Why Ukraine Was Forced to Fight

The West Retreated From Its Vow of Sanctions, Leaving Kyiv No Option


The Ukrainian military’s counter-offensive in southeast Ukraine suddenly has become Kyiv’s most effective response so far to the three-month-old proxy insurgency waged by Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the fight will be longer and riskier if the West continues its hesitation to apply its promised economic sanctions against Putin’s continued war-making.

If warfare is Ukraine’s only choice to defeat the southeast Ukraine militias that are largely led, supplied, and recruited from Russia, Kyiv’s recovery this weekend of the cities of Slaviansk and Kramatorsk will be only a start. More fearful scenarios loom in the larger cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, where the separatist fighters and mercenaries are concentrating.

Amid Ukraine’s harrowing work of suppressing this urban insurgency, why are its Western friends at best ambiguous in support? The US and European governments have failed to act since the deadline passed a week ago on their vows to sanction Russia’s economy if Putin did not stop this proxy war.

Instead of applying those sanctions, German and French mediators last week reversed the direction of the West’s diplomatic pressure, twisting the arm not of Putin, but of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. In phone calls to Kyiv, they pressed him to extend the unilateral truce he declared June 20, even as it was being violated and misused by the Kremlin-backed militias.

Thankfully, Poroshenko refused. Agreeing with the overwhelming demands of the Ukrainian public, he resumed Ukraine’s military campaign to retake control of Ukraine’s border with Russia and encircle the separatists. Ukraine’s seizure of Slaviansk and Kramatorsk appears to have judiciously minimized civilian casualties.

But as the conflict concentrates in what is one of Eastern Europe’s most densely populated zones – the core of Ukraine’s Donbas region – the West’s lack of resolve to credibly threaten Putin with serious sanctions risks prolonging the fight, including the deaths and uprooting of civilians. The Russian fighters – both the proxies and the Russian army officer leading them, Col. Igor Girkin – have moved to Donetsk city and vowed to make it their fortress.

The West’s pressure on Poroshenko to give time and respite to Girkin and his forces was at best ill-conceived, given their misuse of Poroshenko’s truce. In late June, during Ukraine’s ceasefire, Russian arms, fighters, and supplies poured across the Russian-Ukrainian frontier at three border posts manned by Russians on both sides. The weapons included T-64 tanks traced back to Russian bases and advanced Grad rocket launchers traced to Russian units in Chechnya and only introduced into the Russian Army’s armory this spring. The Russian-backed militias killed or wounded at least 90 Ukrainian soldiers during the truce, which Putin never urged them to respect. And pro-Russian black operations continued, notably the blowing up of a critical Ukrainian gas pipeline.

Independent news reports, as well as intelligence gathered by Western nations, leave no doubt that Russian authorities are fueling this insurgency. The separatist forces are led by publicly-acknowledged officials in the Russian military and intelligence, manned by mercenaries from Russia on payroll (the going rate is reportedly $300/month), supplemented with local gang and ‘fight club’ members, all largely armed with Russian equipment. There are no credible local leaders among any of the fighting forces, as local power barons confirmed to an Atlantic Council team in Ukraine last week.

EU officials justify the delay in imposing sanctions by saying that Russia’s response has included some willingness to discuss a diplomatic solution – an astonishing readiness to equate the Kremlin’s doubtful words of peace against its concrete acts of war. This underscores the ease with which Putin manipulates an EU that includes members who simply don’t want to act.

Ukrainians understand the grave risks of this fight, and the limitations of their own forces, hollowed out and penetrated under the corrupt leadership of former President Viktor Yanukovych. Yet they also understand that the extended truce sought by France and Germany would have let the separatists consolidate new territory and supply routes via border posts they have seized.

Such consolidation would lead perilously toward the creation of a Kremlin-backed proto-state, vastly larger and more dangerous than those already implanted in Moldova’s Transnistria region or in the occupied territories of Georgia. A well-armed, separatist region adjoining Russia could become the base from which Russia and its proxies would destabilize the rest of Ukraine, disrupt any reform agenda, and ultimately topple a democratic government in Kyiv.

The prospect of biting sanctions targeting key sectors of Russia’s economy is an effective deterrent to Putin’s plans. But the threat must be credible. Putin has mastered the formula: do the maximum necessary to destabilize Ukraine while doing the minimum necessary to convey the façade of meeting Western demands.

Ultimately, Putin’s fight is not only against Ukraine, but against European solidarity and the US commitment to Europe’s security. His success in Ukraine will raise the costs of keeping NATO credible and the EU coherent.

For the Ukrainians to protect their interests and ours, they need help. The G7 and EU should follow through on the sanctions they have vowed to impose, making it clear to Russians that Putin’s proxy war will damage his economy just as much as a conventional war. And the United States, Canada, the UK, and Poland, should begin providing operational intelligence and serious military assistance to Ukraine, including night vision goggles, secure radios, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, and drones.

At the same time, Kyiv authorities must do more to show the Ukrainians in the southeast the prospects of a better future. Poroshenko should work with local barons to develop a reconstruction and growth plan for the region with the backing of international financial institutions.

The best path to peace and stability is a Ukraine prepared to fight for its survival, backed by Western sanctions on Russia that bite and by assistance that matters. If we fail to deter Putin now, Crimea will have only been the start of a series of crises and conflicts.

Damon M. Wilson is executive vice president of the Atlantic Council and a founder of the Council’s Ukraine-in-Europe Initiative. He recently returned from Ukraine with an Atlantic Council delegation.

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Image: Ukrainian troops examine personal documents left behind after Russia’s proxy forces abandoned their headquarters - the city of Slaviansk - leaving behind large amounts of weaponry, ammunition and documentation. PHOTO: Ukrainian Defense Ministry – ATO Press Center