A year ago, the Russian President launched an aggressive adventure to annex Crimea and bend Ukraine to his will. He acted in part because he needed a short victorious war to bolster his weakening position at home. His domestic ratings soared.
Vladimir Putin used to be a cautious man: he knew when to stop his war against Georgia in 2008. Perhaps he thought that the West would again respond with no more than mild and passing censure. If so, his tactical sense was deteriorating. Ukraine was a much bigger fish. But the West struggled to devise an effective response. The dilemma was acute. We remembered 1938: how could we allow yet another carve-up of Eastern Europe? Yet we were not prepared to use military force to stop it. So we applied some quite painful sanctions against the Russian economy and the Russian elite. The Europeans made some feeble attempts to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Nato did a bit to strengthen its posture in Eastern Europe. Nobody did much to help the Ukrainians prop up their tottering economy and reform their corrupt institutions, or supply them with the heavy weapons they lacked to repel the Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Western policy evolved, but not very far, when the rebels shot down a Malaysian airliner in the summer. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande of France did what they could to promote a durable ceasefire, but failed. Each time the rebels suffered a reverse, Moscow sent more men and weapons to support them; each time, the European Union and the Americans upped their sanctions in response.
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
Putin’s deal with the Russian people is based on a guarantee of order, prosperity and the restoration of Russia’s weight in world affairs, in exchange for their willingness to give up some of the freedoms they gained at the end of the 1990s. The deal held up well as the Russian economy grew spectacularly for more than a decade. But now it is being undermined. The Russian economy is in bad shape (experts disagree how much) thanks to sanctions and the tumbling price of oil. Body bags are coming back to Russia from Ukraine in increasing numbers. It is difficult to believe that all these difficulties will not eventually force political change. But for now, patriotic Russians are still rallying round the flag. They quote Machiavelli: it is better to be feared than loved.
Meanwhile, the Russian rebels in the east are pressing forward beyond agreed ceasefire lines, backed by soldiers drawn from units all over Russia. So far, Putin’s resolve seems undiminished. But his choices are diminishing: negotiation or a greater use of force in Ukraine; greater repression at home if need be.
The West is not in better shape. Merkel and Hollande are still gallantly seeking an agreed way out. The agreement they have apparently sketched out in Moscow may hold if Putin concludes that the costs of his adventure are beginning to outweigh the gains, and if the Ukrainian President can bear whatever concessions it contains. But if negotiation fails again, the West faces a narrowing range of choice between supine acquiescence or escalation.
There are painful similarities with what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Then, too, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic were extremely reluctant to intervene with force, because of the death and destruction that would follow. In the end they bit the bullet, and bombed the Serbian capital city for weeks on end, until there were no more targets to strike. Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, caved in (thanks not least to pressure from Moscow). There is, of course, no likelihood at all of anything like that happening this time round.
In Washington, they are beginning to talk of supplying military equipment to Kiev. The temptation is understandable, perhaps irresistible, possibly even justified. Perhaps, as Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington, has proposed in the Financial Times, Moscow should be told that if it cannot get its clients to observe a ceasefire, the West would have no option but to give the Ukrainians the anti-tank and other weapons its soldiers need to counter the armour Russia’s proxies are now sending against them. That would give the West’s negotiators a more convincing lever than they currently wield.
Of course that would be risky. The Russians might refuse to budge, and react with even more violence. Many more people would be killed. The risk of a wider clash would loom if Nato countries responded forcibly to Russian provocations around their frontiers. But there are no good choices. Doing nothing is not a policy. It too carries responsibilities, as Western inaction did in the Balkans.
Ischinger also suggests it is time to counter the massively fraudulent propaganda coming out of Moscow. Here, too, there is a parallel with the Yugoslav wars. The propaganda mounted by Milosevic’s spokesmen was blatantly mendacious but surprisingly effective, until Nato mounted a campaign of its own. This exposed Belgrade’s lies as they were uttered, sometimes by drawing persuasively on revealing secret intelligence. Nato should do the same again. The BBC, too, without compromising its objectivity, could be more critical in its presentation of the information (or “information”) pouring out of Moscow.
Berlin and Paris act; Washington deliberates; London is silent apart from a sad claim that it is a “key player” in the talks, though no British minister accompanied Merkel and Hollande on their travels. Perhaps the Prime Minister is waiting to find out what the Americans intend to do, so that he can demonstrate once again the special nature of the Anglo-American relationship by trailing along behind them. It is an oddly unheroic posture for a country that claims (in the words of the Government’s National Security Strategy) that “our national interest requires our continued full and active engagement in world affairs”.
Sir Rodric Braithwaite is a former British ambassador to MoscowReuse content