Putin’s Splendid Little War

The Ukrainian government drove pro-Russian separatists out of Slovyansk this weekend and is now vowing to retake the major industrial city of Donetsk. David Patrikarakos reports that the fighters of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” are getting ready to make their last stand:

On July 7, separatists started work protecting the city from attack. They blew up three bridges on key roads leading to Donetsk to slow the advances of the Ukrainian army. (This also damaged the railway lines.) Two other bridges on roads from Slovyansk to Donetsk were also destroyed. The rebels are insulating the city as they get ready to hunker down and prepare for an extended battle.

A siege or stalemate looks like the most likely option.

Poroshenko is determined to recover the east, but shelling Ukraine’s most important industrial city would be disastrous both for the economy and for any hope of reconciling in the future. Meanwhile, the separatists can defend their positions, but the chances of making gains are now unlikely in the extreme. The only real chance now for the rebels to fight back would be if their allies in Moscow accepted separatists’ demands for direct military assistance. But this is equally unlikely, and even the otherwise confident rebels know it.

In fact, Moscow appears to have abandoned the rebels entirely. Ioffe passes along reports that Russia has even closed its border to them:

Not only are they not letting men and materiel into Ukraine from Russia, but they’re also blocking men and materiel from flowing in the opposite direction. That is, the very men that Moscow has riled up to the extent that they have taken up arms and are ready to die in order to get the region out of Ukraine and into Russia are not welcome to seek refuge in Russia. (Not even, it seems, the ones originally from Russia.) A group of 300 fleeing rebels reportedly even came under fire by the Russians as they tried to escape into Russia.

The Russians haven’t confirmed or denied these Ukrainian reports, but it would not be out of step with Russian military history: The Red Army was notorious for its use of so-called barrier troops that were stationed behind active combat troops to prevent retreat. They became especially notorious in World War II when, drowning in the meatgrinder of the German advance, ill-equipped and poorly trained Soviet soldiers (many of them volunteers) were shot for retreating.

But Simon Shuster questions whether Putin can back off from Ukraine without paying a hefty political price:

The rebels were not the only ones to see this as a sign of duplicity. Russian nationalists have begun to turn on him as well, posting diatribes and even music videos that seek to goad Putin into war, juxtaposing his pledges to “defend the Russian world” with images of bombed-out villages and Russian corpses in Ukraine. “We gave them hope,” Alexander Dugin, one of the leading nationalist ideologues in Russia, said during a television appearance last week. “When we said we’re a united Russian civilization, this didn’t just come from a few patriotic forces. It came from the President!” And it will not be easy for Putin to back away from those promises. A nationwide poll taken at the end of June suggested that 40% of Russians supported military intervention in Ukraine, up from 31% only a month earlier.

Drum sees the Russian strongman cutting his losses:

That Putin. He’s quite the guy, isn’t he? It appears that he eventually figured out that Ukraine wasn’t going to fall neatly into his lap, and the cost of fomenting an all-out war there was simply too great. It turned out that Ukrainians themselves didn’t support secession; Western powers were clearly willing to ramp up sanctions if things got too nasty; and the payoff for victory was too small even if he had succeeded. So now he’s had to swallow a new, more pro-Western Ukraine—the very thing that started this whole affair—along with the prospect of renewed anti-Russian enmity from practically every country on his border. But he got Crimea out of the deal. Maybe that made it worth it.

Well, maybe it did. David Silbey still believes Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine was “a pretty deft piece of great power maneuvering”:

Russia has neatly acquired the Crimea, stirred up enough trouble in Ukraine that Western governments have largely stopped talking about that annexation, and all without committing any substantial forces or getting pulled into a Ukrainian civil war. Ukraine is more pro-west, now, sure, but it’s weakened by the loss of the Crimea and the political chaos. Russia’s other neighbors are suspicious of Putin, but, realistically, they’re also aware of their own vulnerability, and are likely to believe (as with the invasion of Georgia) that the west will reconcile with the Russians after a decent interval. What are the statute of limitations for territorial annexation?