Elizabeth Pond Blog

The End of Deterrence?

Ukraine is at the mercy of Moscow now, the West is watching helplessly

With two agreements about the future of eastern Ukraine now in place – one official brokered by the OSCE, one still secret between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Putin-aide Vladislav Surkov – the country’s fate seems sealed. Western-anchored near-neighbors “feel vulnerable.”

Deals struck over the weekend after Washington rejected Kiev’s plea for delivery of modern weapons to resist Russian dismemberment of Ukraine confirm Western acquiescence in the victory of Russia’s direct invasion of Ukraine on August 27 and subsequent truce. The Minsk pact brokered on Saturday by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe between the Ukrainian government and secessionists in eastern Ukraine freezes in place Russian and pro-Russian control of Ukraine’s two easternmost oblasts, Luhansk and Donetsk, with a 30-kilometer buffer zone free of heavy weapons between the Ukrainian army and Russian-led forces. Adherence to truce terms is monitored only by unarmed OSCE observers, who have understandably refrained from inspecting areas on the Russian-Ukrainian border whenever pro-Russian forces have said they could not guarantee the inspectors’ safety.

A further, still secret agreement between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Vladislav Surkov, a senior aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is said by a knowledgeable Western source to contain harsher terms for Kiev than the public Minsk truce. Surkov ranks high on Western lists of sanctions imposed on Russian officials involved in Russia’s land grab of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine this year. Former Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleksandr Chalyi, in Oslo for the annual meeting of the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies, confirmed that Surkov was in Kiev over the weekend and also that the Ukrainian government had not, as of Sunday, published the text of the Minsk agreement that may quickly be superceded by the alleged Poroshenko-Surkov deal.

Chalyi further acknowledged that Ukraine has very little choice – after the Obama administration and American lawmakers gave Poroshenko a rapturous welcome in Washington last week but turned down his urgent appeal for weapons – other than to accede to Russian demands for cooperation with Moscow. He did not confirm the existence of any new pact between Surkov and Poroshenko, however.

As the belligerents on both sides of the ceasefire line now begin pulling back armored vehicles and artillery with a caliber greater than 100mm from the buffer zone, the situation seems to be that for an interim period Kiev can still formally call the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces part of Ukraine. However, Ukraine has already lost control of this region. In the area bordering Russia technicians are  ripping out electrical connections with the rest of Ukraine and installing new connections with Russian grids. And in an operation reminiscent of the Soviet stripping of East German industry after World War II, Russians are dismantling Ukrainian weapons plants in the region – which have supplied the Russian army for decades – and hauling them away to Russia in truck convoys.

Kiev also has no guarantee that Russia will not dismember more of Ukraine by force in future months and years. A buffer zone emptied of heavy weapons leaves Ukraine with no way to defend the Azov Sea port of Mariupol against future Russian takeover. Russia is free to continue sending heavy weapons across the border up to the buffer zone, while Ukraine has no natural geographical defense line to resist any sudden future surge by Russian regulars to take Mariupol and, say, set up a land corridor to Crimea or even to Odessa or Transnistria. Certainly there is no let-up so far in rhetorical Russian claims to all of the “Novorossiya” that Catherine the Great seized from the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century – a name that Putin has now revived to refer to the vast territory that currently covers Donetsk, Luhansk, Odessa, and five other Ukrainian oblasts.

Since the August 27 invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian paratroopers, Putin has boasted that if he wanted to, he could put Russian troops into Kiev in two days as well as into the capitals of NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. To emphasize the threat, Russian warplanes have recently been making quick probes into Swedish and Finnish airspace, and Russian agents on the ground kidnapped an Estonian security officer on Estonian territory earlier this month and paraded him in Moscow as a “spy” – two days after President Barack Obama visited Estonia.

Poroshenko had gambled that Ukraine’s underdog army could rout Putin’s proxy mercenary and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine – as it was poised to do on August 26 – without triggering a Russian invasion. He lost this bet – as well as his corollary bet that once Ukrainian forces had shown their determination to resist dismemberment of Ukraine, the United States would feel morally bound to provide at least defensive weapons to enable Ukrainian forces to mount a suicidal resistance and raise the costs of any Russian invasion.

The Obama administration, however, in this centenary year of World War I, refused to get drawn even indirectly into any ground war with a Russia that holds full escalation dominance through its military muscle, proximity, and existential interest in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine is not a member of NATO – though some rivals to Poroshenko in the current parliamentary pre-election campaign, tasting political blood, are criticizing the Ukrainian president for weakness and are sponsoring a bill to hold an inflammatory referendum on NATO membership for Ukraine.

Against this backdrop, the somber consensus at the IISS conference in Oslo this year was that the whole post-World War II system of deterring international bullies is at risk. The West is now in the unhappy position of talking loudly about the inviolability of borders, but carrying only a tiny twig to enforce this precept. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt talked of “a sense of feeling vulnerable” in a Europe that thought its soft power of reconciliation and integration since 1945 had banned change of borders by force on this once bloody continent.

The default conclusion at the conference was that all the West can do now to help whatever rump Ukraine emerges is to pour enough money and on-the-ground advisers on economic and institutional reform into it to prevent a slide into a failed state. This gives small comfort to the beleaguered Ukraine and President Petro Poroshenko.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe.“ She has covered Ukraine for over 30 years.

IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations  September 23, 2014 https://ip-journal.dgap.org/en/blog/eye-europe/end-deterrence

© Elizabeth Pond