Why Hopes of Putin’s Unconditional Surrender in Eastern Ukraine Could Prove to Be Futile
By Simon Saradzhyan
With an almost week past the tragic crashing of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet over Eastern Ukraine it is becoming clear that whatever initial hopes the Western leaders might had – that Russia’s Vladimir Putin can be shamed or coerced into unconditionally abandoning the pro-Russian rebels in the neighboring country– are futile.
Putin Won’t Be Either Shamed
Even before the July 17th tragedy, some of the more eloquent of Western-based Russia watchers had been claiming that Vladimir Putin had ditched the pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine. “As I wrote back in May, now that he's sown chaos in Ukraine—but uneager to participate in someone else's civil war—President Vladimir Putin has thrown the rebels under the bus,” Yulia Ioffe assured readers of The New Republic on July 9th.
The crash of MH17 – which Ukrainian and several Western governments had claimed to have been brought down by a surface-to-air missile fired from a territory controlled by rebels in the Eastern Ukraine, increased the number of Western pundits who hold this view exponentially.
For instance, expected and experienced Russia hand Mark Galeotti prophesized in the immediate aftermath of the crash: “when the histories are written, this will be deemed the day the insurgency lost” because “the Kremlin will, for all its immediate and instinctive bluster and spin, have to definitively and overtly withdraw from arming and protecting the rebels.”
Another pundit has even gone as far as to imply the Russian leadership will somehow acquiesce to Western and Ukrainian air forces jointly bombing the rebels into oblivion. “Without Russian support the separatists would quickly be defeated. The tragic shooting down of MH17 provides Ukraine and the west with an opportunity to rid the Donbas of its separatists by using superior air power, no longer fearing Russian surface to air missiles,” according to Taras Kuzio of University of Alberta. I’d say anyone who seriously contemplates a scenario in which NATO planes will bomb rebels out of Donetsk must be as divorced from reality as conspiracy theorists who believe some of the MH17 passengers could had been dead days before the ill-fated flight.
I too think long-term damage that Putin’s Ukraine policy has done to Russia’s standing on the international scene in general, and its relations with the West in particular, will be significant, even though it might not be felt in the Kremlin immediately. And I strongly hope those guilty of such a horrendous crime, as downing of a passenger plane (if it were, indeed, brought down by a missile), must be identified and prosecuted regardless of whether they have mistaken it for a warplane or not. But I find hopes that Putin can be somehow either shamed into accepting complete destruction or unconditional surrender of the pro-Russian militias in Eastern Ukraine to be wishful thinking, no matter how many more times Western editorials brand the Russian leader “a pariah” or "outlaw" and condemn Russia to being “a rogue state.”
If anyone had any illusions that a guilty conscience alone may prompt Putin to reconsider his policies, should recall his reaction to recent, well-grounded accusations that Russia had violated its commitments to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity under the 1999 Budapest Memorandum.
Nor does the history of accidental downing of passenger planes contain any precedents of a complicit state reversing its foreign policy in the aftermath. Washington didn’t reverse its stance on Teheran after acknowledging that the US military accidentally shot Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988. In fact, then U.S. President George HW Bush didn’t even offer a full and formal apology, according to a timeline of such accidental shootings put together by Vox. As the Vox timeline shows, none of the complicit states, which include Ukraine, by the way, suffered from any serious punitive measures as long as they admitted complicity and paid compensations.
While Putin cannot be shamed into ditching the rebels in Eastern Ukraine, is there any hope that he can be coerced into doing so? I’d say: not much, if any.
To coerce Putin into ditching the rebels unconditionally, the United States and European Union would have to jointly impose broad crippling sanctions to hobble key sectors of the Russian economy. U.S. would be ready for such a collective move. After all, Russia is not even top 10 of America’s trading partners with the total trade volume between the two countries under $40 billion in 2013. In comparison, EU’s trade with Russia is 10 times bigger, exceeding $450 billion in 2012 and making Russia EU’s third largest trading partner. If one were to look at a list of major European companies that do multi-billion businesses that I have compiled, he would understand why Germany, France, and Italy have resisted efforts by fellow EU states to impose sectoral sanctions on Russia. That on July 22nd EU Foreign Ministers yet again failed to agree on any sectoral sanctions attests to the rather low probability of an united transatlantic front on this issue, unless something even more horrendous happens in Eastern Ukraine and gets blamed on pro-Russian rebels and/or Russia.
That very same economic relationship between the Old Europe and Russia also explains why any hope of full-blown military containment of Russia in a new Cold War, which a number of US legislators and pundits have called for, would be futile. It is very unlikely that such European countries and NATO members, as Germany, France or Italy would agree to contain Russia, no matter how many some of the alliance’s top officials say Russia should be treated as adversary. After all, the economic interdependence between these countries and Russia have become so strong, that it would take an extraordinary and sustained effort on part of Russia to antagonize “Old Europe” into sacrificing its economic interests to join US in containing Russia.
Of course, U.S. can always impose sectoral sanctions unilaterally. Some of these punitive measures, such as exclusion from the dollar payment system, would hurt Russia tremendously while damage to US would be disproportionally smaller. But such unilateral moves would eventually give European, Chinese and other companies an advantage over US companies, which is something that American businesses bitterly oppose.
Russia’s Potential as a Spoiler
In addition to firing back economically, Western sanctions can antagonize Russia and turn into an international spoiler – that would seek to undermine Western countries’ vital national security interests rather than coerce Moscow into surrendering on Ukraine. When I tasked myself back in March with listing things that Russia can do to retaliate, if antagonized by Western sanctions, I came up with quite a long itinerary of asymmetric responses. Those could include both such short-term measures, as blocking NATO’s Afghan transit across Eurasia, and undermining sanctions imposed on Teheran over its nuclear program, and arming Teheran and other foes of the West with weaponry systems that would significantly increase costs of hypothetical strikes by US and its allies. This list also includes longer, revenge-sweet-when served-cold- measures, such as entering military-political alliance with China. It would be delusional to expect Russia to maintain a common front with West on Iran sanctions, if it were subjected to the same kind of sanctions itself by the West. Speaking of the Iran sanctions, I would note the West has spent over a decade, escalating those before they began to significantly impact Teheran’s willingness to negotiate in earnest. And still Teheran is nowhere near ‘surrendering’ to West’s demands in spite of the crippling sanctions. Escalating sanctions on Russia to the same level as on Iran would be even more difficult. Moreover, it would hurt Western economies, and global economy, more, given that Russia exports much more oil and gas than Iran. At the same time such sanctions won’t have same impact on Russia as they did on Iran, given the greater size, resilience and diversity of the Russian economy and its economic ties.
Putin Cannot Afford Losing Face
Now I am not saying that, there can't be a notable escalation of joint EU-US punitive measures against Russia if the official international investigation into the MH17 crash produces solid-proof evidence that either separatists and/or Russian forces have been involved in downing of the plane. Perhaps, EU would go beyond denying visas and access to accounts to individuals and agree to common sectoral sanctions with US that would target the entire sectors of the Russian economy. For instance, while honoring current deals, Western countries could curtail imports and completely ban sales of high-tech machinery, equipment and technologies, which Russia’s oil, gas, aerospace defense industries need either for their current or future operations, such as deep drilling of shale deposits or production of new satellites.
Such measures would impact Putin’s cost-benefit analysis, and, his decision-making to make him more amenable to a compromise. But that would still be a compromise, but not unconditional surrender. Even if sanctions hurt, Putin still cannot afford losing face at home. If he cuts separatists loose without attaining some sort of a deal with Kiev – that grants at least some of Russia's and separatists' wishes, then he would lose the main source of his legitimacy – popular support at home. Not even as effective propaganda machine, as Kremlin’s, would be able to explain such a reversal away to Putin's core conservative constituency that have been so inspired by Putin's taking of Crimea, references to Novorossiya, and vows to protect ethnic Russians everywhere. (Those who think Putin's rule is so iron that can just present a reversal of policy to common Russians as a fait accompli, without plausible explanation, should recall the protests that followed his September 2011 that he would be take the Kremlin seat back from Dmitry Medvedev.)
In fact, rather than lose face, Putin might as well grant wishes of the conservative core of his supporters and annex Eastern Ukraine, if cornered by Western actions into thinking a full-blown Cold War and Kiev’s integration into the West are inevitable.
Peaceful Talks Only Way to Sustainable Resolution of Conflict
But, my hope is such a scenario will not materialize as it would do considerable damage to Russia, Ukraine and their allies. Moreover, I am betting Putin will eventually force the separatists to settle with Kiev. But that won't happen until Ukraine agrees to some sort of a deal that would accommodate at least some of Russia's wishes vis-a-vis Ukraine, which include codification of its neutrality and decentralization (as formulated by the Russian government in March).
Therefore, If Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko thinks the international outrage over the MH17 tragedy gives him a carte blanche to try wipe the insurgency in Eastern Ukraine off with sheer force, he could be dead wrong. Urban warfare tends to be nasty, bloody and ugly even for well-prepared and armed troops, of which Ukraine has few as it contemplates taking of Donetsk by force. Russian forces were more numerous and they had greater fire support during storming of Grozny, but they still lost thousands and spent months trying to take that city, which had both smaller population and total area than Donetsk. Ukrainian armed forces are already suffering casualties at a rate, which if sustained, would surpass would surpass 1,560 per year. That would be more than what the Russian army acknowledged losing in the deadliest year of the second Chechen war.
Moreover, even if attainable at acceptable cost, any military victory over pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine won’t heal the ethnic and political gaps in the country, and, therefore, won’t be final. The losing side will not accept defeat and will wait for the next chance to challenge the outcome.
Therefore, a peaceful resolution of the conflict is what both Poroshenko and his foes should aim at, hopefully with strong encouragement from key external players, including, Russia, US and EU. (The latter, by the way, has an additional incentive to push for resolution of the conflict, as Russian-Ukrainian animosities threaten to leave EU this winter without billions of cubic feet of Russian gas that transit Ukraine).
For a peace plan to succeed, it should include decentralization, including elections of governors and taxation powers for regions; legal guarantees of rights of all ethic minorities; reaffirmation of Ukraine’s non-bloc status, an arrangement, which would prevent Ukraine from re-exporting EU goods to Russia and Russian commodities to EU; and, of course, first of all, ceasefire, followed by amnesty.
In fact, Poroshenko’s own peace plan – which his aides circulated back in June – address most of Russians and pro-Russians’ reasonable wishes, and, therefore, constitutes a good starting point for the parties to the conflict to reach a reasonable compromise with participation of Russia, EU and US, perhaps under the aegis of OSCE, of which they are all members.
Hopefully U.S. and EU will encourage Poroshenko to remember his own peace plan and pursue it, if only because neither West nor Russia can afford winning and keeping Ukraine whose inefficient economy needs billions of dollars in loans just to get by this year and which will ultimately collapse if Russia, which is Ukraine’s largest single economic partner by far, curtails trade across the Russian-Ukrainian border.
If as a result of these collective efforts, there emerges a Ukraine outside of any military alliances ,capable of sustaining itself economically and headed toward ethnic and political reconciliation, that could be an outcome that not only Kiev and Donetsk, but also Luhansk and Lviv, Moscow, Brussels and Washington—can probably live with. At least that was a hope I formulated back in February, and I continue to cling to it.