Russia is winning the battle for Ukraine. Pro-Russian separatists captured the airport at Donetsk, a bright new terminal now reduced to rubble, last week. Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk, has made it clear that he will attack Ukrainian lines once more. He will rely, as he has done before, on reinforcements from the Russian army and special forces.
As Donetsk’s airport was falling to the separatists, the embattled Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, travelled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to beg for support. He told attendees that more than 9,000 Russian soldiers and several hundred tanks are on active duty in Ukraine and that 7 percent of his nation’s territory is effectively occupied.
“If this is not aggression, what is aggression?” he asked.
He tried, a little desperately, to link the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine to the attack in Paris on Charlie Hebdo. He admitted that he was doing so because he did not want the world to suffer from “Ukrainian fatigue.”
The world isn’t fatigued, though, because it has made no great exertions. Ukraine today is somewhat in the position of its neighbor Poland, now a member of the European Union, before World War Two. Poland made defense pacts with both France and the United Kingdom, which obliged them to come to its aid if attacked. Both did declare war on Germany when it attacked Poland, but they did too little else, too slowly, and their armies were smashed in France by the Wehrmacht. Ukraine made an agreement in 1994, in Budapest, with the United States, the UK and Russia (France and China also joined in, with separate agreements) that its borders would be guaranteed.
Russia smashed that agreement in both Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The West, mainly through the International Monetary Fund, has given its financial support to keep the rest of Ukraine more or less going and has sanctioned Russia. EU leaders noted this week that there was “evidence of [Russia’s] continued and growing support” for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and called for the consideration of “further restrictive measures.”
Sanctions are terrible for a Russian economy already suffering from the halving of oil prices — the nation’s credit rating was cut to ”junk” by Standard and Poor’s earlier this week. But they appear to be making Russia more aggressive. In a speech in Davos last week, Igor Shuvalov, the first deputy prime minister, was quoted as telling an audience to “read our history: the Russians will never give up their leader. We will tighten our belt, eat less food, suffer any privations, but if outsiders want to force changes on us, we will be united as never before.”
President Vladimir Putin, the leader who would never be given up, told students in St. Petersburg that forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were backing up the Ukrainians, a claim NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, dismissed as “nonsense.”
To continue the analogy with Poland. If Ukraine is in the position of a semi-abandoned victim, is Russia Nazi Germany? No. The country and its president are increasingly authoritarian, but they aren’t fascist; there are no pogroms, no round-ups of liberals, no preparations for the domination of Europe. Television is tightly controlled, but you can still lampoon and criticize Putin on the Internet.
Yet in one respect, there is a parallel. Putin appears to be moving beyond laws, even those of which he approves. His press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, recently commented that “there are more important things than laws” — prompting Mikhail Fishman, Newsweek Russia editor , to write that Russia is sliding toward a situation like that in Iran, where a particular interpretation of Islamic morality and justice trumps all laws and government policy.
This “Islamization of justice,” writes Fishman, means that “even a public demonstration of legality” is dispensed with in a state that privileges “the archaic and fundamentalist idea that any alternative to the uniquely true point of view is intentionally amoral.”
Because the one point of view is uniquely true, right and just, the continued fighting in eastern Ukraine is justified, not by reference to international, or national, laws, but because Putin “has fallen victim to his own propaganda and his regime has fallen into the trap of its own moral imperatives.”
This means that there is no obvious solution because Ukraine and its Western allies are working in a different register from the Russian leadership. The former appeals to agreements and law, the latter to an intervention justified by the moral imperative of keeping Ukraine within the Russian ambit.
The region lives still in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. That had been celebrated as peaceful — give or take many tens of thousands of deaths over the past two decades in two wars in Chechnya; the continuing conflict involving the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan; the violent breaking away of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia; civil wars in the Central Asian republics of Tajikistan and Kirghizia … and others. But the conflict in Ukraine is the big one because, unlike these other conflicts, it has large geopolitical consequences.
The 15 new independent states that rose out of the ruins of the Soviet Union were all created to be democratic, with strong civil societies. But except for the tiny Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and with the partial exception of Georgia, the others have proven, to a greater or lesser degree, unable to shuffle off the Soviet coils, to produce and sustain a non-corrupt, democratically minded leadership and to see the West, especially the countries of Europe, as allies.
Ukraine, impelled by the revolution against a corrupt regime, tried that. Russia, pushing aside all considerations of economic health and European peace, is determined to stop it. The ruined airport at Donetsk is this week’s symbol of its stony determination, fueled by an overpowering sense of right. There will be more.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.