It was once observed, long ago, that “opinion governs the world.” And while that may be overstating things, it is true that the West’s opinion of Russian President Vladimir Putin has wholly governed its policy throughout the ongoing Ukrainian crisis by allowing personal animus and a distaste for his brand of atavistic nationalist politics to lead it to take actions that are divergent from its interests. By the end of last week reports were flooding in from NATO and Western intelligence that a Russian invasion and the opening of a second front between the Ukrainian port cities of Novoazovsk and Mariupol were well underway. Some estimates put the number of Russian troops near 1,000; enough to help the rebels but few enough to provide Putin and the Russian government with the cover of plausible deniability.
Such was the alarm over the maneuvers, alternately referred to as an “invasion” or “incursion” or “escalation” (distinctions without a difference, really) that CNN’s Jake Tapper finally came around to informing viewers that nearly 2,600 Ukrainians had died so far in conflict. The juxtaposition of video footage of the Russian invasion with this bit of information was certainly no accident; the inference viewers were clearly meant to draw was that it is Russia that is to blame for the casualties, not the forces controlled by Kiev. A quick glance at any of the numerous OSCE reports coming out of Luhansk and Donetsk would, however, lead one to the very opposite conclusion.
The growing alarm evinced by the American media, by the NATO Secretary General, by the President of the European Commission, by the French Foreign Minister, and by the British Prime Minister over this, the opening of a second front, is somewhat puzzling. After all, we have been repeatedly told for months now that Russia has been sending in all manner of men and material over its border to assist the Ukrainian rebels. That they continue to do so surely cannot come as too big a surprise to informed observers.
It did come, however, as a rude shock to Kiev’s Western patrons that the one-on-one meeting last week between Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk went nowhere. In the days and weeks leading up to the meeting, Kiev was all but certain that they were on the verge of breaking the insurgency and capturing the disputed territories. Poroshenko, so the thinking went, would be negotiating from a position of strength. It was not to be. At the meeting Putin brushed off Poroshenko’s overtures and told him the crisis was an internal Ukrainian affair: negotiate with the rebels.
Because of Russia’s overwhelming military strength compared to Kiev’s; because sanctions, no matter how severe, will not sway him; because NATO, despite the pledges of solidarity with Kiev, will not undertake military action against Russia; because ensuring non-block status for Ukraine is of existential importance to the Russian regime; because Ukraine is on the verge of bankruptcy; and because Europe is deeply reliant on the supply of Russian energy, it was Putin who was negotiating from a position of strength.
This is the hard truth: in the current crisis, he will always be the one negotiating from a position of strength and to suggest otherwise is to engage in a variant of magical thinking.
The timing of the launch of this second front is not too big of a mystery. A NATO summit is scheduled to take place in Wales at the end of the week where we can expect NATO to disingenuously signal to Kiev that its membership bid will be met with open arms. This, in turn, will likely result in the following: 1) Kiev will take NATO’s overtures at face value and redouble its eastern offensive and 2) Putin will secure not only a land corridor to Crimea, he may even attempt to carve Novorossiya out of southern Ukraine.
There are of course other options open to NATO, and a good place to start would be to level with their clients in Kiev: tell them NATO membership is not in the offing and politely refer them to the terms of the Austrian State Treaty. The latter suggestion will be greeted with howls of protest from the usual suspects, but the right to national self-determination does not necessarily possess inherent value and anyway cannot be operative at all times and places, especially in the absence of a state’s stability or at the expense of regional security. Guaranteeing Ukraine’s non-block status will secure the peace and start Ukraine on the path back from ruin.
This is simply the reality of the situation and Western policymakers, if they really do want to end the ongoing crisis, ought to be pressuring Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk to begin negotiations with the rebels. This, as is painfully obvious, will not happen; at least as long as Yatsenyuk is head of government. On Friday, he announced his intention to introduce a bill to the Verkhovna Rada which would put Ukraine on the path towards NATO membership. The very idea should be dismissed out of hand by Western leaders.
The Wales summit offers the West (and in particular the U.S., which, as we’ve seen, has far bigger problems both domestically and internationally at the moment) a chance to level with Kiev’s overanxious Westernizers. Secretary Kerry’s protestations to the contrary, geography, spheres of influence, and great power politics are not relics from the “19th century”. Pretending otherwise does Ukraine no favors.
James Carden is a TAC contributing editor, and served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.