The progress of the conflict in eastern Ukraine is utterly predictable. Since the rebellion began with Russian backing five months ago, it’s been obvious that the Kremlin would not allow the rebels to be crushed by force. So deeply is President Vladimir Putin’s prestige invested in his Ukrainian strategy, and in the image of Russian strength, that to allow a Ukrainian military victory would threaten the stability and even the existence of his own regime.
As many observers have been writing from the start of this conflict, there was never a chance of the Ukrainian government being able to win militarily. Russia has demonstrated an ability to send in whatever lightly disguised forces are necessary to fight the Ukrainian Army to a standstill. For the West to encourage Kiev to seek a military victory — as its governments seem to have been doing — could only lead to inevitable defeat. If confirmed, the reported Ukrainian moves toward an agreement with Moscow on a cease-fire with the rebels are a logical step.
For even if the West were to provide Kiev with enough military aid to give a real chance of crushing the rebels, this would also create a real chance of a full-scale Russian invasion. Such an invasion could only be stopped by the introduction of a Western army — something which is simply not a possibility. A Russian invasion would be a disaster for both Ukraine and Russia — and a disastrous humiliation for NATO and the West.
The toughness of Russia’s stance does not stem from Mr. Putin’s calculations alone. It is also due to the fact that a great many ordinary Russians, including those who are basically pro-Western and anti-Putin, regard American support for the overthrow of a democratically elected (albeit repulsive) government in Kiev last winter as utterly outrageous and a threat to vital Russian interests. Mr. Putin’s popularity soared as a result of his stance on Ukraine, and it shows no sign of declining. As Thomas Graham of Kissinger Associates has written, Russia cares about what happens in Ukraine much more than the West does — for reasons which should be apparent to anyone who has spent 10 minutes studying Russian and Ukrainian history.
At the same time, the Kremlin remains relatively cautious — were it not so, the Russian Army would be in Kharkov and Odessa by now. Moscow did nothing after the crackdown on pro-Russian demonstrators elsewhere in eastern and southern Ukraine (including the killing of more than 40 in Odessa) and accepted control of those areas by Kiev.
Moscow also accepted as legitimate the election of Petro Poroshenko as president, abandoning its support for former President Viktor Yanukovych. It should be recognized therefore that in seeking de jure control of Crimea and decisive informal influence over the Donbass region, the Kremlin has drastically scaled back its hopes from where they stood a year ago, when Moscow wanted to bring the whole of Ukraine into a Russian-dominated bloc, and even from its initial response to the revolt in Kiev. This allows the possibility of a political solution, which can only consist of a special autonomous status for the Donbass region within Ukraine.
The West should take advantage of any cease-fire efforts to craft and strongly advocate this solution, and should then negotiate the precise terms with Kiev and Moscow. Legally and morally, there can be no Western objection to this — it is after all the solution that the West has put forward to end conflicts in many parts of the world. In another former Soviet territory, Nagorno-Karabakh, the West went further and proposed the loosest form of confederation with Azerbaijan. This solution corresponds to history and local reality; for the Donbass is in fact a region with its own culture and traditions.
To separate the Donbass in this way while preserving the principle of Ukrainian territorial integrity would allow the West to help in developing and consolidating the rest of Ukraine without constant disturbances in the East. This would open the possibility — albeit a long way in the future — of Ukraine joining the European Union; and if the people of the Donbass region at that point choose to secede and lose the benefits of European Union membership — well, so much the worse for them.
An objection raised to this solution has been that, in the shorter term, it would give the Donbass region a veto over Ukraine’s NATO membership. But since NATO obviously has no intention whatsoever of fighting to defend Ukraine, to offer it membership in the alliance would be morally and geopolitically criminal.
The choice today is not between a united Ukraine fully in the Western camp, or a Ukraine which has lost part of its territory to Russia. As recent military developments have demonstrated, the first outcome is simply not going to happen. The choice is between a Ukraine with an autonomous Donbass region, along with a real chance of developing the country’s democracy and economy in a Western direction, or a Ukraine which will be mired in a half-frozen conflict that will undermine all hopes of progress. The way out of this disaster is obvious — if only Western governments have the statesmanship and courage to take it.
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, and the author of Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.