitioned Putin to send in “peacekeeping” troops to protect Russians in eastern Ukraine. Russian officials pointedly resurrected a historical term for the region, known as “Little Russia.”

Ukraine is now in a fluid period when popular sentiment in the east could go either way. Ethnic Ukrainians and Russians both know from their own travels that life is as hardscrabble over the Russian border as it is in the Ukrainian rustbelt, and the majority may continue to prefer life in a Europe-oriented Ukraine over life in Russia.

Yet increasing Russian threats, which are not being counteracted by the Ukrainian government’s reassertion of control, could trigger a contrary dynamic. They are beginning to create an aura of inevitability about a Russian takeover that could induce many in the population to wager that Putin will win and adjust their allegiance preemptively. Moreover, they could trigger bitterness among the Euromaidan million over the perceived abandonment by their idealized West, which did not defend them militarily.

At this point, therefore, the obverse question must be posed: Does the West think of Ukrainians as Europeans? In April 2014 the answer to this question remains as open as the answer about Ukrainians’ own European identity.


Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author of The Rebirth of Europe. She has reported on Ukraine over the past three decades.




This article was originally published by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V.

By Dr. Constanze Stelzenmüller and Dr. Daniela Schwarzer

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its efforts to destabilize the transitional government in Kyiv have reframed the relationship between Europe and Russia in Europe’s eastern neighborhood from an uneasy geopolitical balancing into full-on systemic conflict. The competition over Ukraine also puts the rest of the eastern neighborhood at significant risk. The EU together with the United States must now do what it takes to protect Ukraine’s right to choose its future path. The Europeans will have to pay a price for Ukraine’s transformation, and some EU member states will be more vulnerable than others to pressure from Russia. But the cost of not countering Russian attempts to destabilize Ukraine would be even higher. Germany will be a key player, given its economic and political power in the EU, its geographical location, and its special ties with Russia.

The immediate task is to stabilize the transition in Ukraine. This will mean incentives and support for Ukraine; effective, targeted sanctions against Russia; and protection for vulnerable states in the neighborhood and in the EU. For the medium-to-long term, the West should prepare for two possible scenarios for its relationship with Russia: a de-escalation scenario, and a “Cold War II.” In both cases, the EU should overhaul its Eastern Partnership policy, providing much stronger political and economic backing for democratic transformation and association with the West. In the latter scenario, the EU should reduce its own vulnerability to Russian action and increase its capacity to project soft and hard power in the region. The external threat has the potential to give decisive momentum to European integration, e.g. in the areas of energy and defense.

Click here for the related publication.


Dr. Constanze Stelzenmüller has been a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin since 2009. Before, she served as the director of the Berlin office from 2005 to 2009. 

From 1994 until 2005, Constanze Stelzenmüller was an editor in the political section of the Hamburg weekly DIE ZEIT. From 1998 onwards, she was defense and international security editor; previously, she covered human rights issues, humanitarian crises in Africa and the Balkans, as well as international criminal tribunals. Stelzenmüller holds a doctorate in law from the University of Bonn (1992), a Master in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (1988), and a first state examination in law from the University of Bonn (1985). From 1988-1989, she was a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School. She was a GMF Campus Fellow at Grinnell College in Iowa, a Woodrow Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar in Washington, DC, and a member of the Remarque Forum (a conference series of the Remarque Institute at New York University).

– See more at: http://www.gmfus.org/expert/experts_dirc/constanze-stelzenmuller/#sthash.BZBYsgNG.dpuf

Dr. Constanze Stelzenmüller has been a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin since 2009. Before, she served as the director of the Berlin office from 2005 to 2009.

From 1994 until 2005, Constanze Stelzenmüller was an editor in the political section of the Hamburg weekly DIE ZEIT. From 1998 onwards, she was defense and international security editor; previously, she covered human rights issues, humanitarian crises in Africa and the Balkans, as well as international criminal tribunals. Stelzenmüller holds a doctorate in law from the University of Bonn (1992), a Master in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (1988), and a first state examination in law from the University of Bonn (1985). From 1988-1989, she was a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School. She was a GMF Campus Fellow at Grinnell College in Iowa, a Woodrow Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar in Washington, DC, and a member of the Remarque Forum (a conference series of the Remarque Institute at New York University).


Daniela Schwarzer is the Director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). She joined GMF’s Berlin office in January 2014.

Before joining GMF, Dr. Schwarzer headed the European Integration Division at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs), Europe’s largest foreign and security policy research institute, from 2008 to January 2014. SWP advises the German government and Parliament in international and security affairs. She joined the Institute in 2005. In 2012-2013, she was a Fritz Thyssen visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and a non-resident fellow of the Transatlantic Academy at GMF. She has been an adjunct faculty member of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin since 2010 and has taught in graduate programs in universities in Europe and China since 2001.


This was originally published by the German Marshall Fund.

By Elizabeth Pond

If Russia attacks openly, Ukraine’s military will be no match for Putin’s forces

With the situation in Donetsk and elsewhere escalating, and “pro-Russian demonstrators” occupying police stations and administrative buildings, the government in Kiev is sending troops east for the first time. Its opponents – and not only those kept battle-ready beyond the border in Russia – are far better equipped. Even the capital Kiev would be within their reach.

Gleb Garanich/REUTERS

“To be in this government is to commit political suicide,” said Arseny Yatsenyuk as he became Ukraine’s emergency prime minister seven weeks ago. That was just after Viktor Yanukovych’s riot police had killed more than 70 pro-democracy demonstrators in Kiev in cold blood and the incumbent president had fled his country to Russian exile.

The Ukrainian army, such as it is, might well echo Yatsenyuk’s suicide vow this week as it faces a Russian army that now surrounds and outguns it on a 1000-mile front on a 300-degree arc of Ukraine’s borders.

In the intervening seven weeks the interim Ukrainian government let Russia annex Crimea without firing a single defensive shot against the Russian commandos who took over the regional parliament and Ukrainian military bases on the peninsula. In the past week it further let highly professional gunmen—who were armed with top-quality Russian military weapons and swiftly stockpiled materiel for an extended siege—take over police and security headquarters and set up area barricades and checkpoints in half a dozen localities in eastern Ukraine.

On Sunday, for the first time, Ukrainian security forces were authorized to fight back, and interim President Oleksandr Turchynov summoned the Ukrainian army to retake the posts that occupiers say represent their self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk.

The most optimistic estimates foresee the Ukrainian army holding out for only two weeks against any assault that Russian President Vladimir Putin might launch, after Russia’s United Nations ambassador accused Ukraine of starting a civil war. Kiev’s military  numbers only 71,000 ground troops and 6,000 airborne troops, according to a recent study by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), as against the 80,000 Russian troops that have been forward based in high readiness for the past two or three weeks on Ukraine’s borders to the north, east, and south, as shown in commercial satellite photos that NATO released last week.

Before Putin’s sudden annexation of Crimea last month, Ukraine never dreamed that it might be invaded by its fellow East Slav Russians. Its border with Russia is therefore virtually undefended. In Ukraine’s two decades of independence, its forces have remained clustered in the west, as in the old Soviet days. Even after quietly moving some troops to the east in recent weeks the Ukrainian army is inferior now locally in any of the areas where Russian forces are directly threatening Ukraine’s major cities. These include not only Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv in the east, but also Odessa in the south and even the capital Kiev in the center.

Moreover, Ukrainian forces lack Kevlar vests and night-vision goggles, which the US has so far refused to send Ukraine in its non-lethal aid. These are said by Ukrainian sources to be banned by Washington as “force multipliers,” despite their defensive nature, and despite the need for body armor for the 99 out of 100 Ukrainian troops that have none. Russian forces, by contrast, are well equipped with both vests, goggles and advanced, encrypted communication gear The special forces that are already said to be infiltrating Ukraine’s border areas with increasing boldness every night can thus see Ukrainian troops, while remaining unseen.

The Ukrainians say that the US has also banned desperately needed aviation fuel from its non-lethal aid. Corruption in military procurement in the past 20 years has left Ukrainian planes and helicopters—which are in any case vastly outnumbered by Russian aircraft—with very little reconnaissance or ground-support capability. This weakness is exacerbated by the scarcity of fuel.

According to the Daily Beast, the US is also refusing to share detailed intelligence with Ukraine, for fear of revealing sources to Russian spies in Ukraine. Citing Congressional sources, it reports that NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove disagrees with this restraint. He therefore took the unprecedented step of releasing commercial satellite photos of Russian deployments, according to the website,, not to inform the media, but to inform Kiev of the specific threat. Breedlove further favors providing Ukraine’s military with more secure communications equipment and other assets to assist its command and control capabilities in the field, according to American defense officials cited in the report.

Other deficiencies in the Ukrainian military posture, according to the RUSI study, are the lack of mass transport to get troops to eastern Ukraine and lack of barracks or camps to house them once they get there.

RUSI points to evidence of the serious expectation of battle by the massed Russian forces on the Ukrainian border in their provision with field hospitals and the high-alert status of Interior Ministry troops “whose purpose is the pacification of occupied populations.”

Despite the grim scenario, the indications from the ground so far are that the underdog Ukrainian military is willing to join Prime Minister Yatseniuk’s suicide watch. The seven decades since the end of World War II in which a stable new peace was taken for granted in Europe may now be ending.


Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author of The Rebirth of Europe. She has reported on Ukraine over the past three decades.




This article was originally published by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V.


By Elizabeth Pond

There is a reason for President Barack Obama’s plea to Russian President Vladimir Putin today to pull back the massed Russian troops on Ukraine’s border. The period of maximum danger for Ukraine is between now and the May 25 presidential election.

The caretaker government in Kiev is shaky, especially after the sudden loss of the Crimea peninsula to annexation by Russia. And if Russia is going to follow up that blitzkrieg operation by invading mainland Ukraine—as President Vladimir Putin claims a right to do to protect Russian speakers there—the attack must begin before mid-May, according to at least one respected independent Russian military analyst.

Politically, these eight weeks would be the best time to mount any attack, before the new leadership in Kiev can consolidate its authority. The fledgling government is weak. It was appointed by parliament in the turmoil as Ukrainian President and Putin-ally Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia a month ago. It or its permanent successor needs the legitimacy that only free and fair elections could confer on it.

Yet in the meantime the interim government faces Herculean tasks. It must gain control over the old security services that shot and killed more than 70 demonstrators in Kiev last month. It must avert the national bankruptcy that Yanukovych bequeathed Ukraine. It must devise instant training for the military reserves it has just established to supplement the small, ill-equipped, and underfunded Ukrainian army. It must improvise defenses against any further Russian military encroachments in eastern Ukraine—without the help of Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh, who was just forced out because he sanely did not order Ukrainian troops to martyr themselves by fighting the vastly better-armed Russian forces in Crimea.

Moreover, the caretaker government must accomplish this mission impossible at a time when Russia is doing its best to destabilize Ukraine by massing troops on Ukraine’s borders. In addition, the Russian secret services are deploying busloads of “tourist” provocateurs to eastern Ukraine to mix with the local Russian-speaking population, foment brawls, and agitate for regional referendums (“as in Crimea”) on a kind of autonomy that borders on separatism from the Ukrainian state.

Militarily, Putin is keeping up unrelenting pressure on Ukraine without yet revealing his hand. Michael McFaul, who has just finished his tour as US ambassador to Russia, told journalists last week that he thinks Putin will now pause to consolidate his gains rather than trying to seize more Ukrainian territory. By contrast, Andriy Parubiy, acting chairman of Ukraine’s National Security Council, expressed serious concern yesterday about the 100,000 Russian soldiers he said are massed around Ukraine’s borders.

Without endorsing that specific number, an anonymous senior US administration official told the Daily Beast that “At this point, they are amassed and they could go at a moment’s notice if Putin gave the go ahead.” In the same vein, CNN on May 26 cited an anonymous US official as saying that a new classified assessment “has shifted our thinking that the likelihood of a further Russian incursion is more probable than it was previously thought to be.” Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee who read the report expressed “deep apprehension that Moscow may invade eastern and southern Ukraine, pressing west to Transdniestria and also seek land grabs in the Baltics.”

The US and its NATO allies have made clear that they will not defend non-NATO member Ukraine militarily. The main deterrent to any further Russian incursion into Ukrainian territory may therefore be uncertainty by Russian generals about how badly their army might get bloodied in real combat, even by a far inferior army and a drawn-out guerrilla war in Ukraine.

Johan Norberg, a senior analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, outlines some of the worries that might lead Russia’s top military command to urge caution. These go beyond the simple observation that Russian forces faced no Ukrainian opposition in their Crimea takeover, and that operation is therefore no model for line infantry and tank units that would have to take and hold territory against resistance. “Pushing into Ukraine may seem doable, achieving a sustainable outcome less so….Russia could easily get bogged down, much like the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan in the 1980s,” he comments in his study for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. One barrier to sustainability is the Russian army’s current shift of logistics away from the old Soviet bulk delivery of supplies to the front to a more modern just-in-time supply system. Unexpected snarls in the system could easily hinder “prolonged high-pace operations.”

Independent military expert Pavel Felgenhauer in Moscow concludes that “in the course of the next several weeks a very serious escalatioin of force is possible…but that if it doesn’t occur now, it won’t happen ever.” He pegs the opening of the window of opportunity at early April, when the damp winter earth will harden sufficiently to support heavy weapons off-road. He expects the window to close in mid-May because of the mustering out of 130,000 recruits with a year’s service by then and their replacement by raw recruits. Moreover, he argues that by then the Ukrainian army will have been able to increase its battle preparedness, in part by utilizing the weapons produced in eastern Ukraine for the Russian army.

Other considerations are that after 23 years of living in independent post-Soviet Ukraine, a new Ukrainian identity has been forged. Large parts of the generation that was born after the breakup of the Soviet Union now identify themselves as Ukrainians (and as Europeans) rather than as the perennially younger East Slav brothers of the Russians. The Russians would probably do well not to believe their own propaganda about how loyal the ethnic Russians in the east are to Moscow.

These considerations may not be enough, however, to stanch Putin’s fury at young Ukrainians for spoiling his Eurasian dream by choosing Europe over East Slav fraternity. By the May 25 Ukrainian election we should know whether anger or a more sober cost-benefit reckoning will prevail in the Russian president’s calculations.


Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author of The Rebirth of Europe. She has reported on Ukraine over the past three decades.




A version of this article was also published by The Globalist.

By Elizabeth Pond

Risks and rewards in the international battle over the future of Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin is gambling that his superior short-term hard power will prevail in Ukraine. The West is hoping that its superior long-term soft power will succeed. Whose bet will be the winning one?

Oxfam International, CC BY

It’s the perfect high-stakes test of this new form of asymmetrical warfare in a networked world. Vladimir Putin relies on old-fashioned, “hard” military coercion. The West, by contrast, refuses to put boots on the ground and is seeking to deter any further Russian dismemberment of Ukraine by “soft” means alone – financial sanctions on Kremlin insiders and billions of euros in economic and institutional aid to Kiev.

The problem here is that withholding visas and freezing Russian oligarchs’ Western bank accounts might prod Putin’s allies to urge restraint on the president only after months of application. Further, rescuing Ukraine’s free-fall economy and strengthening its fragile institutions may require decades to show results. By contrast, Putin could deploy overnight 20,000 troops now massing on the eastern border of Ukraine to seize Donetsk or Kharkiv or even Transnistria.

This gap is the main topic of transatlantic consultations this week as US President Barack Obama meets informally with the G7 (i.e. the G8 minus Russia, which was suspended from the group over the Ukraine crisis), addresses nuclear security at the biennial summit on the subject at The Hague, and visits Brussels and Rome. As a senior administration official expressed it in Brussels, “We’re focused on affecting Russia’s calculus through these economic and political measures. … [W]e can calibrate that impact based on how events transpire in the coming days.”

So far Putin is winning his bet. His seizure of Crimea from Ukraine capitalized on the old Soviet precept of military surprise – in this case shock for three generations of Europeans who believed that such bald aggression had become unthinkable in heartland Europe. In three short weeks Putin’s masked commandos in identikit unmarked uniforms bottled up the Ukrainian warships in port, disarmed the 10,000 Ukrainian troops on the peninsula, installed a puppet provincial government under a man called “Goblin,” and delivered Crimea to annexation by Moscow. Strict control of Russian media ensured that Russians believed the unisono propaganda that painted Ukraine (depending on the target audience) as a hotbed of either Nazis or Jews who were persecuting Russian speakers. Putin’s domestic popularity soared above 71 percent.

Will Putin, flush with success, now go on to attack mainland Ukraine next? No, says Russia’s president flatly. But that’s also what he said shortly before he annexed Crimea.

Certainly a more skeptical set of odd bedfellows – Belarus’s president, Ukraine’s foreign minister, and NATO’s top commander – all warn of the danger of a potential second Russian strike. On Sunday General Philip M. Breedlove called the massed Russian forces on the border with Ukraine “very, very sizeable and very, very ready.” He stated that “[t]here is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made.” Control of Transnistria as well as Crimea would give Russia a pincer around Odessa, Ukraine’s second major naval base on the Black Sea. In parallel, acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia spoke of rising risks of war.

More surprisingly, Alexander Lukashenko too joined the critical chorus. The Belarusian autocrat and long-time Putin ally said the consequences of the takeover of Crimea “could be very dangerous” and become “a bad precedent,” especially for “states on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons.” This may have been a reference to the Crimea operation’s breach of the 1994 security guarantee that Russia explicitly gave to Ukraine upon relinquishment of its nuclear weapons to Moscow. Belarus, like Ukraine, gave up its inherited Soviet nuclear stockpile in the mid-1990s, in exchange for a similar guarantee from the US and Russia.

Russian commentators, both the few liberal critics and the many true followers of Putin, also anticipate further land grabs by the Russian president. Ex-world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who now heads the Human Rights Foundation in New York, has no compunction about comparing Putin with Hitler. Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin who broke with him some years ago, predicted Putin’s takeover of Crimea at the end of February, before the actual Russian infiltration of the peninsula began. Now he says on Russian TV that Putin has a detailed program to set up a pro-Russia government in Kiev – and that some people in the Ukrainian government are ready to accept this as the price of remaining a nominally independent country.

Even Yana Amelina, pro-Putin senior analyst at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, enthusiastically expects [RU] the annexation of Crimea to become “a precedent for South Ossetia and the entire post-Soviet space.” She gives three chilling reasons [RU] why “Russia in no way can be limited to a single Crimea”: first, the millions of Russian speakers in Ukraine who are being repressed and must be protected by Russia; second, “the fate of Transnistria” that “will be possible only after the reunification of Russia and Novo Rossiya” (i.e., southern Ukraine); and third, Ukrainian ally Georgia must now “reflect upon the further existence of its state.”

The stakes in this asymmetric high noon of soft-vs.-hard power could not be greater. The West – which now includes the former Central European states freed from the Kremlin’s domination as the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended – sees Europe’s whole peaceful post-World War II order threatened if a stronger state can once again expropriate a weaker neighbor’s territory at gunpoint. Putin, on the other hand, sees the entire East Slav civilization under threat if Ukrainians can slip out from under the tutelage of their older brother Russia and join the decadent West.

And as it awaits the collateral damage, the world too asks whether globalization and its evolving rules-based system for the global commons will survive this duel unscathed.


Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author of The Rebirth of Europe. She has reported on Ukraine over the past three decades.




This article was originally published by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V.