Chance for Peace Now in Ukraine?

Q1:Has the MH-17 Tragedy Changed Putin’s Strategy in Ukraine?

A1: It has, but not in a way that seems well understood by Western policymakers and in the press. The reason why Russia inserted such a powerful anti-air system such as the Buk (SA-11 Gadfly) that apparently shot down the Malaysian airliner is because the Ukrainian air force, coupled with its ground forces, was destroying rebel strongholds on the ground. This had been going on since the break of the cease fire at the end of June. Pushing the rebels out of their central base at Slovyansk on July 5th was a key moment, and by the weekend of July 12-13 it appeared that the rebels would be fighting for their last gasp at Lugansk and Donetsk. This is why Russia sent a large amount of material and men across the border starting on July 13 to prevent total defeat of insurgent forces. Fighting then intensified, especially in the air, with Ukraine losing a large cargo plane and two fighters. We know from audio clips that the rebels initially rejoiced last Thursday at what they thought was another successful shoot-down of a large Ukrainian cargo plane.

The joy quickly turned to confusion as rebels and Moscow realized that it was not a cargo plane that had been shot down, but Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH-17) bringing the horrible tragedy of the loss of 298 innocent lives. As part of the insurgent/Russian cover-up, the powerful anti-air artillery systems were dragged back across the border to Russia where they are presumably well hid. With the eyes of the world now focused intensely on the Ukrainian-Russian border, shipments since last Thursday across it have slowed. The Ukrainian military forces have taken advantage of this opportunity to continue their advances against the insurgents, including the renewed use of airstrikes.

Putin now faces an extremely difficult decision, either to accept the military loss in Eastern Ukraine or dramatically escalate Russian engagement to prevent that loss by provision of far more men and material to the insurgents to the point that it will be obvious to the rest of the world that essentially we are witnessing a war between Ukraine and Russia—a reality that has been taking place for at least a month or so in a quasi-covert way. In this instance, the West could not avoid a very forceful response of deep multi-sectoral sanctions coupled with stronger military support to the Ukrainian government.

To summarize, the MH-17 tragedy has altered the situation, but it is its near-term effect on the correlation of forces on the ground in Eastern Ukraine that is a far more important factor for Putin than whatever response the West would muster that is affecting his calculations.

Q2: What has the Russian response been so far?

A2: Alexei Kudrin’s statement today is telling. Kudrin is Russia’s former long-time Minister of Finance who resigned due to a dispute with then President Dmitri Medvedev in September 2011 over what Kudrin viewed as excessive military spending in the Russian budget. Kudrin, a long-time associate of Vladimir Putin, is a highly regarded moderate liberal political figure who has retained access to Putin, yet he had been virtually invisible in Russian media since the annexation of Crimea. That he appeared today, in an interview in the government ITAR-TASS agency, to criticize the deeply nationalistic and anti-Western course that the Russian government has taken for the past 4-5 months is very, very significant.  I spent a few days in Moscow last week watching TV and reading Russian press, only to have my impression from a distance confirmed that the Russian media of late has been on an anti-Western rampage of lies and deceit, more extreme by far than anything I experienced since I started spending time in the Soviet Union in 1979.  In my view, the publication of Kudrin’s statements in the state media indicates a desire on Putin’s part to really find a face-saving way out of this crisis.

In addition, when I was in Moscow last week I was informed by a credible source that Kudrin had been tasked by the Kremlin in early May to conduct an economic analysis of the costs of incorporating some of the regions of Eastern Ukraine into the Russian Federation. Of course I have no way of confirming this story, but the answer I was told was that the answer Kudrin delivered to Putin was basically “It would break the bank”.

Finally, I was struck by the release of Putin’s taped statement on Ukraine very early this morning in Moscow, basically in the middle of the night when most Russians were sleeping, that suggested a slightly more conciliatory position on his part. The timing of the release indicates it was designed more for Western consumption. What I was most struck by, and many may consider this unimportant, was how in the end of the statement he referred to “the east of Ukraine,” (na vostoke Ukrainy). He kind of audibly choked on this reference, but I interpret it as a movement on his part towards accepting Ukrainian sovereignty over the region. Probably of greater significance was the fact that Putin did not refer at all to the insurgents in Ukraine.

Q3: How Should the United States and Europe Act Now?

A3: If there is any chance to peacefully resolve Ukraine, the West would need to act very quickly to engage the Ukrainian government and the Russians in a diplomatic solution that would provide a face-saving way out that Putin could find acceptable. The danger is that if the Ukrainian military operation continues its destruction of insurgent forces, Putin would face the very difficult decision I referred to in the first answer that could possibly lead to a dramatic escalation of Russian military intervention that would be a catastrophe for all parties involved.

Unfortunately the Obama Administration and our European allies appear to continue to be mainly engaged in discussions about how to further punish Russia, and all governments are under a lot of domestic pressure to do so. What we actually need to do now is to pivot to seriously press all parties for a peaceful resolution. There is no guarantee this is possible, but if ever there were a real chance it is now. Frankly, as I see things going on the ground in Eastern Ukraine, I am skeptical that the window of opportunity will last longer than this week.

The good news is that the framework of a solution has been floating out there for months and may not be all that complicated. It would likely involve some guarantee that Ukraine would not become a member of NATO at least for some clearly stated period of time and that its increasing economic ties to Europe would not preclude a continuing strong economic trade and investment relationship with Russia. It would also include a commitment on the part of the Ukrainian government to re-open the constitutional question of the federal structure of the government such that a greater degree of autonomy were allocated to Eastern and other areas of the country where larger numbers of Russians and other ethnic minorities live. This would include a guarantee of Russian language and other cultural rights.

Finally, there would have to be an agreement that the future of Crimea will be resolved only through political, diplomatic, and non-military means. Yes, I understand that many will say this amounts to a diminution of Ukrainian sovereignty, but I do not really believe that needs to be the case. The Ukrainian government must very carefully weigh the pros and cons of what measures it would be willing to accept in order to make sure it avoids a full-scale war with Russia that it would almost certainly lose and would cause unacceptable loss of life and damage to the country.

Very often the challenge in life is to avoid making the better the enemy of the good, and this may well be one of those instances. Taking such action would require real leadership in Washington and Europe. Because this exercise must be face-saving for Putin, a hard pill to swallow for sure, it cannot be presented as an ultimatum, but rather as a negotiated solution to meet interests of all parties. If Mr. Putin were to refuse, then a course of action involving much deeper sanctions coupled with much more significant aid for Ukraine could and probably should be pursued with all due fortitude on the part of the West.

Andrew Kuchins is the director of the Russia & Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Andrew C. Kuchins