Today Russia fires missiles across Ukraine’s border. Ever-more sophisticated Russian weapons flow into the hands of so-called rebels in Donetsk. Russian “volunteers” fight against the Ukrainian military on Ukraine’s sovereign territory. Vladimir Putin and company barely took note of the international outrage after Russia-supplied forces downed MH17; Moscow merely deflected responsibility and quickly doubled down on its military operations. Having seized Crimea, the ongoing fight is but a means for Putin, with his ultimate goal being to undermine the government in Kiev and, directly or indirectly, to control the whole country. So if Western leaders believe Ukraine is a sui generis crisis that, once resolved, will allow them to focus on other things, they had better think again.
Putin’s war against Ukraine is a part of his larger irredentist project. If the current trajectory of Western response does not change—that is, if the West does not give Kiev meaningful military assistance to defend its territory—then Russia will prevail in eastern Ukraine and will continue to expand into other territories along its periphery. The stakes could not be higher, for Putin’s strategy has already wrought havoc on the security order in Eurasia, strained intra-European relationships, and will continue to test the durability of NATO and Transatlantic relations.
Today the immediate goal of Putin’s policy in Ukraine is to maintain his hold on the east so as to consolidate his gains there. The fundamental flaw in the West’s clinging to sanctions as the pathway to conflict resolution is that Putin cannot retreat—for retreating poses a serious risk to his own power position at home. Having stoked the flames of Great Russian nationalism at home, he must deliver on his vision of an ascendant Russia prevailing against the West. Likewise, controlling eastern Ukraine ensures that Putin can apply unrelenting pressure on the government in Kiev, with the very existence of his so-called “Novorossiya” project a constant reminder to President Poroshenko of his failure to preserve the sovereignty over his country’s territory.
“Novorossiya” is the first stop on Putin’s path to reclaiming direct or indirect control over Russia’s claimed irredenta. “Novorossiya” or “New Russia” is the term Putin resurrected in one of his earlier speeches to refer to Luhansk, Dontetsk, Kharkiv, and Odessa—all transferred to Ukraine in 1920 but originally seized from the Ottoman Empire by Catherine the Great during the Russo-Turkish wars. Today “Novorossiya” is how the rebels refer to the larger swath of eastern Ukraine. From their perspective, the seizure of Crimea was just the first logical step on this path; the Donetsk-Luhansk campaign is now its logical extension, and there are indications today that Odessa may be next on Putin’s menu.
The basic error in the Western response thus far has been to treat the fighting in eastern Ukraine as a specific crisis rather than part of Putin’s larger irredentist strategy. Hence, Germany’s pressure on Ukraine’s President Poroshenko to agree to a ceasefire in fact plays into Putin’s game; if successful it will give him a beachhead to consolidate his gains and to re-engage at a time and in a manner of his choosing. He may also shift his focus elsewhere, by again playing the ethnic card to destabilize other states that were previously part of the Soviet empire, with Moldova being the most immediate target. Even more worrisome is an event that has not gained a lot of attention in Western media: the gradual tightening of Russia’s grip on Belarus and Kazakhstan. As the war in Ukraine escalated in May, both of these countries were induced to sign the Eurasian Union economic agreement, scheduled to come into effect in January 2015. Putin hailed the treaty as “historic” and declared that it would bring the three states into a “new level of integration.” The stage is set for Moscow to begin work on fully aligning Belarus and Kazakhstan politically with Moscow’s priorities.
Thus far the Western response to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, with its singular focus on de-escalation, is reminiscent of the “phony war” by France and Britain after Hitler’s aggression against Poland in 1939. It has created a façade built on a flurry of activity to demonstrate that we are doing something, without admitting that this “something” has little direct bearing on the outcome of the conflict. None of the actions taken by the United States and Europe thus far would cost Putin more than he is willing to pay. Worse, the West’s foot-dragging and disunity only confirm Putin in his judgment that he remains in control, while also deepening his disdain for the West. Even if the West were to get its wish and Putin were to agree today to a ceasefire and negotiations, he would retain both de facto control of eastern Ukraine and the option to recommence hostilities at will. He would, in effect, get the West to do part of his work for him.
Today there are two scenarios to look out for: (1) if the anti-Kiev forces in eastern Ukraine, reinforced by Moscow, can hold on, and if President Poroshenko then accepts the ceasefire brokered by Germany and France, then Russia will in fact win the initial phase of his Ukrainian campaign, reconsolidate, and be in a strong position to strike again; (2) if Poroshenko holds out against Western pressure and continues Ukraine’s campaign to recapture the east, Putin will in the end send in his regular military to protect his gains, finally eschewing all pretense. Either way, without Western military assistance, Kiev will be in no position to offer meaningful resistance to the dismemberment of the country.
Allowing Putin’s irredentist strategy to succeed carries the risk that it will eventually lead to direct pressure on Central Europe and the Baltics. While this pressure may fall short of direct military action by Russia, it will force a new arms race along the progressively militarized fault line on NATO’s northeastern flank. Hence, we need to abandon the crisis management approach and focus on developing a viable framework for deterrence and if need be, defense against aggression. This means not only shoring up NATO’s northeastern flank by deploying U.S. military to the Baltic States and Poland, but also offering direct military assistance to the Ukrainian army, including weapons, targeting intelligence, and training. In addition, we need to send an unequivocal message that, should Russia redirect its strike against another former colony, we will do our utmost to contain and counter it.
This new approach requires a major shift in how Washington and the European capitals think of their future relations with Russia: Whatever deals the West enters into with Vladimir Putin will be moves of tactical expedience on Russia’s part; they will not affect his strategic commitment to Russia’s irredentist project. This commitment will remain so long as he believes that the West is not ready to stand up to him where it counts.
If this sounds like a form of containment of the kind George Kennan spoke about decades ago when he framed the ultimately winning strategy for the West, well, it is for a reason. The current strategy of selective sanctions all but guarantees that Putin will continue on his current course. Containment carries serious risks and will require a unity among the West that is admittedly difficult to fathom today, but it will also stop Putin’s irredentist project and offer Russia a chance to rebuild its relations with the West down the line.