The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
Has Russia won the war in Ukraine? Late last week in Minsk, negotiators representing Ukraine, the separatist forces, and Russia agreed to a ceasefire that also calls for a release of prisoners and joint patrols of the border. The parties also made a vague agreement to work toward a political settlement. If this deal holds -- plenty of earlier ceasefires have fallen apart as soon as they were signed -- then the active phase of fighting in eastern Ukraine will have come to end on terms favorable to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ukrainian forces will stop their five-month-long effort to defeat rebel fighters in the Donbas, giving rise to a de facto pro-Russian breakaway statelet and a situation that will, by definition, be murky and unstable.
Whether the rebel-held regions of the Donbas become another Republika Srpska (a state within a state that weighs on decision-making in the capital) or Abkhazia (a frozen conflict), the Kremlin will have gained a mechanism for weakening the Ukrainian state and influencing its politics for years to come. The political settlement is likely to drag on for some time, perhaps forever: No Ukrainian leader will make the concessions that the rebels’ proxy bosses in Moscow require. An unresolved civil war in a state of indefinite ceasefire -- which will likely see intermittent clashes, since many of the rebel formations and pro-Kiev battalions on the front-lines are skeptical of the deal -- will be a drag on the Poroshenko administration and the Ukrainian state for decades to come.
For one, Ukraine will be hampered in its efforts to reform and strengthen the workings of a government made hollow by years of neglect and corruption. And it will be that much harder for the country to present a real threat to Russia’s interests, as defined by President Putin, anytime soon. And even if it ever does, Moscow has a ready lever to pull to pressure and intimidate Kiev. No less important to Russia, the festering conflict zone in the east will also be an immutable barrier to NATO’s entry into Ukraine, which would be a real nightmare scenario for Putin and his revanchist, anti-Western clique of advisors.
As I wrote last month, Putin has plenty of reasons to bet on escalation of the conflict, not least because he values his strategic objectives in Ukraine more than he worries about the economic and political costs of such a policy. Put simply, after the Maidan protests and the fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Putin has come to care more about ensuring a weak, divided, and hobbled Ukraine than the United States and EU care about preventing that outcome. And undermining NATO and laying bare the weakness of the Western-led security order brings another, more deeply felt plus for Putin. (This urge may explain the kidnapping of an Estonian security agent by FSB officers on Friday.) Seen through this lens, confrontation with the West over Ukraine may look attractive. The higher the tensions, the higher the sense of crisis, the more Putin sees the opportunity to advance.
The ceasefire accords, signed at Putin’s suggestion and with his backing, suggest that the Kremlin’s ultimate preference is for intervention short of full invasion, which could allow Russia to help its rebel forces maximize their territory while saving it the headache of actually annexing the Donbas. By mid-August, as it appeared that the Ukrainian military was close to taking the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk -- the recapture of these cities would be ugly and costly in civilian lives, but Kiev seemed poised for victory, if a tainted one -- Russia stepped up its engagement, sending in regular Russian paratroopers and heavy artillery to attack Ukrainian positions.
The incursion of regular Russian troops in the war was meant to turn the momentum of the conflict and demonstrate once and for all to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that he could not fight his way to victory; Putin would not allow it, and he would inflict heavy losses on Ukrainian forces to prove it. The threat of taking Mariupol, a strategic port town on the Azov Sea, was the final cudgel to get Poroshenko to the negotiating table. And it worked: Horrific and costly losses in towns like Ilovaysk had already showed him the limits of the Ukrainian military and the West had made it clear that it would not fight for Ukraine. In a speech last week, U.S. President Barack Obama insinuated that although Washington would act to defend its NATO allies, those outside the alliance -- in this case, Ukraine -- could not expect the same level of direct, military aid. Thus Poroshenko was ready to agree to a ceasefire, something he had avoided for almost three months when he thought the military balance favored Kiev.
Given the imbalance between Putin’s understanding of his interests, the West’s tolerance for counteracting Putin’s advancement of those interests, and Ukraine’s own capabilities in light of its damaged economy and the turmoil that followed last February’s revolution, an outcome like the one agreed to in Minsk on Friday may have been inevitable from the beginning. After all, Putin was prepared to do more and risk more than any other protagonists in the Ukraine drama wanted to or realistically could. Yet the fact that these dynamics were clear from the outset of the war almost five months ago raises the question of why policymakers and officials in the United States and Europe were so slow in reacting to them.
As Kiev ramped up what it called its “anti-terrorist operation” in the east, politicians in the West watched with approval and gave Poroshenko the impression that they supported his military solution. It was clear Putin would not sit back and watch the rebels face defeat on the battlefield -- Russia’s actions in the last two weeks prove this -- yet no one in the West, it seems, told Poroshenko to stop the Ukrainian offensive when Kiev had the advantage and press for talks then. Moreover, few Western leaders acknowledged that the anti-Kiev rebellion has a fair amount of local support in the Donbas, and that Kiev’s fight against it was often brutal and cruel. Both oversights led to miscalculations that would ultimately give Putin further advantage, creating openings for the Kremlin and its manipulations.
All this suggests a failure of both strategy and imagination in Washington, Brussels, and Kiev; no one wanted to give in to Putin, an understandable inclination, but no one had a credible idea regarding how to counter Russian power when Putin entered the war more forcefully. U.S. officials claimed that they had offered Putin a diplomatic “off-ramp” time and again, but this off-ramp was not a policy or proposal for negotiations put forward by Washington. Rather, it was simply an offer for Putin to agree to a 14-point plan drafted by Poroshenko in June. That was never realistic and made way for the outcome that reached fruition in Minsk: A Russian military intervention that ends the war on Putin’s terms.
All this, however, reveals not Moscow’s strength but its ultimate weakness. Putin’s reliance on asymmetric, deniable warfare is a recognition of Russia’s lack of overwhelming power in conventional military and economic might; these are the tactics of states that are trying to punch above their geopolitical weight. In Ukraine, Putin may have been able to mobilize the Russian state -- at great cost and with sizable danger for his own rule -- to outmaneuver the West, but that does not make Russia a resurgent superpower. Rebel and Russian units appear to be hitting the outskirts of Mariupol with artillery fire, a sign that the Kremlin may be inclined to keep on the offensive, or at least not act too strongly to prevent pro-Russian forces on the ground from pressing onward, ceasefire or not.
The Minsk agreement leaves plenty of opportunity for the unpredictable, not unlike the February 21 agreement that Yanukovych signed, which lasted only a few hours. For starters, the immediate ceasefire could prove short-lived. Beyond that, the exact contours and composition of the anti-Kiev, pro-Russian separatist enclave in the east are far from settled. Putin could push further, using obvious but deniable Russian force to extend the boundaries further west, possibly in search of a land bridge to Crimea. In the end, however, the final legal and geographic status of whatever separatist proto-state or territory emerges from Minsk is less important than the fact that it simply exists. As he sees it, Putin will have engineered a Ukraine that is weakened, riven by internal conflict, and susceptible to Moscow’s political machinations -- more or less what he was after since the Maidan protests toppled Yanukovych last year.