The American Interest
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Crisis in Ukraine Stopping Putin’s Irredentist Project

The West is treating the fighting in eastern Ukraine as a sui generis crisis, rather than what it is: part of Putin’s larger strategy.

Published on July 29, 2014

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.

Andrew A. Michta is the M. W. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College.
  • Miki Pohl

    Without Astana as “bulwark” and new identity, Kazakhstan would be next!! Millions of Russian-speakers and Russians in the north of the country….might still happen! Extremely worrisome.

  • Duperray

    This point of view is clearly irrational, not validated by facts:
    From soviet system 1991 collapse, who tried to further split peripheral ex-soviet republics from Moscow?
    Who expanded NATO military presence closer and closer to Russia?
    Who throw oil on local ethnic conflicts up to trigger “coloured revolutions”?
    NATO, ie USA.
    Did Russia implant any military basis in North America?
    Russia did’nt do anything else than stopping invasion points when becoming unbearable, otherwise Moscow surroundings would already be full of NATO weapons.
    US is the aggressor and ukarinians now pay heavily for trusting US. But reality, the IMF and US-driven EU “assistance” conditions are gradually becoming clear to this population: EU will not buy their goods, neither Russia.
    It will soon occur a Maïden-bis event to eject pro-nazi temporary Kiev masters.

    • El Gringo

      NATO didn’t invade Ukraine and shoot down a civilian airliner. Your point is invalid.

      • Duperray

        NATO did’nt have the guts to invade Ukraine, it funded and politically supported nazi groups to do the dirty job, while accusing the other (sleeping) party. Hypocrisis.
        Now, explain the world how guerilleros with pistols, rifles, grenades, mortars, short range rockets can reach a liner 10 miles away? Oh, I guess about your answer: “Russian are providing heavy weaponry in a concealed manner to separatists! Well, in this case, all west-ukrainian armies should have been wiped out in one single week! So what is your next hypothesis?

        • caap02

          “Russian are providing heavy weaponry in a concealed manner to separatists!” No, the Kremlin is providing heavy weaponry is a very open way to Russian fighters in Ukraine.

          • Duperray

            Totally misinformed, guys in US ! OECD Observers (a body 100% faithful to West) inspected a lot russian borders and have recently concluded that Russia does not (yet, perhaps) arm east national militia. And now you say that fighting soldiers are russian! My God, if it were true, Uktainian forces would have been beaten in a minute, due to their old equipment, half of which was already in militia’s hands.
            Dem Propaganda is definitively superior to Tass, Isvstzia and KGB.

          • jwz

            In what reality is this true, comrade? You really need to lay off the krokodil and vodka.

      • Andrew Allison

        Please don’t feed the trolls.

      • Duperray

        Again more lies !
        1- NATO Navy was scheduled to drop anchor in Sevastopol Bay by May 16, 2014 thank to corrupted billionnaire politicians inclusive of Yulia.
        2- The liner !! White House itself recognized that it made a mistake ny immediately accusing Russia: Now WH in an humble stance said it “was listening to a rumor spread on Internet” ! What an absence of professionalship for such a large country. And absolute lack of honesty! Please make up your satellite photos showing the steam track of the “missile from Russia”….
        The immediate accusation is the proof that US had something to hide, this is classical intox.You may still believe in your worst presidency administration (56% US oll result), we are not obliged to do so.

        And not a word about May 2 Odessa 48/116 civilian slaughter by fire, poison gas and hand gun bullets. The shameful western media coverage disgusted me: I have been a 65year long unconditionnal US supporter and now I regret. Fortunately I have no such citizenship!
        By still blindly continuing to support ukraine nazi forces, letting artillery destructions pile up, thousand civilian deaths, international organizations gradually discovering these FACTS, realize the mountain of lies coming from your Kiev friends unofficially US encouraged to continue their inhuman campaign. But evidence pile up again and again till, within 6 months, the shame will definitively spoli star & stripes flag.

        • jwz

          One thing we agree on- I’m glad you have no citizenship here either.

          BTW, comrade, I can disagree with, and not even like my president and still believe that Russians are lying scum who are killing the civilians of eastern Ukraine simply because the vertically-challenged dictator of Russia wants to be ruler of the world.

          • Duperray

            Yes indeed, I am proud to not belong to a regime supporting neo-nazis.
            “Putin wants to rule the world” !!! Don’t lease to Putin the dreams of americans. How come a 145million country be able to invade, make slaves 7 billion inhabitants? And for what? He has enough land, natural resources and skills to smoothly evolve for centuries, the time to complete rational exploitation and full equipment.
            The simple logic destroys this kind of assumptions.

    • caap02

      Hmmmm……was itBush when he counselled Ukrainians to forget about “suicidal nationalism” (i.e told them to not leave the USSR)? Was it when NATO denied both Georgia and Ukraine membership?

      What “local ethnic conflicts” were associated with the ‘coloured revolutions? None that I can think of (other than homo sovieticus vs homo sapiens).

      • Duperray

        For people supposed to belong to the free world, you all seem to forget the value of a Referendum of large population which made (last april) eastern Ukraine leaders legitimate.
        This is written in Un Charter signed also by US. But the 1946 USA disappeared and replaced by one-siders only: “I use for me the rules which favor me and for the others the rules which also favor me”. Congratulations. The plain fact is that US failed its “coup” to install NATO in Ukraine, just to play another dangerous game, setting on fire a new region, probably by pleasure, alike Lybia, Tunisia, Egypt, Irak and others to come.

      • Duperray

        I am very respectful of Pr Bush (father) doings: Protect Kuwait oil fields (with UN OK) was a must to prevent ww economic turmoil. He and Pentagon were intelligent enough to not demolish Saddam who – whatever bad – was preventing Pandore’s box getting lose.
        These times look gone forever and the box is open.
        I like your homo-xxxxx definitions: Gorbatchev killed homo-sovieticus and its ambitions. The substitute homo-russian discovered that it spent 70 years to generate troubles in the world under the communism flag, indeed for stupid results: North Korea and Cuba. Now it works home to try recover western level wealth, if not its problems too.
        But the West ought to learn from the above and not repeat same stupid ambitions; Unfortunately not and homo-mediatico.americanus took immediately advantage to try control the world since 1991.
        European states now start to no longer hide their US policy disapproval: The so called “pro-NATO” like Poland and else, started to say “Hey, in which mess are we driven?” and individually hastlity negociate with Putin to unofficially remove russian counter-sanctions, Germany, France, Italy, Bulgary and else openly refusing the deployment of ABM basis against Russia. They are obliged to appear aligned with present irresponsible US policy for the sake of NATO, but step by step cut these links until Uncle Obama understands he isolated himself.
        Pay attention to recent China-Russia gas deal and BRICS moves: They are fundamental global policy changes and stupid esoteric US “sanctions” triggered this definitive change. Let(s see further developments with western Russian gas pits turned soon to be allocated to a second major gas deal with China and India. Putin thanks US for this.
        We have to say “Thank you Obama” with rage in our teeths from proverbial “Fuck Europe…”.

    • jwz

      Who expanded NATO military presence? Ummm, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia who requested membership. NATO didn’t unilaterally decide to add them, unlike Russia who just announces it’s sending a convoy of “aid” into a neighboring country.

      Why did those countries request NATO membership? Because they feared exactly what is happening now in Ukraine– an invasion by the greasy, lying turds of Russia.

      • Duperray

        With all US bloggers I challenge, I see the same common mediatic intoxication even of most high education persons: US is necessarily perfect in all aspects. We have the same in Europe but for 30 years I no longer trust our media and for 10 years I never listen/look at them up to have dismantled my TV and radio sets. Internet is neutral in the sense that all opinions are free and when two opposite political sources display the same fact in similar terms, I know this is a bit of reality. Hard but very interresting.
        “Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia who requested membership”: I don’t know but supposing it was true in 1991, I would understand because USSR was not dead for long and NATO was still binding upon UN votes an appeared not agressive. But Pr Bush committed to not expand NATO by an inch, that his successors violated, now making NATO an agressive organization targetting the wrong enemy.

        Would they be protected by US in case of invasion? Come on, NATO spirit – still highly broadcasted by now – was set in 1948 when US were the only one to have atom bombs. Dissuasion was perfect up to 1956 when US refused to protect UK (its ally by blood) and France during Suez fight to free the Canal.
        That day, NATO showed the true US interpretation: To exclusively protect US or justify its unfriendly moves. US would never dare to seriously fight to protect any square mile of european land.
        Present supposed Russian invasion? My God, if true this would have been completed in half a week and up to entire Ukraine… “Tehy” are not fitted bows and arrows!

  • adk

    All valid points, Mr. Michta. The real question is whether the West can find its backbone before it’s too late.

  • moderate Guy

    The whole thing is clearly a Polish plot. Poland, of course, as a member of NATO and EU, cannot easily, invade another part of Europe to recover the polish territories lost in 1945.
    So it is using Putin and Strelkov, two long time agents of the secretive “Dwojka” Polish Spy Agency, to destabilize and balkanize Ukraine, at which point it can move in and annex the western parts.
    Zhirinovsky, another polish operative in “Russia”, almost let the cat out of the bag, with his “proposal” for Poland to annex the choice western part, “Russia” to get the Ukrainian rust belt and the rump entity around Kiev be jointly “managed”.
    But the Poles, cannily, are holding out for western parts of “Belarus” to be included in any arrangement. Another “Dwojka” agent, one Lukashenko has been doing his job of impoverishing people there and destroying Belarus economy to prepare the ground for eventual polish annexation.

    • El Gringo

      It’s 1939 all over again!

      • moderate Guy

        In 1939 Poland chose the wrong side. Not this time.

    • Mr. Hack

      ‘Putin and Strelkov, two long time agents of the secretive “Dwojka” Polish Spy Agency,’

      ‘Zhirinovsky, another polish operative in “Russia”,’

      ‘Another “Dwojka” agent, one Lukashenko’

      moderate Guy, you certainly live in some kind of immoderate fantasy world…:-)

      • moderate Guy

        But I am the king hereabouts.

  • Roosty Meesty

    Very good analysis. Despite today’s sanctions, Putin will double down and ultimately invade Ukraine as his FSB/GRU cutthroats and Russian neo-Nazis (Gubarev) running the Donetsk Peoples’ Criminal Republic are losing. Putin, like another leader in the Kremlin before him, Stalin, I think is really starting to believe his own propaganda. The West should have done third tier sanctions months ago, and military assistance by now. I think it too late. Putin will be the bringer of war to Europe in the 21st Century.

    • Duperray

      Crazy ! Let’s reverse the situation: Russia-triggered friendly separatists fighting in Mexico few miles away from Texas borders. Which music would US sing? Same as Russia’s present!
      To not be able to identify its own deadly enemy is a tragic error, remember Pearl Harbor and 9/11

      • caap02

        There was no fighting in Ukraine until Russia invaded it.

        • Duperray

          OECD has recently told that they never find any proof of russian troops there, to the dismay of White House. The US propaganda foam bubble is collapsing step by step as none of accusations has been supported by proof. Like MH17 flight? Where are US proofs? Not a word in US media, even not a whisper… because they have to cool the game, tail between legs. Even more ironic: It’s Russia which now require full transparency from black box analysis as well as Kiev air controller radio recordings…. before they are modified.

  • Duperray

    Never History has seen civilian population escaping war destructions towards their enemy. East ukrainians know better than you and all of us who is the invader killer: Pro-west armies, not russians.
    Look to facts or become a Prophet…

    • jwz

      More than 200,000 refugees from Donetsk and Crimea fled to Western Ukraine– you know where all the Nazis live. Russian citizens angered that their brothers from Ukraine are eating up their food and breathing their air. Such compassion.

      • Duperray

        CEOS and Red Cross (independent entities) have visited the hundreds of refugees camps in Russia, and now you still pretend they fled towards West Ukraine?
        Why UN finally starts to be concerned about this massive exodus?
        Who is randomly shooting 85km range missiles on homes?
        Ah, ah! What you do pretend is even not in US media, so I deduce that you are a smart newsmen which paper has not yet been approved by your media employer…
        If what you say would true, Pentagon shall show space snapshots showing herds of civilians escaping west but “proof” is inexistant.
        Supposing you are an honest person, look at your face in a mirror and ask yourself whether you would have approved US federal police attack Ferguson riots with artillery, 85km long range missiles, white phosphorus bombs? Certainly not: civilized regime react against this by policemen, high pressure water, tear gas and so on. And police would never launch 85km range missiles: these are fired only to terrorize population “who is so happy to flee west”..come on!!
        It is the first time in History that a regime fired so heavy weapons against its own population: Even the worst of evils, Hitler and Staline, never dare to do so.
        Open and unlimited Kiev support from US is a definitive stain on US flag, because whatever hysteric media claim, Pentagon and Obams know exactly what happens there and US is the only country still pushing Kien to not stop war…
        I am this time happy to be a european

  • http://abiasedperspective.wordpress.com Luke Phillips

    I don’t particularly see the problem in allowing Moscow to exert hegemony over its local area, given that 1) the international legal system is eroding rapidly and the old paradigm of sovereignty and democracy as the ultimate goods is defunct, 2) Moscow does not have the global pretensions it once did in the bad old days, and 3) Moscow has a much greater interest in and capacity to keep order in its near abroad than any state in the West could dream of having, and therefore allowing a Russia-centric balance of power to emerge would ultimately be more stabilizing. Yes, it strengthens Moscow; no, that doesn’t exponentially multiply the threat levels to the United States and Europe, which are having their own power transitions and realignments anyway.

    Those commentators who want to cow Russia for the sole purpose of cowing Russia- you’re starting to sound like neocons.

    • caap02

      Well, Ukrainians and Poles and Georgians and Moldovans and Estonians and Latvians and Lithuanians and others do see a problems with allowing Moscow to exert hegemony over what you call “its local area”. And if the international legal system is eroding, it will be replaced by a nuke in every country. The lessons of the Budapest Memoradnum are beling noted by every small country with a big neighbour.

  • Dan Greene

    This article conspicuously fails to make any case to support its repeated assertion of Putin’s wide-ranging “irredentist project.”