There is very little sense in this corner of Western Europe that our continent is at war: what’s happening in Ukraine is at the worst seen as a local “conflict”. Wrong: it’s an increasingly nasty international war which has now cost 5,000 lives, and which, after the fond hopes generated by the September ceasefire agreement in Minsk, is raging more fiercely than ever.
Let there be no doubt: this is a war of aggression for which President Putin, in seeking to dismember Ukraine by force, bears grave responsibility. It is right that the West imposed punitive sanctions; it is also right that the extension and intensification of the war that we are seeing at the moment – with dozens of deaths in the strategic port city of Mariupol, and claimed rebel successes today in pushing north-east from Donetsk towards Luhansk – should incur more of the same.
But for those, like us, far outside the battle zone it is essential to keep some fundamental realities firmly in mind. This war is occurring in the backyard of a major nuclear power, for which Ukraine was an integral part of the motherland until recently. The prospect of Ukraine’s accession to the EU and to Nato were felt as body blows to Russia’s amour propre, the latest strokes of a post-Cold War Atlantic policy in which Russia felt humiliated at every turn.
In a perfect world, Ukraine should be perfectly free to make its own geopolitical choices. But the world is far from perfect and, as Kiev understands, Ukraine’s relationship with Russia is far more substantive than its relationship with the EU.
There is the vital matter of Russian gas, of course, of which Ukraine imported 27 billion cubic metres in 2013, more than twice as much as it could in the best circumstances import from Europe. There are the billions of euros Gazprom pays Ukraine in transit fees. There are the further billions Russia pays for its imports from Ukraine, which include value-added industrial products which are of far more significance than the grain, metal ore and other primary goods Ukraine exports to the West. There are, in addition, billions of euros in remittances sent or brought from Russia to Ukraine by Ukraine citizens working in Russia. Many of the ties that bound Ukraine to Russia still bind just as tight today, and are of vital importance to Ukraine’s survival.
Ukraine needs Russia, in other words. And as no Western country is contemplating or has ever contemplated sending Kiev lethal military aid, let alone troops to bolster Kiev’s army, this is not a war Ukraine can win. Russia is huge, and has no trouble projecting its force deep inside Ukraine. Ukraine is small and weak. If this goes on, Ukraine will simply be crushed. We in the West will gnash our teeth and impose as much economic pain on Russia as we can – pain that is already rebounding on us, and which so far has done nothing to lessen Moscow’s appetite for fighting. But that would not reverse Ukraine’s defeat.
The only way to avoid this disaster is negotiation. This will not be easy, and for every day the fighting continues to rage it will grow more difficult. But Presidents Putin and Poroshenko demonstrated in Minsk that they were capable of thrashing out a deal face to face. While making its abhorrence of Mr Putin’s brutal policies abundantly clear, the West should be straining every diplomatic muscle to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. A far wider peace depends on it.