Andrey Stasevich / AFP / Getty Images

Putin holds all the cards in Ukraine

Sanctions will hurt Russia more than arms shipments to Kiev

February 19, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Feb. 15, the Ukrainian government signed a new cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels that now control swaths of eastern Ukraine. The agreement, signed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, resemble previous failed truces brokered by European negotiators and Russia over the past 12 months. The truce stipulates the cessation of hostilities between the Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army and calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the fronts, the establishment of a buffer zone and the deployment of an independent monitoring group. If the agreement holds, the embattled regions will disarm, hold free elections and come under the Republic of Ukraine with wide-ranging autonomy.

There is little hope that the latest accord will last. Fighting around the embattled city of Debaltseve barely even paused. Yet Ukraine has few options. French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel brokered the truce after arduous negotiations with the one figure that appears to have all the cards in his hand: Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the durability of the truce is largely his prerogative. He could opt to wind down the conflict before further sanctions kick in. But a year after Putin’s surprise annexation of the Crimea, questions about his end game and Russia’s interests in this war remain unanswered.    

Regardless of whether the truce holds, Merkel deserves enormous credit for insisting on a diplomatic solution and forcing Putin to the negotiating table. Even though she is not the EU’s foreign minister, she speaks for the 28 member nations — a sign of how dramatically German clout in the EU has grown as well as how poorly the EU has managed to shape an effective foreign policy of its own. Merkel has managed to keep all EU member states united around sanctions against Russia while resisting Washington’s demands for arming Ukraine. This is no small achievement, not least because there is plenty of dissent percolating in the EU. Poland and the Baltic countries consider the sanctions and Merkel’s diplomatic initiatives too soft. Similarly, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Greece are eager to give up on sanctions.

Arming Ukraine

On the surface, calls for arming the Ukrainian military — mostly from U.S. lawmakers and Warsaw — look imperative. Ukraine is the aggrieved victim in this protracted conflict, regardless of how many mistakes the West and Kiev made along the way. Rebel fighters whose tanks, artillery and other weaponry come straight across the border from Russia have the Ukrainian army hopelessly outgunned. The separatists have handed Kiev one shellacking after another and will not stop unless confronted by a stronger force — or told by Putin to lay down their arms.

And more is at stake than just eastern Ukraine. Putin’s transgressions have jarred loose a cornerstone of the postwar European order: the proviso that borders are inviolable and that differences must be worked out at the negotiating table. Europe was supposed to be governed by the rule of law, not arms. The only way to reinforce the authority of these laws is to demonstrate to Moscow that it can’t break them with impunity. When Serbia and Croatia began dismantling Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, I was one of the first to call for arming the Bosnian government and intervening on its side. In 1992 this was the right course, and had the West intervened sooner, fewer people would have died, and a viable postwar settlement would have been easier to design. When consequential international assistance in the form of firepower arrived in Bosnia in late 1994, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and his proxies crumbled in no time. 

Putin does not share the EU’s ideal of a peaceful Europe bound by common laws, trade pacts and institutions in which everybody can win, not just those with the biggest armies.

The trampling over borders, the ethnic cleansing, the uneven military strength, the civilian victims and the war for territory are much the same in today’s Ukraine as it was in Bosnia. The major difference is that Putin is not Milosevic, even though much links the two strongmen. Milosevic’s Serbia was a small, impoverished Balkan country that did not stand a chance against NATO forces. Putin, on the other hand, has a state-of-the-art army and nuclear weapons at the edge of Ukraine’s border. An armed East-West conflict runs the risk of full-scale war in Europe and the erection of a new Iron Curtain dividing the continent running through Ukraine.

Besides, arming Ukraine would play straight into Russia’s hand. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Russians have repeated that they feel threatened by the expansion of NATO and the EU into Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, Russia’s opposition to Kiev’s pact with the EU triggered the conflict in Ukraine. The Russians saw the EU’s initiative to expand trade and pursue deeper integration with Ukraine as an aggressive act. It was a gaffe not to pick up upon Moscow’s disgruntlement sooner and address its concerns, even if that meant limiting the choices of democratic Ukraine.

Openly arming Ukraine would spur Russia to be even more aggressive and enable Putin to tell his people that he was right about the steady encroachment of the West to Russia’s border. It gives him a ready-made excuse to counter by military means. This could come in the form of uniformed Russian troops crossing the border into the Donbass or the engagement of Russian airpower, among other options.

With Moscow waiting in the wings to step in, Ukraine could not capitalize on Western military aid even if it had the choice. First, it is inconceivable that U.S. or European armaments and military advisers could prep Ukraine’s army in time for it to be a viable fighting force against Russia. The scale of such a mission is much more costly than Washington is prepared to pay. Second, if Moscow employed its air force, how would the U.S. and Europe respond? It is nearly unthinkable that the U.S. would match Russian air power with its own from bases in Germany and Central Europe. Arms shipments to Kiev would in effect escalate the conflict to Russia’s advantage.

A watershed moment

Sanctions are an inexact tool that often hurt the poor rather than the powerful. But they are the mightiest cudgels that Europe and the U.S. have to hurt Putin. Russia has been slapped with a range of sanctions from Europe, the U.S. and other nations since March 2014. Had oil prices remained as high as they were in early 2014, these sanctions — including freezing assets, travel restrictions and bans on business transactions with specific officials and companies — would have been more annoying than painful. But with the plummeting of oil prices, the sanctions have aggravated the agony of the Russian economy, which now faces crippling recession. Further sanctions are possible. This includes cutting off Russian banks’ access to SWIFT, a finance platform that transmits $6 trillion a day, and even the closing of Russian consulates. This would send a clear message to Putin that the international community does not take Russia’s incursions lightly, even if it is not prepared to go to full-scale war. If the petroleum industry does not recover, Russia’s economy is likely to sink further, and Putin will have to answer to his people.

Proxy armies and freelance paramilitaries can be tough for their patrons to rein in, but Putin appears to call all the shots in eastern Ukraine, just as Milosevic did in occupied Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s. It is up to Russia when and how the conflict in Ukraine ends. Judging by his frustration with the ailing economy and prickliness over the international snubs, Putin is encountering more grit from Europe and the U.S. than he expected. He clearly didn’t see the incursion into Ukraine as a watershed moment in the history of post–Cold War Europe as the North Atlantic states do. Putin simply does not share the EU’s ideal of a peaceful Europe bound by common laws, trade pacts and institutions in which everybody can win, not just those with the biggest armies.

Putin has nothing more to gain in Ukraine, which is why he could stop the war now or in the near future. But as long as Russia remains in Crimea or involved in undermining Ukraine in the Donbass — by force of arms or other means — Putin is tossing a wrench into the post–Cold War system that was Europe’s most successful order ever. This is why the sanctions must remain in place until Russia leaves sovereign Ukraine: Putin should not be allowed to benefit from the same rules that he breaks at will.

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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