Russia, once wrote George Kennan, author of the doctrine of “containment” of the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War, “can have at its borders only vassals or enemies”. The Soviet Union is long gone, but with its behaviour in Ukraine today, Georgia yesterday, and perhaps the Baltic states tomorrow, post-Soviet Russia is posing the self-same question. How can Vladimir Putin, who seems bent on a new Cold War, be contained?
The short answer, provided by geography, history and a cold evaluation of diplomatic and political realities, is that he cannot, unless the US and its Nato allies convince Moscow that it is ready for war with Russia, with all that this implies. Otherwise they have two lesser options of countering Putin’s undeclared campaign to take control of eastern Ukraine by hybrid war, asymmetric war, creeping invasion – call it what you will. One is economic, the other military. Neither looks very promising, again unless the West is prepared to go all the way.
The economic option, already being tried, is sanctions. Rarely though do sanctions work, least of all against places like Russia, a supremely resilient country that has faced far worse in the past. There is of course the “nuclear option” of cutting Russia out of the Swift interbank messaging network, that would largely sever it from the international financial system. To which Russian officials respond in kind, talking of real nuclear conflict. Hyperbole – but also a calculated reminder of how high the stakes ultimately might be.
Then there’s military assistance, in the hope that higher casualties and escalating economic costs make war unsustainable. But if the West does send more powerful weapons, Ukrainian forces would need weeks of training to use them. Meanwhile Russia would merely deploy even more powerful arms of its own. The victims would be the poor Ukrainians. Or we could play them at their own game, using air strikes or despatching commandos to take on the “little green men” and pro-Russian militants. But just imagine if a Nato aircraft was shot down, or a Nato commando unit captured.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
On the face of it, one exception exists to disprove these gloomy musings – the 1989 Soviet retreat from Afghanistan that ended a disastrous 10-year war which had sapped the national coffers and morale, and contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union itself. Could not a similar scenario unfold for Ukraine, a combination of Russian military casualties and Western sanctions that oblige Putin to withdraw his support and ultimately lead to his downfall?
The circumstances however are entirely different. Yes, Afghanistan bordered on the Soviet Union – but on three of its central Asian republics, not on Russia proper. Yes, Western weapons (most notably Stinger anti-helicopter missiles), overtly shipped to the mujahedin, hastened the outcome.
But in the case of Afghanistan, Moscow was on the wrong end of asymmetric warfare, its army of occupation facing guerilla forces rooted in the local population. There was no ethnic Russian minority based already in the country, to serve as pretext, bridgehead or shelter for the invader.
Complicating matters further, Moscow does not want to take over Ukraine in its entirety, as part of a reconstituted Russian empire. All it has to do is use eastern Ukraine and Trans-Dniester, the sliver of land between Moldova and Ukraine that also has a substantial Russian minority, as destabilising elements. Almost exactly the same thing happened in Georgia in 2008.
Neither Georgia nor Ukraine of course are Nato members; the West has no legal obligation to defend them. The same is not true of the Baltic states, two of which (Estonia and Latvia) directly border Russia and have large ethnic Russian populations. They are far less able to defend themselves than Ukraine. For centuries, they belonged first to the Russian empire, then the Soviet Union.
Today, however, as EU and Nato members, they are rooted in the West. If they came under military attack from Moscow, they would be protected by the Nato treaty’s Article 5, that deems an attack on one member an attack on all. First, though the attack would have to be shown to be such.
Putin’s tactics in Ukraine have allowed him a figleaf of deniability. But even the flimsiest, most mendacious figleaf is enough to persuade adversaries who have no real stomach for a fight. That is his calculation, as he seeks to rebuild Russia’s sphere of influence, and unpick the post-Cold war order.
He surveys a hesitant US and an EU that seems only to want a quiet life. Putin has shown he will raise the stakes as required. The question is: can the West contain him by convincing him it will too?Reuse content