Given the launch in early January of a vigorous new separatist offensive in eastern Ukraine, backed by a reported 9000 Russian troops and abundant new armaments, it is now incontrovertible that Moscow is engaged in a full scale war in Ukraine.
Phase I of this initially undeclared war was the lightning Russian take-over of Crimea in March/April 2014, under the initial cover of a seemingly plausible separatist movement.
Phase II was the establishment of self-declared separatist governments controlling parts of the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, initially with crude attempts at plausible deniability as to the extent of direct Russian military involvement.
Phase III has now begun, with the separatists attempting to expand their enclaves to include the entirety of both of the contested provinces –this time with blatant Russian military backing on a larger scale.
Given Moscow’s now-familiar pattern of escalating military support for the separatists each time the Ukrainian military seems to be gaining ground, this is now clearly a war that Ukraine cannot possibly win absent sharply increased U.S. and European backing.
For any Western intervention to succeed, it must include not just increased economic sanctions but also substantially enhanced military aid. It is true that the current financial sanctions have resulted in visible damage to Russia’s economy, and this damage has been multiplied by the precipitous drop in oil prices. However, Putin has obviously decided to double down on his aggression in Ukraine despite these economic setbacks–and, arguably, perhaps even because of them. This is not surprising, given that the war has been highly popular domestically and that it will be a long time before the mounting longer-term economic costs are fully apparent to most Russian citizens.
Phase I of Vladimir Putin’s undeclared war in Ukraine ended, from his point of view, in a resounding success. Russia’s stealth campaign in Crimea, triggered by the February 21 ouster of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich, took just one month to reach its triumphal conclusion.
By March 16, the entire province was under Moscow’s military control, and its puppet separatists held a sham referendum with an alleged 97 percent vote in favor of secession.
Crimea was formally annexed to the Russian Federation on March 21, thus permitting it to claim sovereignty over its major naval base in Sevastopol and a province that most Russians had long thought of as an intrinsic part of their country. At home, Putin’s popularity soared to over 80 percent in the polls, and it has remained in that range ever since.
The lesson for Putin was clear: given the weak Western response, he could score large geopolitical and domestic political gains with no significant price to pay internationally. Yes, there were numerous rhetorical condemnations by Western leaders, plus selective financial sanctions against a few members of Putin’s inner circle. But, for Putin, these were mere pinpricks, reminiscent of the initial outcries and minimal sanctions imposed on Russia after its 2008 war with Georgia. These minor costs have long since been forgotten, and Russia now enjoys full and unchallenged control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two provinces taken from Georgia via Putin’s intervention.
Despite this ominous Georgia precedent, many analysts and policy officials in both Europe and the US treated the Crimea annexation as a one-off event. They argued that Crimea was a special case, with a 60 percent ethnically Russian population and a strategic naval base on long-term lease that Moscow “understandably” wanted to secure permanently. Furthermore, Crimea had historically been a part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev transferred the territory to the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, a decision that Putin argued was illegitimate.
Within just three weeks, however, this optimistic interpretation was proven to be delusional.
Phase II of the Ukraine war began on April 7, when pro-Russian separatists took over key government buildings in the capitals of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkhiv, proclaiming that these provinces would seek independence from Kiev. Although the Kharkhiv portion of the uprising fizzled, Russian-backed rebels in the other two capitals quickly expanded their territorial control. Only seven weeks later on May 11 the separatists held bogus referenda, with the polling centers surrounded by gunmen, “confirming” the two provinces’ secession from Ukraine.
Despite clear evidence that none of this could have happened without Russian instigation and strong (albeit semi-covert) military support, the EU temporized for months before deciding to join the U.S. in a significant escalation of economic sanctions. Brussels finally agreed to institute moderately punitive financial sanctions only on July 29. This was twelve days after the separatists had shot down Malaysian Airways Flight 17, killing 298 (mostly European) passengers. The shoot-down involved a sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system supplied by, and most likely directly supported by, the Russian military.
In August, the Ukrainian army launched an offensive to recapture territory held by the separatists, with some initial success. Since then, there have been both lulls and spikes in military action on the ground, with Putin at times giving the appearance of seeking a peaceful outcome. He and Ukrainian president Poroshenko agreed at a September 5 meeting in Minsk that they would both back a cease-fire. But the cease fire was repeatedly violated by the separatists and involved substantial casualties from shelling on both sides, despite the relatively stable battle lines that obtained through most of the fall. In retrospect, it is clear that Putin was simply buying time in which to help consolidate the rebel governments and their military positions in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Phase III began overtly in January with a new separatist offensive strongly backed by Russian soldiers and new heavy weaponry. On January 22, the separatists finally captured Donetsk airport, previously under siege for months. They also began shelling Mariupol, a key port city and transportation hub in the southeast corner of Donetsk province. Both places have major symbolic importance but they could also serve as strategic gateways for further expansion of separatist control into contiguous provinces.
Putin’s short-term goal is to ensure that the separatists gain full control of the two provinces whose independence they have proclaimed. Based on his well-established pattern of “two steps forward, one step (temporarily) back,” he might then order a pause in fighting, and he might once again go through the motions of seeking a negotiated solution while the separatists fully consolidate their new regimes.
In the middle term, however, if Putin succeeds in totally severing these two provinces from Kiev’s control his sights will most likely be set on a fairly prompt Phase IV. This fourth stage in the Russo-Ukrainian War would probably involve the establishment of a “land bridge” from Mariupol to Crimea, through the provinces of Zaparozhe and Kherson. There have also been signs that Putin may not have given up on Kharkiv, a key province immediately to the northeast of Donetsk and Luhansk.
And, for the longer term, there are continuing signs that Vladimir Putin still has his sights set on the eventual creation of a “Greater Novorossiya” stretching through Odessa all the way to Transnistria–the breakaway province of Moldova that was once part of Catherine the Great’s actual historic Novorossiya.
Unless the United States and its key European allies take prompt and decisive action, including major military assistance, there is every likelihood that the eastern and southern provinces of Ukraine will continue to be sliced away, one or two at a time. This would mean the dismemberment of Ukraine and the death knell of its Orange Revolution–once a beacon of hope for would-be democrats throughout post-communist Europe and Eurasia. It would also confirm the definitive end of the post-Cold War dream of a “Europe Whole and Free.”