Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 May 2014

Putin on Eastern Ukraine: If I Can’t Have it, I’ll Destroy It?


[For analysis of the situation in Ukraine before news of today’s events, click here.]

Today’s earlier post went up before news of today’s events in Slavyansk and Odessa surfaced. News reports are still sketchy and fragmentary.

But what appears to have happened is this: Ukrainian forces successfully retook separatist roadblocks around the Donetskii separatist bastion of Slavyansk and appear to be preparing a sort of soft siege. In the process, advanced surface-to-air missiles that most likely came from Russia downed two Ukrainian helicopters. In Odessa, street fighting between pro-Kiev Ukrainians and pro-Russian militants, including some armed factions, has caused casualties, including deaths. Parts of Ukraine now teeter on the brink of civil war.

The downed helicopters point to direct Russian military involvement. To my knowledge, there are no factories in Ukraine that could have produced the surface-to-air missiles used. Putin, apparently, is giving the separatists accurate weapons in the hope that force alone, accurately applied, will turn parts of Eastern Ukraine into Russian-minority independent states or new Russian-minority provinces of Russia (unlike Crimea, which has a decisive Russian majority.)

The result may well be something like Syria.

In the aftermath of this self-evident escalation, a Putin spokesman announced that last week’s Geneva accords are dead. Whether Putin never intended to honor them, or whether local forces took matters into their own hands, is unclear. But Putin bears at least indirect responsibility, if only for arming and encouraging extremists.

Lots of questions about what is happening remain. But two things are obvious. First, Ukrainian forces so far have acted with relative restraint. They have retaken illegal separatist checkpoints but so far have declined to enter the city of Slavyansk, where any real fighting would be costly and deadly, with lots of “collateral damage.” Second, the advanced surface-to-air missile, caught in action on film by an independent journalist [set timer at 1:38 and watch until 2:12], gives the lie to the notion that Moscow’s hands are clean.

Escalation in conflict has a life of its own. The trick now is to tamp it down as quickly and firmly as possible. The President’s and Chancellor Merkel’s joint announcement today of sectoral sanctions against Russia was a good first step. The sanctions should begin tomorrow, or as soon as they can practicably be organized.

A military response is also required. Competent Ukrainian forces, not infiltrated or commanded by neo-Nazis, should be given access to our modern Stingers and other surface-to-air missiles like those used near Slovyansk, in order to level the playing field.

Ukraine is not Syria, and Kiev is not Damascus. There is no Al-Qaeda presence there, and even neo-Nazis are unlikely to use the accurate weapons we provide for terrorism. We should airlift such weapons to Kiev or, at very least, to secret staging areas in Poland from which they can be transported to key points in Ukraine in less than a day.

Putin has called for emergency action by the Security Council. It is unclear, to put it mildly, whether he genuinely seeks to de-escalate the situation, or whether he just needs time to prepare a full-scale invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk, with incipient civil strife in Odessa as a distraction. Given his past actions, and the inability of Chancellor Merkel (his closest Western friend) to fathom his motives, we should expect and prepare for the worst.

My analysis so far has turned on the hope that, at some level, Putin feels regret and shame for what Russia has “accomplished” in Syria. Or at least that some of his advisers like Lavrov and Medvedyev do.

But Assad is winning in Syria. Homs capitulated today. Maybe Putin is drawing precisely the wrong lessons from that conflict. Maybe he would rather have Donetsk and Luhansk be broken like Syria and Russian than be whole and foreign.

During the Vietnam war, our own Yankee war criminal, Lieutenant Calley, once claimed that “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Calley was just a soldier, not our nation’s leader. And Putin has said nothing of the kind. His motives, like his attitudes, remain a mystery.

But his actions in Syria, and the results of his actions in Eastern Ukraine, speak louder than words. Under these circumstances, we have no choice but to judge him by his actions alone, and their consequences. Now is the time for the West to pull out all the stops, both in sanctions and in arming Kiev (with due attention to marginalizing neo-Nazi extremists).

If the West balks at acting, especially for selfish commercial reasons, it will deserve the condemnation of history. We must act while the word “deterrence” still has meaning, before the egg of Ukrainian civil war is scrambled and there is no way to unscramble it.

As for Kiev’s leaders, they should continue to exercise as much self-restraint as is practicable under the circumstances. In Von Clausewitz’ twenty-first century world, public opinion matters, both inside and outside Ukraine.

The coming elections (if still viable) matter even more. Kiev must take great care not to be seen as the aggressor here, except as mischaracterized in the most self-evident Russian propaganda. More important, Kiev must maintain as clear a contrast as possible between its own concern for the lives and welfare of all of Ukraine’s citizens and Moscow’s willingness to use or incite force recklessly.

This month’s elections are still the big prize, but their viability is now in doubt. And the reason for Russia’s provocations is now crystal clear: if the elections go forward unmolested, Moscow thinks it will lose.

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