The odds against Ukraine winning its war against the separatist forces backed and equipped by Russia would be tall even without the presence of the Russian military in the eastern provinces. One year into the conflict, with more Russian regulars and equipment there, it’s clear now that, without Western military aid, Ukraine will soon lose this campaign. Critics of aiding Ukraine have argued that even with limited Western military aid the balance of forces would still favor Russia, and that Ukraine would also lose in an all-out confrontation with Russia—at a greater cost in lives and agony for the country and its people. If they’re right, then why not simply do what many among the commentariat both in the United States and Europe have advocated, and look the other way while Putin completes the process of bringing Ukraine to heel?
The answer is straightforward: because the price that Russia is made to pay now for its conquest will make all the difference for what comes next. Another easy victory by Putin will sharply diminish the security of Europe and of the West collectively.
The consequence of an easy Russian victory in the East will be either an immediate or a creeping partition of Ukraine. It will not matter much what we call it, be it “federalization,” a “frozen conflict,” or an “interim agreement pending a referendum.” The fact that Putin will have achieved a major revision of the borders in Europe, at little to no cost to his own military forces, will confirm every assumption he has made about the West’s inability to think outside the box of its postmodern concepts of security. This will only serve to encourage Putin to move again, this time targeting his real arch-enemy: NATO. If you don’t believe that the dismantling of NATO remains the principal objective of Putin’s policy, just re-read his speeches and spend some time following Russian-language media besides RT’s English channel. The narrative dominant inside Russia names NATO as the enemy, and the Ukrainian army merely as its “foreign legion.”
This is where the real long-term threats to Western security will lie if Ukraine fall in short order (which, without Western assistance, it will). Its collapse will call into question that there is anything sacrosanct about the map lines dividing NATO and non-NATO powers; it will also puncture the notion that the NATO frontier states have been sufficiently reassured by the allied promises of a “persistent rotational presence,” agreed upon at the Wales summit. There is nothing clear-cut in Putin’s eyes about the line beginning at the western borders of the Baltic States and continuing down the Bug River boundary and further south. There are Russian ethnic enclaves in the Baltics that Putin can leverage to create another confrontation. Having effected three revisions of existing borders thus far, in Georgia, Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine, Putin is positioned to test the cohesion and the residual willpower of NATO itself, and to do so on his own terms. Furthermore, Ukraine’s fall will not mean we will be done with it: the remaining Ukrainian rump state will present Europe with the dilemma of an interminable low-intensity war on its periphery—one which Russia will be able to heat up or cool down at will. Putin seems to believe it may just be a matter of time before the West accepts Russia’s offer of an enduring solution: a formula to bring all of Ukraine directly or indirectly under Moscow’s control.
The self-limiting response of the West over the past year has made it all but certain that Vladimir Putin will complete the destruction of the Ukrainian state in short order, and thereby set the terms for a new order in Eastern Europe devoid of the normative assumptions that have governed Europe for decades. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s message at the Munich Security Conference was unmistakable: This mess is entirely the West’s fault, and if you try to arm Ukraine and raise the stakes for my boss, Russia will respond with force—think Georgia 2008.
The defining factors in this crisis have been Russia’s determination to press on, and the ever-present yet seldom articulated fear that if the West were to assist Ukraine’s military, Russia would double or even triple its military effort. This reasoning lies at the core of the “realist” critique of a policy of providing any U.S. military assistance to Ukraine; attendant historical and geographic rationalizations are mainly added for color. Now, it is certainly true that Russia is willing to escalate the fighting by supplying weapons and even its own military personnel. And it is also true that, if Russia commits major military resources, the Ukrainian army may be decisively defeated. But it is of fundamental importance to Europe and the United States under what conditions, and on whose terms, Ukraine’s endgame occurs.
The fate of Ukraine will define how the West—especially the United States and Germany—structures its relations with Russia going forward, specifically whether NATO emerges from this conflict as the viable defense organization it claims to be or a hollowed-out shell better known for its ministerials, conferences, and speeches than for its military potential. The perception of weakness invites aggression. The truth is that NATO countries have over the past five years cut their defense spending by 20 percent in real terms, some by as much as 40 percent, while Russia increased its own by 80 percent.
Moral indignation is not much use in the face of guns and missiles, but unless the Obama Administration does more, that will most likely be the extent of the West’s response to Putin’s war. Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy won’t commit to anything beyond economic sanctions; France is vacillating; and the medium-sized and small states along NATO’s frontier like Poland and the Balts lack the punching power to move Europe to action. As I have argued repeatedly for TAI, even if the odds against Ukraine itself are long, it’s important on whose terms the war in Ukraine ends. If Putin not only wins Ukraine on the cheap but also succeeds in sowing discord throughout NATO, he will have scored the defining strategic win of the post-Cold War era.
The West must also realize that the Ukrainian people are still a key variable here; the majority of them are determined to continue to resist. Thus the crisis may escalate dramatically even without Western military assistance. But if Putin is not made to pay a real military price for his aggression, we may bear witness to the makings of a larger war in Europe in the not so distant a future.
In this context, it doesn’t matter whether Angela Merkel achieves her goal of temporarily “freezing the conflict”, thereby avoiding the pain of having to admit openly that she has capitulated to Putin and underwritten Moscow’s restored sphere of influence in the East. This isn’t just about the fate of one hapless country in Eastern Europe, but about the future of NATO and of European security. Having capitulated in Ukraine in haste, the West may find itself repenting at leisure.