Russia And Ukraine Are Still At War

Clashes with pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk

New fighting is underway in Eastern Ukraine, breaking a months-long ceasefire. Alexander Motyl assesses the scene:

The war in eastern Ukraine will go on, despite the best efforts of the West and Kyiv to reach a negotiated settlement. For one thing, Putin’s proxies in eastern Ukraine are out-of-control warlords for whom war has become their only raison d’être. For another, Putin will want no permanent peace, as that would only stabilize Ukraine. A large-scale military assault aimed at capturing all of Ukraine, or even establishing a corridor from Russia to the Crimea, is probably out of the question, as the Ukrainian armed forces are strong enough to deter it. But low-level fighting of the kind that has characterized the Donbas for the last few months seems a sure bet. Equally likely is a continuation of terrorist attacks within Ukraine, which Ukraine will survive while Putin’s reputation as an exporter of terrorism will only grow.

Ukraine will continue to insist that the Russian-occupied territories are occupied only “temporarily,” and Russia will continue to insist that its war against Ukraine is really only an internal Ukrainian squabble, but the end result of Russia’s continued occupation of both the Donbas enclave and the Crimea will be the continued, if uneven, consolidation of Russian rule. Faced with tough economic circumstances at home, Kyiv will continue to reduce its economic relations with, and financial subsidy of, the occupied territories. The burden of supporting the increasingly desperate inhabitants will fall on Russia, which will have to decide whether it prefers to make hay from a humanitarian catastrophe of its own making or actually to help save the victims of its imperialist policies. My guess is that Putin the great humanitarian will opt for catastrophe.

Leonid Bershidsky sees no end in sight:

Regardless of the international reaction, Russia will crush Ukraine’s military hopes every time they arise, simply because it has a stronger, better-trained army. It is wishful thinking to believe the balance of forces has changed since September, when Ukrainians crumbled in the face of what were, by all accounts, just a few thousand crack Russian troops. …

[If Poroshenko] is counting on Russia to succumb to Western pressure and low oil prices and give up, he has to intensify fighting in a war he cannot win. That is an extremely risky bet, since Russia can take an inordinate amount of pain as long as its people continue to believe Putin’s cause is just. Poroshenko’s success is also predicated on Western nations’ acquiescence in being dragged deeper into the conflict, because for Ukraine to hold out even a few months, it needs better weaponry. Yet, like Putin, the Ukrainian president can’t afford to give in: He would be swept away in a tide of protest, led by fighters returning from the front lines.

In the meantime, Ukraine is teetering on the economic edge:

Ukraine faces an acute economic crisis that represents no less a threat to its survival than Russia does. Kyiv has come to rely on assistance from the International Monetary Fund and Western donors to survive; yet the Western commitment to support Ukraine financially is limited. Indeed, Moody’s has recently warned that Ukrainian default is very likely, pointing out that the country’s current bailout package provided by the IMF, EU and other donors is not sufficient to cover $10bln external debt repayments that come due this year. The Economist suggests that Ukraine needs an additional bailout of $20bln, noting that despite chatter about a “donors conference,” no government seems willing to put up the money.

Larison isn’t surprised:

All of the obstacles to bailing out Ukraine remain. Western institutions won’t lend Ukraine the money it needs without imposing strict conditions, and the Ukrainian government cannot meet those conditions without wrecking itself politically. If the money were “found” to give to Ukraine in the absence of significant reforms, most of it would likely be lost to corruption or sent on to Russia to pay Ukraine’s debts. That would be a waste of funds, and even when there are strings attached there is not much interest in Western capitals to provide a lot of aid. Western governments decided over the last year that Ukraine wasn’t worth very much to them, and under the circumstances it’s hard to fault them for reaching that decision.

Regardless, the Bloomberg Editors insist that the West keep the sanctions going:

On at least two occasions, [the sanctions] have caused Putin to scale back aggression in Ukraine — in May, when a threat to broaden sanctions pressured Russia to drop opposition to Ukraine’s presidential election, and again last fall, when a Russian military buildup and rebel plans to take three Ukrainian cities evaporated.

Just as important is that exacting a price from Russia for its military aggression unites the EU behind the vital security interests of at least four members — Poland and the three Baltic states. The measures also serve as a financial disincentive for Putin to embark on military adventures beyond Ukraine, and they erode support for him among neighbors such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, now alarmed about what Putin may intend for them.

(Photo: Buildings are destroyed during the clashes between Ukrainian security forces and pro-Russian separatists on January 20, 2015 near the airport in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. By Alexander Ermochenko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)