The Ukrainian army is in retreat on every front. Since Russian regular army units came to the aid of the hard-pressed pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces a week ago, the tide of battle has turned decisively.
The two big rebel-held cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, are no longer besieged by Ukrainian forces. Luhansk airport fell to a Russian tank attack on Monday, Donetsk airport will also be captured soon, and the port city of Mariupol, back under government control since May, may be in Russian hands by the weekend.
Meanwhile, those of us further from the scene are being bombarded with dodgy historical analogies. This week is the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, so it’s a good time to see if these analogies really stand up to scrutiny.
The first analogy is that Russia’s long-ruling president, Vladimir Putin, is another Adolf Hitler, committed to expanding Russia’s borders back out to the old Soviet frontiers, or maybe even further. Stop him now or it will be harder and more expensive to stop him later on – and anybody who disagrees is an “appeaser”.
It’s true that Putin has long referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. He recently called for immediate talks on the “statehood” of the southeastern Ukrainian provinces that have fallen partly into the hands of the pro-Russians rebels. This would mean the further dismantling of Ukraine, after the Russian annexation of Crimea last March.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which used to be part of the old Russian and Soviet empires, are terrified by the implications of Putin’s recent actions for their own independence (they also have Russian-speaking minorities). Even Kazakhstan, far to the east, is getting worried, as Putin says that it is “part of the larger Russian world…I am confident that’s the way things are going to be.”
There are echoes in Putin’s project of Hitler’s first priority after he took power in Germany in 1933, which was to recover all the German-speaking eastern territories that had been stripped away from the fatherland after the First World War. But Hitler’s second, bigger project was the destruction of the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union, which would have required a very big war (though he never intended to fight a “world war”).
Putin has no second project. He cannot embark on a Hitler-stye campaign of conquest, given Russia’s relatively modest economic and human resources. In any case the other former Soviet possessions in the west, the Baltic states, are already NATO members with solid defence guarantees.
Until the Ukrainian crisis blew up, Putin hadn’t even done much to regain the old Soviet frontiers during fifteen years in power. He’s still not talking about taking back the rest of Ukraine, so there’s no need to nip his plan for world conquest in the bud. He doesn’t have one.
This leads to the second big difference between 1939 and now. Back then Britain and France issued an unconditional guarantee that they would go to war if Hitler attacked Poland. Even though they actually had no military ability to help Poland, they felt they had to draw a line in the sand. Whereas NATO has not offered to defend Ukraine militarily no matter what Russia does: it is basically a local issue.
Those are the realities. Ukraine enjoys great sympathy in the West, but nobody will risk a nuclear war by committing NATO forces to save Donetsk and Luhansk. So if Kiev cannot stop the Russian/rebel offensive in the east, and there’s no foreign help coming, what should it do?
The first thing is to freeze the front lines by accepting a ceasefire – which seems still to be on offer. With every passing day Ukraine is losing more territory, and it won’t get it back for decades (if ever).
Russia will settle for a freeze, because Putin’s real goal, if he can no longer directly control the government in Kiev, is to paralyse the country by putting a cuckoo in the nest: creating a permanently dissenting, pro-Russian entity as part of the Ukrainian state. The way Ukraine can avoid that fate is by hardening the borders around the rebel-held territories as much and as fast as possible.
Let the rebels run the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk (Kiev has no choice in that), but DON’T integrate them into some rejigged federal state where they would hold a veto. And DON’T recognise their legitimacy if they declare independence or join Russia either. Treat them as another Crimea, in other words.
Leave the Russians the task of pouring huge, ongoing subsidies into what is really an immense open-air industrial museum, and concentrate instead on making an economic and political success of the rest of Ukraine – which would still have 90 percent of the population.
And wait. Wait for corruption to dwindle and prosperity to grow in Ukraine, as it probably will when the country gets closer to the European Union. Wait for Putin to grow old and/or for Russia to get distracted by events elsewhere. And don’t get any more people killed when further fighting will just lose you more territory.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 5 and 6. (“The two…weekend”; and “It’s true…be”)
“THE Polish-American alliance is worthless, even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security. It’s bullshit.” – Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski, secretly taped in early 2014. Discuss. Use only one side of the paper.
The publication of Radoslav Sikorski’s comments in the Polish weekly magazine Wprost will not help his bid to become the European Union’s foreign policy chief, but there are senior foreign policy officials elsewhere who might be tempted to make similar remarks (though perhaps not in alcohol-fuelled conversations in well-known restaurants where they might be overheard). And there are those in Washington who are saying the same thing.
Some, like former Vice-President Dick Cheney – “The policies of the last six years have left America diminished and weakened. Our enemies no longer fear us. Our allies no longer trust us” – are so discredited by their own past blunders that they can be easily dismissed. But some of America’s overseas friends and allies also are quietly dismayed by President Barack Obama’s clear reluctance to send in the troops, or at least the drones.
Sikorski’s angry remarks can be explained by the date when they were made. It was before the Ukrainian revolution succeeded in overthrowing the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and before the United States responded to Russia’s annexation of Crimea by imposing sanctions on Russian leaders and sending reinforcements to NATO countries in Eastern Europe. He would presumably sing a different song now.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, however, is undoubtedly now talking much like Sikorski did last winter. After all the horrors that the US invasion inflicted on Iraq in 2003-11, Maliki must feel that he has a right to expect American military help when things start to fall apart at home. But he doesn’t get it.
Maliki might get US military help if Washington believed that the survival of his regime was a “core national interest” of the United States, as Obama put it in a speech at West Point Military Academy last month, but even then it would be help in carefully measured amounts. Which is to say, no American troops fighting on the ground.
Well, all right, Obama did send 300 American troops back to Iraq last week, but they are being sent only to train and advise Iraqi troops, not to kill and get killed. He might consider using some drones and cruise missiles too, if Maliki agrees to step aside for someone less divisive – but it would only be a token gesture even then.
This is because President Obama knows two very important things. The first is that the American public simply will not stand for another large US military intervention in the Middle East. The other is that neither Iraq, nor indeed even Ukraine, is a “core national interest” of the United States.
“Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences,” said Obama at West Point, and he has no intention of doing the same thing. Does that mean that the United States has become a “worthless ally”? No, but it does mean that it may not always be a “faithful friend”.
The distinction is important. An alliance like NATO or the US-Japanese alliance is a formal commitment to fight in support of another country in certain stated circumstances. However, very few wars that the United States has fought in the past fifty years were of that kind. They were “wars of choice”, fought in places where the United States had no legal obligation to fight.
Back when American power seemed irresistible and American wealth inexhaustible, Washington repeatedly sent US troops into wars that had only the sketchiest relationship with any definable American national interest. From Vietnam to Iraq, it literally did not count the cost. But it does now, and only actual allies can count on the United States showing up when it’s needed.
How do you get to be an ally of the United States? By being a country whose independence, borders, and/or political orientation are seen by Washington as truly vital American interests. The one exception to this rule is Israel, whose hold on America is more sentimental than strategic, but for everybody else there is a very high threshold.
Poland actually crosses that threshold, because Russia, the country that obsesses the Poles, remains a major American security concern as well. Ukraine, on the other hand, lies beyond NATO’s security frontier, and not many NATO members would be willing to fight a war with Russia to save it, so Ukraine is not an ally. And Iraq is definitely not an ally.
Despite the general US obsession with the “terrorist threat”, Obama may actually realise how little the outcome of the current turmoil in Iraq really matters to American security, and Iraq’s oil, post-fracking, is not even a consideration any more. No core American national interests here. So the US cavalry will not be riding over the hill to the rescue.
Conducting an orderly retreat is the hardest thing not only in war but also in politics, as Russian President Vladimir Putin is now learning. His own desire to avoid humiliation gets in the way of rapid disengagement from a losing battle, which why he waited until two days before last Sunday’s Ukrainian presidential election to say that he would respect the result. And even then he said “respect”, not “recognise”.
The Ukrainian election went well. Petro Poroshenko, a minor-league oligarch with business interests in Russia, won convincingly in the first round, and 60 percent of voters actually showed up at the polls. Even in Donetsk province, where most city centres are occupied by separatist gunmen, seven out of twelve district electoral commissions were able to operate normally. It’s a good start on stabilising the country.
So why didn’t Putin just say “recognise, when that is clearly what he will have to do in the end if Russia and Ukraine are to have peaceful relations? Why prolong the uncertainty about his intentions in the West, where the belief that he is an “expansionist” bent on recreating the Russian/Soviet empire takes deeper root with each passing day? The answer is pride – and Russia will pay a significant price for Putin’s pride.
Last week Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, enlivened his royal tour of Canada by telling an elderly Polish immigrant that Hitler’s relentless take-over of European countries in the 1930s was “not unlike what Putin is doing now”. Prince Charles is well known for saying silly things, but what he said in Canada sounded quite sensible to many people in the West. That is a big problem for Putin.
Putin’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, though completely illegal, was not the first step in his plan for world conquest. That is preposterous: Russia is a relatively poor country of only 140 million people. But it is a regrettable fact of life that the Hitler analogy has a powerful grip on the popular imagination throughout Europe and North America, and Putin’s aimless belligerence has been setting him up in Western minds as the next Hitler.
He was very cross when his tame Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by protesters after he obeyed Putin’s demand to break off trade talks with the European Union. Putin punished Ukraine by annexing Crimea, and he started doing some heavy breathing about Ukraine’s eastern provinces as well.
He encouraged pro-Russian gunmen to seize government buildings in eastern Ukraine and warned that he might intervene militarily if the Ukrainian government used force against them. He moved 40,000 troops up to Ukraine’s eastern border on “exercises”. It was quite pointless, since he could neither annex the eastern provinces nor remove the Ukrainian government without actually invading, but he was VERY cross.
Three months of that, and the damage to his and Russia’s image is starting to pile up. Simple-minded people like Prince Charles talk about a new Hitler. Terrified Poles, Estonians and other Eastern Europeans who used to live under the Soviet yoke fear that they might be next and demand NATO troops on their soil. And clever people in the Western military-industrial complexes see an opportunity to sell more of their wares.
So at last, in early May, Putin sobers up and calls off the fright campaign. He says that the Ukrainian election could be a move “in the right direction.” He publicly urges the pro-Russian gunmen in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces to postpone a planned referendum on union with Russia. He even says that he is withdrawing his troops from Ukraine’s borders.
But he doesn’t really withdraw the troops yet. He doesn’t use his influence to force the separatist gunmen in eastern Ukraine to postpone their referendum, and he doesn’t actually say that he will recognise the Ukrainian election as legitimate. Putin wants to walk away from the game, but it’s too embarrassing to do a complete about-face. So he leaves the pot of fear and suspicion boiling for another three weeks.
FINALLY, only two days before the Ukranian election, Putin says he will “respect” the result, and his tanks start to pull back from Ukraine’s border. Too damned late. There won’t be any more Western sanctions against Russia, but Putin has managed to resurrect the image of Russia as a mortal threat to its neighbours. It will not lie down again soon.
European defence budgets will stop falling, and the integration of the armed forces of the various new NATO members in Eastern Europe will accelerate. Leading-edge technologies like missile defence will get more funding in the United States. Foreign investment in Russia is already declining. And the countries of the European Union will move heaven and earth to cut their dependence on Russian gas exports.
Putin has already turned to China as a new customer for Russian gas, but it will never pay as well as Europe did. He used to be able to play the Europeans and the Chinese off against each other, but that game is over. NATO sees him as a wild card at best, and at worst a real threat. The master strategist has lost his touch.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“So…weeks”)
By Gwynne Dyer
With due apologies to God, Voltaire and the Ukrainians, I must point out that if Ukraine did not exist, it would not be necessary to invent it. It is not a great power, it has no resources the world cannot do without, and it is not a “vital strategic interest” to anybody except the Ukrainians themselves. Not even to the Russians, although they are acting at the moment as though it were.
Bosnia was nobody’s vital strategic interest either. It isn’t now, and it wasn’t a hundred years ago. But Bismarck warned in 1898 that if there was ever another major war in Europe, it would come out of “some damned silly thing in the Balkans,” and an assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 fulfilled his prophecy to the letter.
Some things have changed since then, however. The next world war will not come out of Ukraine (which is only slightly north-east of the Balkans) no matter what happens in the next few weeks and months. Russia might invade Ukraine, there might even be a new Cold War for a while, but there will be no fighting in Europe beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Indeed, apart from the Balkans there has been no full-scale war in Europe for the past 69 years, and there was never the slightest risk that the fighting in the 1990s would spread beyond the borders of former Yugoslavia. Indeed, there was probably never a single day during the 45 years of the Cold War when either side seriously considered attacking the other.
The reason was simple: they knew what would happen next, even if neither side used the thousands of nuclear weapons at its disposal. Twice in thirty years, in 1914-18 and 1939-45, a major war using modern weapons had been fought over almost all of Europe’s territory.
On the first occasion, they lost a generation of young men. The second time, most countries from Germany eastwards lost around ten percent of their populations killed – and most of the casualties that time were civilians. Half of the continent’s great historic cities were reduced to ruins even without the help of nuclear weapons. It was a very expensive education, but the Europeans did finally learn their lesson: don’t do this any more.
That is why, even as Russian tanks drive right up to Ukraine’s eastern borders and the Ukrainian army prepares to die in a fight it knows it would lose, nobody else in Europe is getting ready for war. If the Russians want part or all of Ukraine, they can have it – and pay the long-term price for taking it, which would be very high. But nothing in Europe is worth blowing all of Europe up for.
Do not be alarmed by the fact that troops and planes from as far away as the United States and Canada are currently being sent to NATO countries that have borders with Russia. The numbers are militarily insignificant. Their purpose is simply to remind the Russians that the alliance will protect its own members should Moscow ever decide that it has also a right to “protect” Russian-speakers in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Moscow does not actually need to be reminded of that. It has seized Crimea, and is toying with the idea of seizing more of Ukraine, precisely because that country does not fall under the NATO umbrella. And it does not belong to NATO because NATO didn’t want to take military responsibility for its defence.
That was an entirely rational decision, because the Russians clearly thought Ukraine fell within their sphere of influence. This is the first time it has been independent from Russia for any appreciable period of time in the past three and a half centuries.
Moreover, the post-Soviet governments in Kiev had been horrendously corrupt and incompetent, the country as a result is even poorer than it was in Soviet times – and the population in the eastern part of Ukraine is terrified of getting tangled up with the West because it inhabits an industrial museum whose products are only saleable in Russia. What eastern Ukrainians really fear for is their jobs, not their right to speak Russian.
All this was clear twenty years ago, and that’s when NATO decided that Ukraine’s independence would have to depend on Russia’s good-will, not on NATO’s tanks. And for twenty years Russia more or less respected Ukraine’s independence, while seeking, naturally enough, to ensure that its governments were friendly.
The collapse of the status quo is partly the European Union’s fault, for demanding that Ukraine choose between closer trade and travel ties with the EU and full membership in Russia’s “Eurasian Union”. It is even more the fault of Moscow: President Vladimir Putin has been both emotional and opportunistic. He’s scaring people, which is never a good idea.
But if he does take more or even all of Ukraine, the West will not fight him. It will just take in all the Ukrainian refugees, strengthen its eastern defences, and begin the slow process of bringing down Putin by crippling the Russian economy. That would take years, but nobody would forget about Ukraine. It is a UN member, and even China has stopped supporting the Russian position. Remember East Timor.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10-12. (“That…friendly”) You may prefer to lose part of the first sentence (“With due apologies to God, Voltaire and the Ukrainians, “) and the very last sentence (“Remember East Timor.”) if you think they are too obscure for your readers.