When the addled European leaders trundled to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Moscow/Mink two-step, the only prop missing was Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella. Their attempt to “make peace in our time” has produced a meager result – a ceasefire that will take effect on Feb. 15 and an agreement to withdraw heavy weapons from the front lines and release prisoners. But many key details of the road map still have yet to be worked out and major obstacles remain. The status of Debaltseve, a government held town where there is heavy fighting, is in limbo. The future of the key rebel held cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, is also being left to future talks. Mr. Putin clearly negotiated from a position of strength – “what is mine I keep and the rest we negotiate.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande have proved no match for Mr. Putin, and U.S. President Barack Obama has simply stood down. Such is the supine posture of western leadership in the face of blatant violations of international law and the principle of territorial sovereignty.
It has been suggested that the reluctance to provide tangible, military support to Ukraine is to prevent an escalation of hostilities. And yet the result may be the exact opposite. Like “red lines” on Syria, the stern rhetoric directed at Russia by western leaders is not matched by tangible follow through – and Mr. Putin knows that better than most.
Some call the showdown between the West and Russia over Eastern Ukraine a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. Only this time the crisis is on the borders of Russia with its brazen land grab of Ukraine and not over nuclear missiles the Soviets secretly hid on an island a mere 125 km off the coast of Florida.
Like the Cuban crisis, a tough, clear, unambiguous Western response is required if there is to be any remote prospect of getting Mr. Putin to back down. But we should not put much stock that he will. Ceasefires have repeatedly been broken. Mr. Putin’s seizure of Crimea was followed by the current grab for Eastern Ukraine. Before this conflict there was Mr. Putin's annexation of the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Russia-Georgian war.
The more Russia’s internal situation deteriorates the more Mr. Putin will play his wild nationalist card in order to stay in power. His next move could be a play against the Baltic States, where there are sizable Russian minorities. As former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said a few days ago, “There is a high probability that [Mr. Putin] will intervene in the Baltics to test NATO’s Article 5.”
Public dithering over whether to provide “lethal defensive” aid to help Ukraine’s embattled defence forces has only made things worse by sending a clear message that the West’s policy of “strategic patience” is really one of appeasement. Like a vacillating Prince Hamlet, Mr. Obama keeps saying he has not made a decision on the matter as he keeps his options open.
Mr. Obama waits for the Europeans to take the lead knowing they will not. British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond also firmly planted himself on the fence when he stated in the House of Commons that “The U.K. is not planning to do [provide lethal assistance] but we reserve the right to keep this position under review.” And then to drive the ambiguity of his abstruse remarks home, he said “Different members of the alliance take nuanced positions on this question and are entitled to do so.” Chamberlain could not have expressed it any better.
This crisis will likely only end if Mr. Putin suffers a fate similar to former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who was dumped by his fellow apparatchiks for bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war and compromising Russia’s interests.
For the time being, Mr. Putin is still popular with his own people. But signs of stress are beginning to show as Russian oligarchs empty their bank accounts and capital takes flight. Russia’s new middle class is grumbling that the store shelves that are empty. Word has leaked out that Russian soldiers are coming home in body bags putting a lie to Mr. Putin’s denials that Russian forces are fighting in Ukraine. Any lethal military aid to Ukraine must be accompanied by a new round of sanctions that include banning Russia from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, known as SWIFT. Such a ban would deal a crippling blow to Russia’s banking system as it did to Iran in 2012.
As the Russian takeover of Ukraine expands daily, western leaders have a clear choice. They can provide defensive weapons to Ukraine and increase economic sanctions against Russia or continue in the vain hope that rhetorical blandishments will forestall Putin. The immediate victims of the latter approach will be the Ukrainians, but the long-term prospects for Europe and for western integrity will likely to be even more catastrophic.