It is an inconvenient truth for Russia, Europe and the US, but we must call a spade a spade: Russia and Ukraine are engaged in a war between sovereign states, even if Kiev is the only government yet willing to acknowledge it. There is evidence of Moscow’s direct involvement in Ukraine, including troops on the ground, shellings and the provision of advanced weaponry. A separatist leader has claimed that as many as 4,000 Russian citizens have fought on Ukrainian soil. Moscow has opened a new southern front in the fighting. The bottom line: Russia’s actions constitute an invasion.
But Russia and the west still will not call it that. Moscow wants to maintain implausible deniability, regardless of the facts on the ground. In his speech on Thursday,Barack Obama acknowledged that Russia was “responsible”, but the US president dubbed recent events nothing more than a “continuation of what we’ve seen for months”. The US and the EU feel that the “I word” would necessitate a sharp acceleration in their response. So they are sticking with a euphemism: “incursion”. The west cannot maintain this song and dance much longer.
Just as clear is how little anyone wanted this war, Ukraine included. It is no one’s preferred outcome and a step everyone has been trying to avoid. But major wars usually stem from miscalculations and conflicting domestic pressures. There has been plenty of that from all sides.
Russia believed it had sufficient support on the ground in southeast Ukraine that it could keep the area destabilised with minimal assistance. It believed that Kiev would see the situation the same way and back down rather than taking the fight to the separatists. Russia miscalculated on both fronts. The Ukrainian military offensive in Donetsk and Lugansk was strong enough that Russia had to ramp up its support just to maintain its position. Moscow cannot let the separatists lose, and that means escalated involvement.
The US and the EU miscalculated in believing they could quickly bludgeon Russia into backing down with sanctions. Ukraine is the single most important foreign policy interest that Moscow has. Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings are at 84 per cent, and the Russian people support the president’s Ukraine policy to date. For the west, Ukraine is neither a Nato ally nor of particularly critical interest. Sanctions have and will continue to truly strain the Russian economy, but they were never going to change Mr Putin’s behavior towards Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government made the worst miscalculation of all. Perhaps Kiev believed it could prevail over the separatists and Russia would not step in to prop them up. Maybe Ukraine thought it could force the west to provide meaningful direct military assistance once Russia upped the ante. Either way, Kiev was sorely mistaken.
So what comes next? When the west finally acknowledges that Russia has invaded Ukraine, it will lead to incrementally deeper sanctions, out of the Iran playbook. The US will push harder than the EU, where the leaders of its 28 member states will have a harder time maintaining a united front. After all, many Europeans have been deeply skeptical of Russian sanctions from the beginning, and to the extent that the purpose of sanctions was to prevent an invasion – they have clearly failed.
We will see a broader Nato response, with more open-ended support for the permanent basing of troops in the Baltic states and Poland. Germany has opposed that step because it would contravene a Nato-Russia accord on troop deployments. But an invasion of Ukraine will lead most Nato members to argue that it is time to at least informally end that agreement.
The Ukrainians will rightly ask, “How does any of that western response help Ukraine?” The answer is: not very much. Sanctions may undermine the Russian economy in the years to come, but Russia can outlast Ukraine. Ukraine’s economy is on the brink of collapse, and the west’s willingness to prop it up will be tested. The west’s priority should be economic aid for Ukraine rather than economic punishment for Russia.
The most combustible piece of the puzzle is Petro Poroshenko, who is still caught between a rock and an even harder place: Ukraine’s president can push ahead or he can back down. If he backs down and opts for a ceasefire, Mr Poroshenko can restart negotiations. If he pushes ahead Kiev could ultimately end up in a frozen conflict, which means ceding significant pieces of Ukrainian territory to the separatists and taking on the public backlash that would ensue.
But domestic pressures likely doom Mr Poroshenko to forge ahead. We are already seeing demonstrations in Kiev for a harder line against the separatists in parts of the southeast. Not pushing forward — let alone backing down or opting for a ceasefire — will be an incredibly hard sell to his constituents. It would be politically damaging to blink in the run-up to the early parliamentary elections that he has scheduled for October 26. And Arseniy Yatseniuk, Ukraine’s prime minister, just announced that his country will seek Nato membership — a sure-fire way to rankle Russia and ensure more violence.
The conflict in Ukraine is destined to escalate: Kiev will push harder, and Russia will counteract with deeper involvement. It is only a matter of time before the west formally acknowledges that this “incursion” means war.
The writer is president of Eurasia Group and a global research professor at New York University
Letter in response to this report:
US and EU miscalculations lie at heart of Ukraine turmoil