No, a Russian military occupation of Ukraine isn’t on the table

The battle for east Ukraine is getting nastier by the day. Pro-Russian rebels, believed to be reinforced by Russian troops, are successfully pushing back against the Ukrainian army in an attempt to take over strategic transport and energy hubs, like Debaltseve and Mariupol, for the sake of making their self-proclaimed state more sustainable.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians along the eastern Ukraine frontline have been affected by the brutal fighting. The death toll is rising rapidly: over 5,000 people have died in Ukraine since the fighting started in Spring 2014. Ukraine says 9,000 Russian troops are inside the country, 50,000 more are on the border and ready to enter anytime. Russia denies any military presence, although it does not rule out the possibility that Russian volunteer fighters may be operating inside the country. Numerous reports from foreign, Ukrainian and even Russian journalists dispute the Kremlin’s assertions. They say that Russian military units are indeed fighting in east Ukraine.

Faced with this situation, Ukrainian government officials and the public at large are enthusiastic about the news that the U.S. is considering arming the country.

A Ukrainian serviceman patrols the area as people stand in line to receive humanitarian aid near a delivery point in the government forces-controlled town of Debaltseve, Donetsk region, Feb. 6, 2015. REUTERS/Maxim
A Ukrainian serviceman patrols the area as people stand in line to receive humanitarian aid near a delivery point in the government forces-controlled town of Debaltseve, Donetsk region, Feb. 6, 2015. REUTERS/Maxim

Scared for its future, post-revolutionary Ukraine wants a stable flow of Western military support, including lethal weapons. Many in Ukraine believe this is only this way to save the country from total occupation by Russia.

But let’s get real. Nuclear Russia spends 50 times more on its army annually than Ukraine does, and it has about four times more soldiers and six times as many military aircraft. It could take over Ukraine in a matter of days. Kiev is just 120 miles from the Russian border. And although nobody knows for sure what’s inside Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind, the occupation of Ukraine is not on the table, at least not yet. Instead, it looks like a covert invasion of east Ukraine suits Russia much more: it keeps Ukraine on the verge of collapsing, robbing the country and its potential investors of any sense of stability, without using the military might required for a full invasion.

Arming Ukraine will not fix the country’s huge military imbalance with Russia. Unless, of course, Western allies are ready to shell out $70 billion per year. That’s what it would take to match Russia’s military. Finding that kind of cash is unlikely. Ukraine is having a hard time getting the estimated $15 billion it needs to avoid default this year. Importantly, a war-fatigued United States, which is preparing for presidential elections in 2016, would scarcely seem to be open to military involvement in yet another country.

At the same time, solving the problem is a lot more complex that simply providing Ukraine with weapons. The country is ravaged by corruption, and its political system and economy is in shambles. Any military support would have to be conditional upon effective reforms. Without that, arming Ukraine would be irresponsible — it would be no different to giving a gun to a crook.

The Ukrainian army, too, is widely considered to be plagued by corruption and incompetence. It is also reportedly infiltrated by Russian intelligence. This might be why, despite a strong patriotic rally for the push against Russia, there have been reports of rising numbers of Ukrainians avoiding the draft. Ukraine’s leaders have acknowledged the problem and have pledged to clean up the nation’s military. We can give the Ukrainian government credit for that. Still, after almost 25 years of a near kleptocracy, this could take years. War isn’t helping.

So far, there are no indications that there is any timetable for a potential U.S. arms drop to Ukraine, let alone that the United States in indeed serious about doing so. The State Department could just be testing the waters or trying to scare Russia off from advancing further.

If that’s the case, it’s unlikely that will work either. Have you checked the Russian media lately? The most popular story making the rounds right now (and also the most hilarious example of Russian propaganda) is about Putin being “able to finish NATO with just one phone-call.” Indeed, harsher rhetoric will only help Putin in rallying more domestic support for his agenda, as it will strengthen his claim that the West is interfering in Ukraine.

The Russian leader will undoubtedly use military threats from the West to support his position that NATO countries are aggressors, trying to suffocate Russia by expanding militarily on its border.

There are only two ways to stop Russia’s attempt to control Ukraine by stealth. Strengthen Ukraine by pressuring the government to introduce much-needed reforms. Effective anti-corruption measures need to be introduced now that will make obsolete the remnants of Ukraine’s kleptocracy. General distrust and frustration with crooks on every level of the Ukrainian bureaucracy was one of the main sources of secessionist sentiments in eastern Ukrainian provinces. Russia has exploited this all too well. At the same time, the West should continue bringing pressure to bear on Russia through its economic sanctions — if it wants to get tougher on Russia, it can always ramp these up.

There are plenty of sensible, and effective, measures the West could support to help the situation. Providing more guns and ammunition in this volatile part of the world is not one of them.

Maxim Eristavi is as an independent foreign correspondent. He is published by The New Republic, CJR and Politico Magazine among others. Eristavi is a co-founder of Hromadske International news-network, based in Kiev, Ukraine.

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