walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
AFP/Getty Images
Published on: July 11, 2014
Crisis in Ukraine
Blurred Lines Between War and Peace

Ukraine, Russia, and the West all have their own reasons for not calling the ongoing conflict a war, just as they all have different views of what would constitute an acceptable peace.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has kicked off his “Peace Plan” by ending the ceasefire and resuming military actions against pro-Russian forces. True, he promises to continue negotiations with the separatists, but this looks more like an attempt to soothe an openly irritated Kremlin, as well as grumpy Berlin and Paris. War and Peace in Ukraine have now acquired a paradoxical dimension: Not all efforts to pursue another ceasefire would be a step in the direction of achieving a sustainable peace.

Once upon a time it had seemed that, by creating (EU and NATO) mechanisms to prevent wars, Europe had found a remedy to the problems that had plagued the continent over the course of the blood-soaked 20th century. But the events in Ukraine have exposed a fundamental flaw in these efforts that Europe, and the West as a whole, isn’t ready to deal with. The flaw is plain for all to see: Russia and Ukraine maintain diplomatic relations. They participate in international forums together. They cooperate on economic matters, albeit less actively now. People and goods cross the border. Their leaders talk on the telephone. And yet these countries are at war with one another, and this is not just a war of soft power (information warfare) but hard power as well. How else would you describe Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory than as a hard power conflict? How else to describe an armed struggle conducted on one side by Russian citizens, on Ukrainian territory, under Russian banners, with weapons and funding supplied by Russia? Dozens of paratroopers from the 45th Guards Spetsnaz airborne regiment have been buried recently in Moscow—where and why did they suddenly die in such numbers?

This is a war that no one wants to name as such. The West doesn’t want to call it war, since it would then have to take concrete measures against the aggressor, a nuclear state. Who would dare to do that? Ukraine isn’t ready to press the world to call the conflict a war out of fear of contradicting the West. And it’s quite clear why Russia wouldn’t want to acknowledge that it’s fighting a war: Moscow retains room for maneuver as long as the war goes undeclared, retaining the ability to switch out its aggressor’s hat for the peacemaker’s hat at will.

While the Kremlin will not recognize that Russia is at war with Ukraine, it won’t normalize relations with Kiev either. This blurring of the lines between war and peace when it comes to states parallels the blurring Putin has done within Russia itself, by turning to militarism and coercion to sustain the Russian System. The ongoing crisis merely represents the application of this model to Russia’s relations with Ukraine. And Ukraine isn’t an end in itself for Russia, but merely an instrument for the Kremlin. By destabilizing Ukraine, Russia is fighting a proxy war with the West. Putin has been perfectly candid about his reasons for wanting to do this, stating time and again that Russia is a unique civilization that seeks to contain the West not only inside Russia but outside it too.

The current developments should not come as a surprise to anyone. The blurring of the borders between war and peace occurred as Europe entered a phase after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that many have described as postmodern. This phase has been characterized by furtiveness on the part of the liberal democracies when it comes to living up to their principles in crafting policy: “Nothing’s sacred, everything is on the table,” Europe has seemed to say. After it lost its great rival and adversary, it no longer wished to focus any time or effort on preaching values. But the postmodern, transactional leaderships of Europe today find themselves poorly equipped to respond to the challenges posed by the Russian System, which is why their responses inevitably slide into accommodationism.

Western leaders are only too willing to be convinced that Kiev’s problems are merely an internal affair and nothing more, and they have pressured Kiev to accept the same assessment. While the West has demanded that Moscow end its support for the separatists, it refuses to name Russia as a party in this conflict and therefore does not consider it an “aggressor.” The West’s leaders believe (or pretend to believe) that if they talk to the Kremlin and engage Russia, they will change the Kremlin’s behavior. And Putin, a master at pretending to be accommodating while in fact forcing others to play his game, has offered his Western counterparts all the evidence they need to satisfy themselves that they’re right: See, he isn’t invading Ukraine after all! Nor is he supporting the separatists. Western decisiveness has prevented a new Russian incursion, Western observers gleefully say. In fact, Putin never intended to annex Ukraine’s southeast; he doesn’t need the added headache! It’s sufficient for Kremlin purposes to turn the southeast into a new Transnistria. If he can remove the threat of new sanctions and other troubles by “conceding” something he never wanted in the first place, why not let the Western leaders think it was their decisive leadership that made him change course.

Thus today the Kremlin actively supports Ukraine’s peace talks. Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov says that the rebels are “ready for constructive dialogue,” and that Ukrainian authorities should not try “to subordinate them to Kiev.” To whom, then, should they subordinate themselves?

Who wouldn’t support the idea of ending all combat operations? No one, of course—except we’re missing something, aren’t we? The recent truce Poroshenko declared at the end of talks initiated by the Europeans with OSCE participation has actually benefited the separatists. They refused to recognize the truce and continued attacking Ukrainian forces. They breached the ceasefire constantly. Thus, the truce worked against Ukraine and aided those who were undermining its territorial integrity. Facing a loss of popular support and the further demoralization of the Ukrainian army, Poroshenko had to end the ceasefire. Now Berlin, Paris, and Moscow are once again urging Kiev to renew the ceasefire, just as Ukrainian forces are beginning to gain the upper hand against the separatists. Would Moscow still be calling for a truce if the separatists were the ones capturing Ukrainian cities?

What would a new truce mean now that the Ukrainian army is beginning to liberate territory from the separatists? Poroshenko would be doomed! He would lose the support of those who want the country to remain unified. A new truce would evaporate the Ukrainian army’s recent morale gains, and it would allow the separatists to regroup and establish new supply lines. Moreover, including the separatists in the negotiating process would legitimate their political role and force Kiev to make concessions to them on the subject of Ukraine’s future constitutional structure, where they see themselves as independent actors.

Moscow, meanwhile, is attempting to wear the peacemaker’s hat without ever doffing its battle helmet. It may indeed succeed in this attempt, given that the lines between war and peace remain fuzzy, and given that the Europeans are ready to involve the Kremlin in the negotiating process at any cost. (Sometimes I’m not certain who wants the “peace” agenda most: Moscow, Berlin, or Paris?) With some help from the Europeans, Moscow may also be able force Kiev to agree to the special status of the Donbass region, thus lodging a permanent thorn in Ukraine’s side. The list of concessions that would be expected from Kiev could be long, and it may include energy deals and carve-outs of the juiciest chunks of Ukrainian territory.

In fact, an endless negotiating process is in Moscow’s interests (provided the separatists helped by constantly fanning the flames of conflict). To the Kremlin, “the goal is nothing, the movement is everything,” as a famous German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein once said. Moscow clearly hopes that the Ukrainians will soon grow unhappy with the country’s new leadership, thus giving Russia more tools for influencing Ukrainian developments.

This scenario requires that Europe make Poroshenko come to the negotiating table before Kiev concludes its anti-terrorist operation. Here is what one Ukrainian observer wrote on this account:

It turns out that the EU leaders have short memory. What is surprising, apart from their lack of resolve to impose sanctions on Russia, is that they seek to turn the situation in Donbass into a strictly Ukrainian problem. Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are vigorously twisting Petro Poroshenko’s and Pavlo Klimkin’s arms demanding that they restrain their military, apparently forgetting how Russia occupied Crimea and ignoring the flammable concoction of weapon shipments and mercenary missions that the Kremlin generously poured onto the smoldering Donbass region.

Peace talks would be productive if a compromise between the warring factions were possible. But if Moscow isn’t about to stop destabilizing Ukraine, and if the separatists are intent on occupying part of the Donbass region, then what can they accomplish? Any Ukrainian leader who agreed to a compromise under these terms would immediately lose his legitimacy and popular support. The only talks that are possible aren’t truce talks, but talks for a separatist surrender. Anything else would just prolong the confrontation and continue the disintegration of an already fragile Ukrainian state.

Western leaders find themselves in a difficult situation. On the one hand, they want to return to the past format for dealing with Russia and are already looking for ways to bring Russia back into the G8. On the other hand, they are trying to find mechanisms that will force Putin to stop his bullying. The peace talks that Moscow insists on would give the West and the Kremlin a chance to return to business as usual and forget the recent past. One can’t help feeling that Europe is eager to make a deal endorsing the new status quo. Thus, Poroshenko has to agree to legitimizing the separatists and granting a special status to the territories they control (and other concessions too). If Kiev balks at this proposal, Europe may drag its feet on providing financial aid to Ukraine. What would the Kremlin have to do? It would merely have to pull its troops away from the border and promise not to repeat the Crimea scenario, which Putin had no plans to do anyway. A deal would thus give the Kremlin the tactical advantage through a negotiation process supported by the European leaders and an international institution (the OSCE).

It’s possible that Kiev may be forced to support the idea of granting Donbass “special status.” There are still powerful figures in the region, including the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who would like to secure autonomy and continue their dialogue with the Kremlin. The Ukrainian authorities may decide to get rid of the chaos-plagued part of Donbass that would resist transformation. But this scenario would not strengthen Ukrainian statehood. The separatist-controlled territory would become a black hole—a breeding grounds for violence that would spread to the neighboring countries, including Russia.

Incidentally, Moscow does not want the separatists it has nursed to become too strong. If they grew too powerful, they might draw Russia into their risky business. But Moscow doesn’t want the separatists to lose either. I believe that legitimating the separatists by means of their installation as heads of local governments, virtually independent from Kiev, is actually Moscow’s best-case scenario. In any event, Moscow will close Russia’s borders to its mercenaries and will not allow them to return to Russia. What are they going to do in Russia? Accuse Putin of betraying the cause of the Russian World? No—rather, Moscow will try to keep them in Donbass, which will allow the Kremlin to constantly destabilize the Ukrainian state.

Now Moscow is trying to undermine pro-Russian warlords who went rogue and raised their voices against Putin and the Kremlin for betraying them and idea of the “Russian Spring” —among them Igor Girkin (Strelkov), self-proclaimed Commander in chief of the Donbass separatist forces. You can begin to see the first brushstrokes of the master plan: Setting aside the warlords, he’ll now turn to a new kind of figure: political technologists with management experience and hands untainted in the recent bloodshed, most of them Russian citizens, are now prepared to take part in the negotiations process. Among this new set are the head of the Lugansk People’s Republic, Marat Bashirov, and the head of the Donetsk Republic, Alexander Borodai. Moscow is prepared to undertake its New Project in Ukraine, and one can’t exclude the possibility that this project will gain the approval of the Western peaceniks.

All of the above explains why allowing Kiev to restore the country’s territorial integrity is the best way to bring real peace to Ukraine. Pressuring Kiev to declare a new ceasefire that will give the rebels another break will only prolong the conflict. True, after winning the war with the pro-Russian forces, Kiev will have to win another war—for the trust of those Donbass people who don’t trust Kiev today.

Of course, if Kiev were successful in its “anti-terrorist operations,” this would raise another interesting question: What would it do with the pro-Russian rebels and their leaders? It would hardly want to detain all of them. Russia, for its part, wouldn’t want to let them return home; the Kremlin has no interest in welcoming home a slew of frustrated mercenaries who not only have proven themselves willing to fight for the idea of the Russian World but also view Putin as their betrayer. This means that they will have to die where they are fighting for the “right cause”, and after their deaths they will be used as martyrs in Russia to beef up the waning military-patriotic mobilization.

show comments
  • Pete

    “Their leaders talk on the telephone. And yet these countries [Russia and the Ukraine] are at war with one another, and this is not just a war of soft power (information warfare) but hard power as well. ”

    Control the hysteria, Hon. You obviously don’t know what real war is.

  • Vova Khavkin

    Seems the solution is easy, at least on paper – take the evil empire out of the equation and everything will fall into place. But wait, what about the self-absorbed narcissic America-hating fascist in the White House? What about the merchant of death, the spineless brain-dead French commie? What about the other merchant of death, the lady in Germany?

    • Paul Z

      But the cowardly Pukin still leads the pack.

    • toumanbeg

      The old “It takes two to fight ” theory.
      That theory is wrong. If one party wishes to fight there will be a fight. The party that doesn’t fight just gets their arse whipped. Might get an arse whoopin even if you fight back but you just might win. Don’t know until you try.
      There are lots of ways the west can deal with Pootie.
      My favorite is to withdraw from the NPT. After the 6 month period is over, sell nukes to Poland, Finland and any other nation (Baltic States?) that looks like easy prey for Russia. Remember Russia is Moscow, a handful of cities plus a lot of 19th century hovels. A dozen nukes will kill half the population of Russia.
      A less violent tactic would be removing Russia from it’s seat on the UN Security Council. The rational Pootie used to invade the Ukraine was that the revolution that over threw the Russian puppet President early this year invalidated the Budapest treaty. If so then the 1991 revolution in Russia invalidated the UN Treaty the Soviet Union signed.
      Make Russia apply for membership in the UN and place them in the General assembly, not as a permanent Security Council member.
      Either one of these 2 plans would have the Russians back in Russia quick as lightening.

  • Paul Z

    This IS war. Just because 100’s are dying right now instead of 1000’s does not change the definition.

  • El_Al

    Madame Shevtsova doesn’t have a clue was She’s wishing for. A war is very noisy and a war with the Red Army is something that no Ukraine even wish for. The Ukraine will then be destroyed for ever in less than 3 weeks. Most refugees went to Russia and not to Kiew think why.
    Kiev is dead broke – can’t pay the Gas bills – the stock market broke down for over 70 % of the trades since mid 2013. In this October there will be massive personell reductions in the whole Ukraine. The rich eastern part – their BIP is 5 times high as in Western Ukraine – is reducing te consumption and production. All IMF Credit are useless for this country.

    • caap02

      -1- there is no “Red Army”
      -2-most “refugees” did not go to Russia, the majority are in other parts of Ukraine

    • HumbleOpinion

      90% or refugees went to Ukraine. But they live with their relatives, so it is not as noticeable as just a couple of thousands that went to Russia.

      And what is going on is indeed a war. It is just starting slowly. German annexation of Czechoslovakia went without a shot, but it was a war.

  • Iain Colledge

    Didn’t we try accommodationism back in 1938, didn’t end to well if I recall.

  • mladenm

    Main problem is that anti -Russian forces grabbed power in Ukraine by coup and some of Ukrainian factories are major suppliers of Russian military. If Ukraine is about to toe NATO line, there might be problems in deliveries related to Russian support of legitimate Syrian government. So it has to be resolved, and soon: either Ukraine will not be NATO ally against Russia, or that production and key people must be relocated to Russia. Otherwise, Russia is quite happy to leave Ukraine (minus Crimea or any kind of economic support) to EU. People left to IMF treatment usually start crying for relief in short time. Regarding separatist, they are far too socialist for Putin’s taste. Or Western taste, who much prefer admirers of WWII Nazi collaborators. It is very likely Ukraine will end up as EU’s Mexico: source of cheap, semi-legal workforce who can be packed home on first sign of trouble. Full EU membership is project of 10-20 years (see how it went with West Balkan and Turkey). So, next decade or two won’t be easy. And in 20 years EU and Custom Union might sign some agreement anyway.

  • toumanbeg

    Take a course on Conflicts. Only a small percentage of conflicts reach the kinetic stage. Remember, war is a diplomatic tool. Useful more as a threat then a reality. Only to be a creditable threat, a nation has to go to war on occasion. If Bush had told Assad WMD was a red line, Assad would have listened. Say what you will about Bush, he is no coward. Obama is a gold medal level coward. So nobody will take his threats seriously.

    Any elementary school teacher will tell you that children who know they won’t be punished behave badly.
    Any despot that can expand their territory and influence without cost WILL do so. Take it to the bank.

  • HumbleOpinion

    Excellent analysis. Work a bit on your English :-) Michael Swan “Practical English Usage” is the book you should read like the Bible: every day before bed.
    But overall, I agree, Putin is playing with Ukraine like cat with mouse. His goal is not annexation, but destabilization. The West grew fat and lazy. They don’t want to get their boots dirty. The situation has destroyed their pretense of peaceful Russia and no need to struggle ever again. Obama is indecisive and scared. But he is really offended by Putin. So, he will do a lot if he gets emotional. I wonder what Reagan would do in this situation. I think he would give Ukraine a military help. Just like Germans woke up one morning with Berlin Wall erected over-night, Putin should wake up one morning with a division of US marines stationed in Kyiv without even participation in the East, just stationed North of Kyiv. Unfortunately, Ukraine is broke and nobody wants to give them help because they have no credibility yet.
    Kyiv’s hope is that Girkin is desperate and the total mobilization that he announced should back fire on him in the form of women (mothers) protesting. Which in turn will give the Kyiv troops the moral superiority they need.

  • Julie Leighton

    The martyrdom of the Russian mercenaries will solidify Putin’s “besieged fortress” mentality–the idea that Russia is surrounded by “enemies” and must be A) authoritarian to maintain domestic stability in the face of outside threats; B) the government must prevent “enemies” from spreading “hostile ideology” that would undermine the country from the inside; and C) willing to intervene in foreign locations to prevent the spread of said “hostile ideology” into its own zone. This mentality then goes hand in hand with the Kremlin’s military-patriotic initiative—a pattern of the Russian government that creates and magnifies the threat of an outside enemy, bolsters the military to respond to the severity of this hyperinflated threat, and then experiences a jump in patriotic sentiment when this imaginary foe has been defeated.

    As Shevtsova describes, the problem with the Russian mercenaries, from the Kremlin’s perspective, is that the only conclusive way to positively deal with them is through their martyrdom. Deceased, they can be described as patriots who worked to contain the “fascist” and “neo-Nazi” elements that were threatening ethnic Russians in Ukraine. They were serving their country, protecting the Russian World identity, and preventing the radicals from crossing the border. They were heros, and should be commemorated as such. Russians would do well to celebrate them. Adopting any of these views supports the military-patriotic mobilization paradigm.

    Conversely, if these individuals return to Russia feeling disillusioned, disenfranchised, or manipulated by the Kremlin needlessly, they could be dangerous both physically and psychologically. They may not support the Kremlin narrative about the events next door; they may propagate information and stories that do not toe the official line; and possibly most disastrously, they may relay that governmental motives and actions in Ukraine did not match the official propaganda. Any of these could deflate the Kremlin in the eyes of the public, which would counteract the paradigm, and would make these veterans, from the government’s perspective, more parasitic than anything else.

    When national identity is dependent on perpetual crisis and defeat of an outside enemy, members of the armed forces are truly jeopardized. They are fighting for shifting short term ideals. In the case of the Donbass fighters, it is likely that the political climate and the need for a patriotic national narrative will not accommodate their return home.

    • Ander Elessedil

      There is another possibility.
      That this mercenaries could be used in another, future, crisis.

  • Ander Elessedil

    I think that Putin doesn’t want another partition of Ukraine.
    He got the Crimea, and if he now want the Donbass, he lose completely the rest of Ukraine, politically (only if in the future he invaded all Ukraine this would change).
    With the loss of the Crimea and its votes, a pro-Russian candidate in the next elections could win with much difficoulty. Without the Donbass would be totally impossible.

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  • Yulia L

    It is so great to see that the articles like this one are of interest to the general public and are able to spark discussions. I’m just appalled by a condescending tone that some of the participants deem necessary to employ to make their message stronger. I’d say it provides for the opposite considering you are being condescending towards someone who ranked among 100 intellectuals in the world…

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