For two decades, Russia’s leaders have been fanning ethnic violence along their country’s periphery. As a result, tens of thousands of people have been killed, and hundreds of thousands made refugees or reduced to living in misery. Yet until last week, Western citizens were largely spared from the most brutal consequences of Russian neo-imperialism—a leading reason why Western leaders have tolerated Moscow’s misbehavior for so long. But now it’s becoming increasingly clear that the downing of Malaysia Air flight 17 was a direct result of Russia’s irresponsible policies. America and Europe must respond forcefully and demonstrate to Moscow that these tactics will no longer work.
What Vladimir Putin has done in eastern Ukraine follows the typical Russian playbook used in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. Countries that tried to break away from Russia’s dominance—Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova—faced massive direct or indirect Russian support for minority groups trying break away from them. These countries were all crippled virtually at birth, ensuring constant instability and preventing them from focusing on developing their economies and turning into functioning democracies.
In some places, such as between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Moscow didn’t have to do that much to fan the flames. But even in these cases Russian interference quickly ensured that the conflicts would be bloodier than they otherwise might have been—and that they wouldn’t be resolved.
Coming to power in 1999, Vladimir Putin enthusiastically endorsed and refined these irregular instruments of statecraft. By 2005, Russian military and security officers appeared, as if by magic, in key positions in the breakaway self-declared “republics.” This showed how little Moscow trusted its own proxies, and it also gave the lie to Moscow’s claim to be a peace-broker in these conflicts.
Sadly, Western leaders failed to take notice, continuing to behave as if Russia were an honest broker, when it was in fact a party to the conflicts. Understanding Western indifference as a green light, Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 to prevent it from joining NATO—and many European leaders were all too willing to believe that the conflict had been the “reckless” Georgians’ fault. Even after the Georgia War, Western leaders thought it was a good idea for Moscow to take the lead in brokering a solution to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict.
The same script was acted out in Ukraine, with one major difference: There was no ethnic conflict to begin with. Tensions between the country’s east and west were there, to be sure, but there was nothing that would have devolved into large-scale violence. Putin had to create the separatist movement practically out of thin air, and so he did, deploying military and security officers like the notorious Igor Strelkov (Girkin) and other officials of the newly minted “Donetsk People’s Republic”, a pure creation of the Kremlin.
Yet Western leaders continue to disregard facts and play into Russia’s hands. This was the gist of the July 2 Berlin declaration: Led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and with U.S. support, Western leaders keep demanding that “all parties” declare a ceasefire and negotiate. In effect this action bestowed legitimacy on a Russian security service subsidiary, the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” and would, if implemented, allow it to maintain and consolidate its military control on the ground.
A ceasefire would solve the short-term crisis that Western leaders face, allowing them to sweep the issue under the rug and to gradually normalize relations with Russia. But far from solving the real problem, it would prepare the ground for decades of instability, as well as preventing Ukraine from becoming a functioning democracy.
We have seen this movie before. After the 2008 war in Georgia, “Geneva discussions” were launched between Georgia, Russia, and the breakaway territories that Russia had newly recognized as independent states. The Russians, of course, claim they have nothing to do with the conflict: It is, they say, between Georgia and the “independent states” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And whenever convenient, no doubt acting on Moscow’s instructions, representatives of the two breakaway territories throw a wrench into the proceedings by making outrageous demands or threatening to walk out, leaving Western negotiators scrambling for a fix. Similarly in Ukraine, a ceasefire and negotiations would doom the country to a future as a rump state continuously subjected to wanton Russian provocations.
But, one could retort, don’t the separatists in Ukraine have some local support, after all? Is there any other way? In fact, there is. The Ukrainian leadership must be allowed to defeat the self-declared “people’s republics” and restore sovereignty, by military means if necessary. A minority of the region’s inhabitants may passively or actively support the separatists, but their involvement in the rebellion is surprisingly underwhelming for a supposedly popular campaign. Most of the separatist leaders, and certainly most of the fighters, have come from Russia. In no sense can the separatists be considered legitimate representatives of the local population.
Once the foreign-sponsored separatist movement has been defeated, it will be time for the Ukrainian government to address the concerns of the local population, concerns that will no doubt have been exacerbated by war. But crucially, these concerns must be managed through the democratic process and through devolution of power to local communities. Ukraine’s Western friends should commit to ensuring this happens.
Some might object that this course risks escalating the conflict to a broader regional war. Putin’s behavior so far, however, suggests that it would not. Putin is an opportunist, exploiting weakness and division and filling any vacuums that he can identify, but he has repeatedly backed down when faced with unity and strength. Whenever the West has appeared resolute, Putin has paused, temporarily hanging his protégés out to dry, as when the Ukrainian military operation managed to liberate Slovyansk. It was only when Western leaders blinked and failed to follow through on their threat of comprehensive sanctions that Putin began arming the rebels again.
The solution is for the West, united, to show that it means business, and to put overwhelming pressure on Putin to cease and desist from his “Novorossiya” project in eastern Ukraine. This will require further sanctions, and considering designating Russia a state sponsor of terrorism. More important to drive home the point is that the West should throw its support behind Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s efforts to restore Ukrainian sovereignty and supply whatever intelligence, counsel, and material support his forces will need to do so in a manner that both is responsible and protects civilian lives. When that happens, the Donetsk People’s Republic is likely to melt away as quickly as it was conceived.
The tragic downing of MH17, the moral responsibility of which (at the very least) lies with Putin, should give Western leaders the resolve they have so far lacked. Under no circumstances should they let one tragedy lead to another: allowing Putin to make eastern Ukraine another Transnistria.