What brought Vladimir Putin to the table over Ukraine, and how to keep him there

The signing of the ‘Minsk II’ ceasefire agreement in the Belarus capital on Feb. 12 raises the question of whether the United States and Western governments should shelve the idea they have hotly debated over the past few weeks over providing defensive weapons such as radar systems, unarmed surveillance drones and armored transports to Ukrainian forces.

In recent months, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to have concluded that the original Sept. 5, 2014 Minsk agreement would constitute a strategic defeat, as it froze the conflict with only a third of the combined ‘oblasts’ of Donetsk and Lugansk under the separatists’ control. This was unlikely to give him the leverage to achieve his long-term goal of a subservient Ukraine within a broader Russia-dominated neighborhood. A new injection of Russian military supplies, trainers and ‘volunteers’ to the separatists at the start of the year led to a major military escalation and loss of life among civilians and fighters alike on both sides.

Since mid-January, the separatists made some significant gains, specifically retaking the ruins of Donetsk airport, pushing West towards Buhas and drawing a tight noose around the strategically important town of Debaltseve. But despite these gains (some 190 square miles by some estimates), the separatists are still far from controlling the two provinces. So what brought them and Putin to the bargaining table?

A weapon of a pro-Russian separatist is pictured as a monument with a Soviet MiG-21 jet fighter is seen in the distance on the outskirts of Vuhlehirsk, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 10, 2015. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
A weapon of a pro-Russian separatist is pictured as a monument with a Soviet MiG-21 jet fighter is seen in the distance on the outskirts of Vuhlehirsk, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 10, 2015. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Ukrainian resistance and the growing impact of Western economic sanctions, whose removal became an ever more distant prospect as the conflict escalated, may have played a role. Another factor, however, will have been the transatlantic debate over providing arms to the increasingly beleaguered Ukrainian forces.

The argument in favor of arming Ukraine was powerfully espoused in a jointly-authored report issued just before last week-end’s Munich Security Conference by senior former U.S. political and military officials, entitled “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence.” Economic sanctions have not deterred Putin from intervening militarily in Ukraine, thereby tearing up the post-Cold War European order. Nor has the withholding of military support. Ukrainian forces are willing to defend themselves and have the right to — they just need the right equipment. The United States and its allies should proactively help the Ukrainian government defend itself. By doing so, it is argued, Ukrainian forces could increase significantly the damage they inflict on the separatists and escalate the domestic political cost to Putin of Russian soldiers’ deaths, thereby driving him to the negotiating table.

The argument against was clearly laid out by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Munich. There can be no military solution to the conflict in Ukraine because Putin will always be able to escalate further than the West. And he is likely to do so, as he has more at stake. Given the hysterical daily reporting in Russia about American plots to bring down the Kremlin, Putin is no more likely to cave into Ukrainian forces backed by U.S. arms than to accept a diplomatic compromise. And once the West heads down the route of providing lethal defensive weapons to Ukrainian forces, and Russian ‘compatriots’ are seen to be killed by them, European nations’ relations with Russia could enter a confrontational deep freeze that would be deeply damaging to both sides for decades.

In order to avoid this outcome, Merkel decided to gamble her political capital and agree to meet with Putin, first in Moscow last Friday, along with French President François Hollande, and then again yesterday, something she had promised not to do unless an agreement were to be forthcoming. Had Putin not arrived at an agreement with Merkel, her ability to withstand U.S. calls to arm Ukraine would have been greatly diminished.

How then to proceed now that the Minsk II agreement has been signed? It is important to recognize that this agreement is broadly similar to the September 2014 agreement and, given that it does not clearly advance Putin’s strategic goals, conflict may again resume. Moreover, the fate of Debaltseve remains unclear. And, although heavy weapons are being withdrawn to specific distances, there will be no de-militarised zone, leaving the risk of conflict flaring up again quickly. Moreover, Ukraine will only have the right to regain control of its eastern border with Russia, and thus halt the inflow of heavy weapons, after local elections have been held by the end of 2015.

With these concerns in mind, U.S. and allied governments need to take this opportunity to consult as quickly as possible and set out a clear set of Western expectations and demands. First, they should state that any future spread of the conflict beyond the existing cease-fire line would be seen as an attack on the political sovereignty of the government in Kiev. Under such a circumstance, NATO members will not stand in the way of those nations which decide to help the Ukrainian government by providing them with defensive weapons.

Second, they should make clear that they will not consider easing any of the current economic sanctions until the Minsk II agreement has been completed in full, to include unfettered inspections by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Ukrainian government’s securing control of its border with Russia.

In the meantime, European and other governments should follow through with their pledges to support the government in Kiev financially as it begins its planned economic restructuring.

Should the conflict resume, military assistance by the West may not be any more effective than economic sanctions at changing Russian policy in the near-term. It may indeed escalate the conflict. But both policies are principally about imposing costs on Russia for its actions and accepting costs on North America, Europe and their close allies. It is essential that they demonstrate to Putin their willingness to take the risks involved in defending the values upon which their prosperity and security have been built these past 70 years.

Dr. Robin Niblett has been the director of Chatham House since 2007. He is a frequent panellist at conferences and events around the world and has testified on a number of occasions to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as U.S. Senate and House of Representatives Committees on European Affairs.

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