The military and diplomatic situations in Ukraine are fluid and highly uncertain.
Under pressure from the Ukrainian army’s “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (“ATO”), “separatists” in Slavyansk decamped suddenly for the city of Donetsk. Their shadowy commander, Girkin, offered another plea for Russian assistance, which has not been forthcoming-in the form of an outright invasion, anyways. The Ukrainian army is advancing elsewhere in the Donbas.
One would have thought that the fleeing rebels would have been extremely vulnerable to air attack, but most reports indicate that they made it to Donetsk largely unhindered. (I did see one Tweet that purports to show rebel vehicles that had been destroyed on the road, but one must be cautious about the veracity of Tweets, and even the Ukrainian government reports that the separatists are regrouping in Donetsk and does not claim to have mauled the rebels in their retreat.) This suggests (a) that the separatists left in a hurry, (b) poor intelligence and reconnaissance by the Ukrainians, or (c) Ukrainian fear of MANPADS that have brought down several of their aircraft: the retreating column would have been vulnerable to air attack while on the run.
The priority for Ukraine should be to secure the border and to cut off the rebels from Russian logistical support. Deprived of supplies, arms, and reinforcements, the separatist force will surrender, disintegrate, or just fade away.
This puts Putin on the horns of a dilemma. He is already being blasted for abandoning the Russophone/Russophile forces. But overt intervention risks a more robust Western response, and the prospect of a military quagmire.
Of these, the military problem is more acute. Russia’s military still has (conscripted) feet of clay, and the invasion and occupation of a large territory is almost certainly beyond its capability.
What’s more, every signal emanating from the West is equivocal at best.
Multi-party talks last week saw Germany and France putting pressure on Ukraine to make concessions. The talks were held in Berlin, but Munich would have been a more appropriate setting for the appeasement and pressuring the victim of aggression that was on display:
Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, convened this meeting as an emergency response to Ukraine’s June 30 resumption of military operations against Russia’s proxy forces on Ukraine’s territory. Those forces had inflicted serious losses on Ukraine during the ten days’ ceasefire that Ukraine had unilaterally adhered to. Berlin had nudged Kyiv into that unilateral ceasefire (see EDM, June 21 through June 30).
Recognizing that the pro-Russia forces breached the ceasefire massively, Germany now seeks to establish a bilateral ceasefire and follow-up negotiations between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russia secessionists, in a framework that includes Russia while excluding the West. These elements form the basis of a Russo-German consensus regarding Ukraine.
The “Joint Declaration by the Foreign Ministers of Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine” (www.auswaertiges-amt.de, July 2) “stress[es] the necessity of a sustainable ceasefire to be agreed upon swiftly and observed by all concerned…Ministers agree to take all necessary measures and use their influence on the concerned parties with a view to achieving this goal.”
That implies: a) an unconditional ceasefire, thereby throwing out Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s June 20 peace plan, in which ceasefire is conditional upon disarmament of pro-Russia forces (in return for amnesty) and/or the evacuation of those forces from Ukraine to Russia; b) treating the “parties” (Ukrainian government and Russia’s armed proxies) on an equal footing by the Berlin document; c) Russia is asked to control its protégés in the field more tightly, in return for Germany and other West-European governments pressing Ukraine into giving up its right to self-defense.
Insofar as the British are concerned, Cameron gave a deadline of June 30 for Russia to bring the separatists into line. That deadline has passed, with not a peep from the UK. And the US is no better. On June 26, Kerry told Russia to disarm the separatists “within hours.” That is now more than 240 hours ago. And the US has done nothing. Not even the usual Kerry bluster followed by Obama inaction. Just. Nothing.
Yes, there are stories that Merkel is losing patience, and taking a “harder stance.” Maybe in the sense that pasta cooked for 15 minutes is harder than pasta cooked for 20. But it’s still limp. And you know that in the face of intense whinging by big German businesses like that quoted in the linked FT story, and the even more intense opposition of the Putin understanders (especially in the SDP) she’ll find a pressing reason to do nothing, to find some hint of a “de-escalation” (ugh) by Putin. The fact that Nato just announced that it will not admit new members out of fear of offending Russia will only strengthen Putin’s conviction that the West not confront him in Ukraine even if he continues, or even increases, his support for the rebellion.
This all makes the current situation highly unpredictable. The military momentum has shifted decisively in favor of the Ukrainian government. Even though its military is a shambolic Sovok relic, it still overawes the rebels. Unless the rebels are reinforced, or the Russian military invades, the rebellion will eventually be crushed (or suffocated). This would be a stinging defeat for Putin.
Putin’s military instrument is superior to Ukraine’s, but only in the sense of being somewhat less shambolic. Moreover, its mission in Ukraine would be more challenging than what the Ukrainians are attempting. Moreover, the West might stir to do something that seriously hurts Russia if Putin escalates, and particularly if he invades. But there is substantial uncertainty about what the Western response would be, and it has been sufficiently pusillanimous heretofore that Putin could reasonably conclude that he could intervene more robustly without triggering a serious response.
My best guess is that due to the frailties of his military, and the risk of serious sanctions, Putin will not go all in and invade. He can achieve his basic objectives by maintaining a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine. As long as the Ukrainian government does not achieve a decisive victory, and as long as the rebels remain a force-in-being that occupy some major cities, Ukraine will be deprived a victory and will be hamstrung in its ability to reform and integrate more closely with Europe.
This means that it is imperative that Putin prevent the Ukrainians from sealing the border, and that he maintain a corridor to Donetsk and wherever else the separatists dig in. Maybe he will achieve this through the oxymoronic “peacekeeper” gambit employed previously in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. Maybe he will employ artillery and air power, and justify this by claiming it is a response to a Ukrainian incursion into Russia. I don’t know, exactly. But in my view, Putin will try to modulate the violence. Just enough to keep a frozen conflict alive, but not so much as to compel the Euros and US to take actions that would hurt Russia seriously. Unfortunately, the obvious reluctance of Merkel, Obama, and Cameron, not to mention Hollande, to do anything serious gives Putin considerable latitude.
If Ukraine does move robustly to seal the border things will come to a head quickly. No doubt the Euros will put pressure on Ukraine not to do that (and Obama will vote “present”-or maybe even “not present”). If this pressure prevails, the conflict will continue to simmer. If the Ukrainians buck the pressure, it will be Putin’s move. I doubt he will back down. I doubt that he will double down. He will instead strive for some middling way that will keep the rebellion alive but not provoke a serious confrontation with the West.