However reluctant everyone must be to admit it, the fighting in Ukraine appears to have passed the point of no return. Following the shocking incineration of more than 30 people in Odessa in the south, and an unknown number of deaths at various flashpoints in the east, it is no longer hyperbole to talk of war on Europe’s eastern frontier. This is the new reality. The West’s Ukrainian strategy – based on gently drawing the country into the orbit of the European Union, and hoping Moscow wouldn’t notice – lies in ruins. Ukraine is now divided into east and west, though the frontier between the two is shifting, and too much blood has been shed for either side now to contemplate laying down arms easily.
Whatever happens with the Ukrainian army’s ongoing offensive, next Sunday will see another Crimea-style referendum in the east, which the pro-Russian separatists will win hands down. They already control most levers of power there – the town halls, the regional headquarters and the police. Even if the Ukrainian army recaptures the odd town between now and then, it is unlikely to be able to reconquer an entire region in which the population is overwhelmingly hostile to them.
The question, therefore, is not whether the referendum will go ahead but what will happen afterwards: whether the separatists will simply establish an autonomous region, or go further and proclaim outright union with Russia. After the carnage in Odessa, where those burnt alive were all supporters of the Russian cause, the mood in the separatist camp may have hardened to the point where they will not consider anything short of the Russian option. That will compel the US and Europe to impose new, tougher sanctions on Moscow, which won’t damage only Russia. Fresh sanctions will also strain the internal unity of the EU, as several member states, including Hungary, Bulgaria and Cyprus, oppose them.
As the strategic choices disappear one by one, and hopes of peace recede, policymakers in Washington and European capitals will be tempted to throw up their hands, blame everything on the Kremlin and walk away. The West has form in this regard, for that is what it did in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, when the Americans and Europeans rightly blamed Serbia for stirring up conflict there but did nothing about it. Instead, they wrung their hands and traded accusations as a low-level war sputtered on until 1995, when concerted action suddenly ended it.
It would be catastrophic if a similar sequence of events were allowed to unfold in Ukraine, with sanctions and shrill denunciations of Vladimir Putin substituting a more proactive policy. Sanctions may give Americans and Europeans the luxury of imagining that they are “doing something”, but to imagine that they will stop more lives from being lost in Ukraine is ludicrous. Much though it would pain Washington and its partners to adjust course, they should abandon the comforting but futile notion that absolutely everything going on in eastern Ukraine is the work of Kremlin wire pullers. They must open up some form of direct communication with the people who have taken up arms there.
At the same time, it is extraordinary that Western governments are making so little effort to find out what Russia’s own agenda actually is. They all seem content to work with the assumption that the Kremlin’s plan is to slice off another part of Ukraine around the city of Donetsk – even though a second annexation of Ukraine’s territory would deprive Moscow of all influence over the other three-quarters of the country for good, which cannot possibly be in Russia’s interest. Possibly, President Putin is now too maddened to care about Russia’s long-term interest. But it is tragic that our leaders seem reluctant to explore whether any common ground – however slender – still exists with Russia over Ukraine’s future. We owe it to the people of Ukraine, both east and west, not to walk away, and to try a lot harder.