Sergei Bondarenko / EPA

Will Europe go to war in Ukraine?

Obama and his NATO allies should push for negotiations among Moscow, Kiev and the separatists to avoid an all-out war

September 5, 2014 10:30AM ET

The dramatic escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine has Europe on the brink of war.

Make no mistake, there already is war in Europe, between Ukraine and Russia. This was punctuated by two episodes last week. First, on Aug. 26, Ukraine’s security forces captured 10 Russian paratroopers about 25 miles southeast of Donetsk, the besieged outpost of pro-Russian rebels. Two days later, satellite images released by NATO showed more than 1,000 Russian troops fighting alongside Russian-speaking insurgents in southeastern Ukraine. Moscow is transferring advanced weapons — including air defense systems, artillery, tanks and armored personnel carriers — to the front. Despite Russia’s denials, the conflict in Ukraine is now a cross-border war between two sovereign states. The temporary ceasefire agreed to by representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the pro-Russian separatists, though encouraging, does not contradict that fact.

However, for Europe as a whole to be at war, for the first time since the end of World War II, Ukraine’s NATO allies would have to be directly involved in combat with Russia. As the militarization of the conflict becomes increasingly international, this possibility is no longer inconceivable. To avert this doomsday scenario, European and U.S. leaders must push for diplomatic negotiations to begin at once among all the parties: Russia, Ukraine and the separatists. Sanctions against Russia must also be ramped up, even if they have proved too weak to slow Moscow so far. There are no better options at the moment.

Putin’s audacity to invade

From the beginning, most observers misread the audacity and ambition of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even after Russia took Crimea, many thought that the Kremlin would not risk full-scale war by carving off more Ukrainian territory. Rather, it was assumed Putin was destabilizing Ukraine in order to stymie its integration into Western Europe and create pro-Russian islands similar to Trans-Dniester in Moldavia and South Ossetia in Georgia to undermine Ukraine.

Now things look much different and considerably more threatening for the entire continent. By sending uniformed Russian troops into Ukraine to take the strategic city of Mariupol, Putin has abandoned his earlier strategy of waging asymmetric, or, as the Russians call it, nonlinear war, which worked so well in Crimea. Until now, Moscow could plausibly deny involvement in Ukraine, even if it was obvious that Putin was pulling the strings. Russian propaganda, covert arms shipments and other logistic aid to its proxy combatants was enough to make Crimea fall. But the ethnic Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine simply could not get the job done on their own.

So far, the Russian-instigated rebellions happened only in regions with a significant population, if not a majority, of Russian speakers. But the siege of Mariupol, an overwhelmingly Ukrainian city that did not see pro-Russian protests — the precursor of armed insurgency in the Donbass — has raised the stakes. It shows the logic of conventional war is at play. The only question now is, How much further will he go? This and Putin’s recent comments that Russia could “take Kiev in two weeks” has Ukrainians panicking.

Statehood and the New Russia

On Aug. 31, Putin reinforced this notion by saying that statehood for eastern Ukraine should be on the table at future peace talks. His representative later sought to retract the comments, saying Putin was calling for “substantive, meaningful negotiations” on matters such as the “political organization of society and statehood in southeast Ukraine,” not the sovereignty of the region. But it’s unlikely that a character with such political wiles as Putin simply misspoke.

Regardless, the incident clearly laid out Russia’s two options: territorial and political separation of a swath of eastern Ukraine from Kiev or greater autonomy for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking territories.

New Russia, a moniker for the pro-Russian enclaves across Eastern Europe has already become part of the lingua franca in eastern Ukraine and the Russian media. Tellingly, there is a long history behind the label: from 1764 to 1873, Novorossiya, a province of the Russian Empire, stretched across eastern and southern Ukraine from Dnipropetrovsk to Odessa, including Nikolaev, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Kherson. Trans-Dniester and Crimea were also part of this historical region. The creation of such an arc, which includes southern cities such as Mariupol, would give Russia direct access to Crimea, allowing Moscow to create a conjoined statelet called New Russia. German diplomats say opening a new front in the southeast has always been Russia’s plan.

Every day that Kiev declines to sit down with all the protagonists, the likelihood of Russia’s taking eastern Ukraine increases. This means a protracted conflict ahead and ever more international involvement.

This is also why Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s calls on the international community for troops and military aid have become ever more shrill. He has warned that Russia’s unhindered march into Ukraine could spiral into a wider regional war. Kiev could win a sporadic civil war against the Russian-speaking strongholds. But Ukraine doesn’t stand a chance against the powerful Russian military. Poroshenko is thus hoping to internationalize the conflict and deter Putin. Drawing in NATO could have the opposite effect  — goading Putin to push further, maybe even to Kiev. But, in the end, the West is not going to risk all-out war for Ukraine.

NATO has rightly held back on direct military aid to Ukraine. While seven NATO countries have agreed to send 10,000 troops to the Baltic countries and Central Europe, there will be no substantial military aid to Kiev in the foreseeable future. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already ruled out NATO’s direct involvement.

To be sure, Western powers still have several options to help Kiev. But sending weapons or troops to Ukraine is not one of them. First, they must do everything to de-escalate the crisis, not inflame it. NATO military aid to Ukraine would serve as grist for Putin’s mill, enabling him to cite Western meddling on Russia’s border. It would most likely embolden him to go even further. And even if the West arms Ukraine, Kiev will never be in a position to roll back Russia’s advances on its own. NATO knows this as well as Moscow. Should Putin decide to march on Kiev, the alliance may rattle sabers, but it cannot bail out Ukraine. This raises the stakes for a Europe at war even higher.

This does not mean the West is powerless, either. So far, the European Union has been much too cautious in applying sanctions. There will have to be more, tougher sanctions, even if it hurts Western Europe. The West can still block more accounts of Russian businesses, hinder Russia’s international transactions and outlaw the ownership of Russian stock.

In the end, the best way to avoid worst-case scenarios is for all parties to sit down at a negotiating table organized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe or another neutral party. Kiev has thus far refused to negotiate with the rebel leaders, although the temporary ceasefire suggests that stance is thawing. But Poroshenko must now make concessions for the sake of peace and to prevent the conflict from spilling out across the region. Such negotiations could still ensure that the pro-Russian enclaves in eastern Ukraine remain part of the country.

Every day that Kiev declines to sit down with all the protagonists, the likelihood of Russia’s taking eastern Ukraine increases. This means a protracted conflict ahead and ever more international involvement. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe could find itself at war again. 

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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