Ukraine takes painful hits—but must stay in the fight

President Vladimir Putin loves to play the “divide-and-deceive” game, imagining that every split between the United States and Europe or inside the European Union is an opportunity to corrupt Western policies, opinions, and values. It was high time to turn this game against him, and last week he indeed found himself on the receiving end of an elegant “deter-and-engage” combination. As NATO announced the decision to strengthen its Response Force and military presence in the Baltic area, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande traveled to Moscow to impress upon President Vladimir Putin the urgent need to stop the escalation of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine. Merkel’s stern reflection that the talks made sense is likely a testimony that they didn’t, but it is remarkable that the five-hours-long exchange in the Kremlin (preceded and followed by phone conversations) happened against the background of lively debate in Washington on the issue of providing military aid to Ukraine.

The intensity of this clash of Russia-watching titans might seem entirely out of proportion with the scope of the question under consideration (neither drones nor Javelin anti-tank missiles are going to turn the tide of the “hybrid war”), but the risk of confronting Russia is indeed extremely and—for many—prohibitively high. While there is no denying this risk, there is also no way to avoid it, because the confrontation of a new and uncomfortably fluid type has already arrived, so the point in the debates is in fact about proper risk management. Two essential and strikingly obvious points are worth reiterating in this context.

The first is that Ukraine is not Georgia. It is a major European country of some 40 million people (even after the loss of Crimea and the split of “rump Novorossiya”), which should be able to mobilize sufficient force to stop the Russian aggression. Two decades of severe neglect have left its army in shambles, but war is a demanding teacher, and the country is getting its act together. Politically, it has done far better than expected in the year since the collapse of the Yanukovich regime, holding two free and competitive elections and acquiring an unprecedented quality of domestic unity. Militarily, however, it has performed dismally, and Russia seeks to keep its army demoralized by inflicting new defeats. It is, nevertheless, realistic to expect that this harsh experience will forge the veteran battalions into capable brigades—and that every bit of Western equipment will help in boosting morale, as well as in giving a slight edge in capabilities.

The second point is that Russia is not the Soviet Union and does not have its colossal military machine at hand. It is ironic that the main result of the military reform launched after the war with Georgia in August 2008 has been the dismantling of the old system of mobilizing a mass army for a protracted conventional war—while Russia is currently facing a need for big battalions in the Western “theater.” It is worth reflecting that in August 1968, the Soviet Union moved some 500,000 troops into defenseless Czechoslovakia in order to crush the “Prague spring”; or that Stalin deployed some 600,000 “bayonets” to occupy helpless Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in June 1940. Today’s Russian army doesn’t have such numbers. Its “polite green men” did an impressive job in Crimea, and it did deploy some 50,000 troops along the border with Ukraine in support of a few thousand “volunteers” who moved in, but this is by far not enough to effectively control Eastern Ukraine—and the violent mess in the rebel-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions bears this out.

Putin may be obsessed with the grand geopolitical nonsense of an Armageddonian struggle with the West, and perceive Ukraine’s “escape” to the EU as the ultimate betrayal. He knows, however, that the vision of a Russia-friendly “Novorossiya” has failed to come true, so every Ukrainian town in the corridor to Crimea (like Mariupol) will have to be taken by force. He is trapped in a situation where every pause in hostilities exposes the weakness of the economic base of his aggressive policy. So he will move again for another attack, and another escalation after the next cease-fire. Ukraine will be fighting alone and suffering new setbacks, but it has a fighting chance to prevail in the war for its very existence as an independent state. Providing it military aid is not only pragmatically useful, it is also the right thing to do.