As Niall Ferguson points out in his latest Financial Times comment The meaning of the Minsk agreement (February 13, 2015) the new Minsk agreement is neither Munich nor Camp David – and above all, in suggesting that people, craving reassuring clarity as always, would be “disappointed” to be told that no such nice-and-easy labels would be justified. The search for historical analogies might start with one of those interim treaties during the Napoleonic Wars that didn’t stick very long. For the situation around Ukraine is a classic great-power “struggle for mastery”.
That raises the question of why Russia, which is so much weaker than its opponents in America and Europe, should have any chance at all in such a struggle, let alone be in the position of playing the part of the Athenians in relation to the Melians. The answer to that lies – as Niall Ferguson rightly pointed out – that Putin’s aim in the Donbass is not to annex swathes of Ukraine but rather arrive at a frozen conflict.
The main thing about this aim is that it avoids overreach. A full-on Russian war of conquest in Ukraine would be massive overreach – first and foremost, because all opinion polls in Russia show a strong public aversion to any such thing. But supporting Donetsk and Lugansk against Kiev is warmly approved of by Russian public opinion. It is also easy to do militarily for lots of reasons. The most obvious is that the territory concerned is right on the Russian border. Less apparent (at least for anyone relying on mainstream media reporting) is that the fighting spirit of the Donbass forces is much greater than most of the Ukrainian forces (and the best Ukrainian fighters are in volunteer nationalist battalions whose loyalty to the government in Kiev cannot be taken for granted). But the most important reason of all why the Russia-backed rebellion is prevailing is that it is waging a defensive campaign.
This reality is obscured in the collective western mind by the spectacle of the Ukrainian army struggling against Russian proxies on its own (Ukrainian) territory. Putin was always going to provide the support necessary to bring about a secure and autonomous Donbass within Ukraine (as opposed to recognizing the Donbass as an independent state like Abkhazia, let alone absorbing it into the Russian Federation). His goal here is to have a lever inside Ukraine against Ukraine becoming fully integrated into the US-led alliance system. In Moscow, that outcome would be viewed as meaning that Russia would no longer be a viable sovereign entity but instead would be subject to US tutelage. Russia would prefer a treaty with the US (and its EU satellites, as Putin sometimes refers scornfully to European countries) on the Finlandization of Ukraine. Since the west would never concede this in principle, Putin has gone for the alternative of grabbing Crimea and using the natural aversion of people in the Donbass to Ukrainian nationalism (think of the Ulstermen refusing to join an independent Fenian republic in 1920) as a means to prevent Ukraine heading into NATO. Fiercely opposed to the emergence of an autonomous enclave that would be a de facto Russian protectorate, the Ukrainian government has since April 2014 gone for a military solution.
A sovereign state has the right to combat armed separatism on its territory. But the decision of the people in charge in Kiev to exercise that right in this particular case of the Donbass was foolish in the extreme. The Donbass rebellion did not march on Kiev, but has been defending its own patch. The Ukraine shelling of towns and cities in the Donbass has completed the alienation of the local population and caused outrage in Russia – Of course, the Russian television propaganda has fanned the flames! But not somehow brainwashing people who would have otherwise have thought completely differently –. Russia’s track record in this conflict has been to inject only as much military muscle as has been required to prevent the Donbass rebellion being crushed by Ukrainian forces and inflict sufficient Ukrainian losses to bring about a ceasefire. The rebel offensives are all within a few miles of the line of control (in the case of the Donetsk airport, the rebels believe it is on their side of the line of control defined in the first Minsk agreements last September). The local warlords in Donetsk would love to get the whole of the Donbass, but they have not been given the means by Russia to make the attempt (something Putin could easily have done if the cost-benefit calculation of so doing had appeared attractive to him). The sliver of territory from the Russian border up to the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk is clearly enough for Putin’s purposes. Hence this is a defensive campaign, with victory consisting in preventing Ukraine from crushing the rebellion and forcing Ukraine grant autonomy to the Donbass, as has now been agreed in Minsk-2: actually, not difficult to achieve – hence the Athenians vs Melians impression – even if the scale of the political and economic costs have come as an unpleasant surprise to Putin, who hubristically reckoned he could limit and contain this fall out. Talk of supplying “lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine” seems based on a false premise that the Russian-backed forces are sallying forth from Donetsk and Lugansk to invade the rest of Ukraine.
If the conflict can be frozen (as envisaged at Minsk by means of heavy weapons withdrawal), then Putin has every incentive to sit back and harvest the fruits of his strategy. The true solution would be to agree a new European security treaty. Since a treaty to Finlandize Ukraine (or Georgia or Moldova etc) cannot happen, the only answer must be a military treaty – along the lines suggested in my recent Project Syndicate article –. A revamp of the 1990 Treaty of Paris: now that would be a Camp David equivalent. But there seems scant prospect of any such happening soon. Trust is non-existent for now. And it would take much greater threats from ISIS and/or China for the US to go for a grand deal with Russia.
Christopher Granville is a founding partner and Managing Director of Trusted Sources