Ever since Russia snatched the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last March and ended Europe’s seven-decade ban on coercive border change, Moscow has possessed enough raw military might to occupy mainland Ukraine as well. Throughout 2014, however, for tactical reasons, the Kremlin held back in its undeclared war on Ukraine from the radical option of full invasion. Now the upsurge in early January in the flow of Russian soldiers and heavy weapons over Ukraine’s unguarded border to bolster pro-Russian local rebels, along with last week’s resumption of a major offensive by Russian marines and paratroops and allied mercenaries after a lowered level of fighting over the previous four months, raise the question of how much longer Moscow’s relative restraint may last.
Some Western analysts now expect President Vladimir Putin to settle for carving out a viable puppet state in the Donbas as this fourth and most dangerous stage of the Ukraine crisis begins. Independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, by contrast, thinks that Putin is playing a longer game and intends eventually to return all of Ukraine to Russian control, as in the old days before his protégé and then Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled in disgrace to Russian exile a year ago. Felgenhauer believes that Putin has not yet decided on his tactics to this end.
Either way, with no intrinsic or mutually understood limits on the violence, the sheer momentum of kinetic war now risks spiraling escalation out of control.
The chronology explains the concern raised by the Russian and pro-Russian offensive. On January 21 efforts to turn the interim truce of September 5 into durable deescalation petered out with one last Berlin meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promised that pro-Russian militants would respect the truce line (albeit while slipping in a new map that granted the rebels some 500 more square kilometers they had gained in the skirmishes over the “ceasefire” period), remove heavy weapons from the agreed buffer zone, and finally let the revived Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitor the Moscow-controled Ukrainian border that is a highway for sending Russian personnel and heavy weapons into the Donbas separatist territory. Yet within days Lavrov’s words were belied by battles on the same scale that to date has already killed more than 5000 Ukrainian civilians, a still secret but devastating number of Ukrainian belligerents and an even more closely-held number of Russian soldiers, and driven more than a million Ukrainian refugees out of their homes. On January 21, too, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced grimly that the clandestine Russian military buildup in the Donbas had reached 9000 troops and 500 tanks and armored vehicles.
On January 22 German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered Moscow the prospect of a common economic space between the European Union and Putin’s new-born Eurasian Union–if the Russian president agrees to a comprehensive peace in eastern Ukraine. Putin himself first proposed just such “a harmonious economic community from Lisbon to Vladivostok” in 2010, but has not responded to her latest trial balloon.
On January 23 Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, renounced peace talks altogether and said the separatists would mount an operation to bring all of Donetsk oblast under insurgent control–and would take no prisoners.
On January 24 those 9000 professional Russian soldiers in Ukraine’s Donbas and their local warlord allies launched their broad offensive against Ukrainian troops. At the southern end of the frontline in eastern Ukraine they rained a rocket barrage onto both military and civilian areas of the port of Mariupol, the only major city in the Donbas that Ukraine still controls and the main barrier to any Russian thrust to build a land bridge to Crimea. At the midpoint they finally expelled Ukrainian “cyborgs” from the Donetsk airport rubble they had been defending for 242 days, killing some of the Ukrainian soldiers after capturing them and urging passers-by to spit on them. And to the north they tried to close the last gap to encircle the Ukrainian garrison town of Debaltseve.
Even more ominously, Russia’s state media, which for a year have vehemently denied that any Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine, seem to be preparing the public for Russian military casualties in Ukraine and are intensifying the war propaganda. The drumbeat, Western diplomats report, portrays the confrontation in Ukraine as a war against Russia and sees Ukraine as no state, but only a “Western project” aimed at Russia. It calls the fighting in Ukraine a third Western attempt to carry out a “Russian holocaust,” and dismisses Ukraine as verging on collapse.
The new eruption of fighting dashed Western hopes that the huge damage to Russia’s economy wrought last year by the fall of oil prices and Western financial sanctions over Moscow’s Ukrainian conquests might prod Putin to damp down his war to get sanctions eased and save Russia’s economy.
Instead, Putin seems to be acting more like the rat of his childhood memory that when cornered suddenly turned to attack its pursuers. The signals suggest that the few advisors in Vladimir Putin’s tiny inner circle who are counseling tactical restraint have lost ground to the Russian president’s propensity to up the ante after any setback.
Independent military analyst Felgenhauer explains, “Putin believes that under pressure, Russians will unite and perform miracles like previous generations did, that maybe it’s a good thing that we are under sanctions. We will find our national identity, unite China and India against the West. He’s living in a kind of dream world as Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel once said. ”
Nonetheless, Felgenhauer argues that Putin must realize that any major Russian invasion of Ukraine today would cost far more in blood and treasure than it would have last spring, when he held back from giving the coup de grace to an improvised Kiev government that was weak and in shellshock. Putin is still playing a longer game, he believes, and is pinning his hopes on regaining control of Kiev rather than just the Donbas province or the eastern third of Ukraine that he calls by its 18th-century tsarist name of New Russia.
What makes this fourth stage of the Ukraine crisis so dangerous is that in each earlier stage the Russian president–who acts arbitrarily and has consolidated power so fully that observers deem him the sole author of Russian policy–has gambled on doubling down. Previously he could do so by flexing his military domination in the theater without actually resorting to invasion and occupation. Yet his past choices have progressively narrowed his options. Today he seems to think that he must either escalate the military confrontation once again or else be exposed as the emperor who has no clothes.
In the first stage, after Russia’s blitz takeover of Crimea in March, shattered Europe’s 69-year ban on changing borders by force, Putin turned down Merkel’s offers to help him save face if he would stop his dismemberment of Ukraine. Yet he did not think it necessary to invade Ukraine in order to control it. Instead, he relied at first on infiltrating Russian military intelligence officers to lead, supply, and fund local proxies of warlord gangs to declare insurgent “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas. He apparently believed that this action would ignite an uprising by Russian speakers in the eastern third of Ukraine that he began calling “New Russia,” the 18th-century tsarist term for the region. When this rebellion failed to occur, he relied next on the German business community–despite Chancellor Merkel’s repeated warnings that he was mistaken–to veto European sanctions on Moscow in order to preserve its huge trade with Russia.
In the second stage, after the European Union did join the United States in imposing initial financial sanctions over Moscow’s land grab of Crimea, Ukraine’s very weakness saved the state. Putin apparently believed he could easily coerce the chaotic interim government appointed by parliament after Yanukovych fled Ukraine. To emphasize his point, Putin massed up to 80,000 Russian troops on high-alert exercises around Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders for more than a month in April and May.
Even after the landslide election of new Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko on May 25, Putin apparently believed he could steer the “chocolate king” oligarch without resorting to direct invasion. In this phase, however, the ragtag Ukrainian army–which had sensibly not resisted the Crimean takeover by far better armed Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms–pulled itself together and began regaining territory lost to Russian-led separatists in the Donbas. By August the Ukrainians reduced the pro-Russian strongholds to two enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk.
At this point Putin signaled that he would not allow his proxies to be defeated and for the first time sent in regular units of Russian paratroopers (temporarily) to repel the Ukrainian army and allied militias. The heavily armed Russian regulars decimated the outgunned Ukrainians and set the third stage of the Ukraine crisis. There was a respite that lasted from the quick truce of September 5 until last week’s surge of violence. It raised hopes that the two sides might grope their way to a mutual understanding on keeping the intensity of fighting at a low level.
However, diplomacy failed to establish a more durable equilibrium in this window of opportunity. Putin’s obduracy was the main barrier. But Poroshenko, lulled by the relative stability of the front line and pressed by more hawkish political rivals, also failed to nail down the agreement that Berlin tried to broker between Kiev and Moscow. Instead, he attempted to regain lost turf militarily. without heeding Putin’s red line of late August.
In the meantime Russia has built up for the first time in the Donbas a permanent military presence not only of thousands of elite marines and paratroops, but also of Russian-manned anti-aircraft missiles and radar and vast stockpiles of ammunition. This force could now be used either to guarantee control of the land already under pro-Russian rule or to spearhead a full invasion of Ukraine.
In two weeks the EU heads of government will therefore be considering proposals to impose more severe sanctions on Russia or even to begin providing defensive weapons to Ukraine. They will also be watching the shadowy Ukrainian oligarchs who are funding multiple parties in the newly elected parliament in Kiev to see if they manage to thwart the economic and political reforms that the EU requires before it will bail out Kiev’s basket-case economy.
For his part, Putin will be watching the EU outcome and calculating how much longer he can subordinate Russia’s economy to maintenance of his personal power and Russian grandeur without killing the golden goose. At least subliminally, both he and Poroshenko will be watching to see whether the Ukrainian or the Russian economy implodes first. And all will be asking how much higher the escalation of violence will go and how many more people will be killed.
It’s no wonder that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, while traveling in far-off North Africa last week, admitted, “After so many grueling, nerve-wracking Ukraine crisis talks in the past few days and weeks, I long for clear, simple answers. How lovely it would be if they existed. But the truth is: They don’t exist.”
Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Germany and the Ukraine for the past 30 years and is the author of The Rebirth of Europe
A version of this blog was posted on 29 January 2015 on the site of the IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin
© Elizabeth Pond