Putin's War of Attrition in Ukraine
At the time Ukraine’s ousted President Viktor Yanukovych announced the abandonment of Ukraine’s trade agreements with the E.U. on November 21, 2013 in order to seek a closer relationship with Russia, a few experts on the former Soviet Union region anticipated a chain of political events that would drag Ukraine into ethnic conflict, threatening its mere existence as a state.
What happened next we know from stories that made international headlines—violent protests in Kiev resulted in the February Revolution and the annexation of Crimea by Russia amid rising ethnic tensions in Ukraine. By May, when developments in Odessa claimed the lives of 42 men in a single day as a result of clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters, it became clear that Ukraine was taking a steady route towards ethnic war.
For Putin, a shrewd and devious political leader, this was all well planned. Obviously, letting Ukraine slip away from his iron fist was not on his to-do list. Called the “latter-day dictator” in a July Newsweek article, Putin waged a war of attrition against Ukraine, a strategy aimed at defeating the opponent through continuous losses until the conflict is won by the side with greater resources.
To solve the conflict in Ukraine, one must understand that, like any other dictator, Putin is not a leader who gives up easily. In Chechnya he defeated the local population in a military campaign that killed roughly 25,000 civilians in the course of the Second Chechen War, and he openly invaded Georgia in 2008 with Russian soldiers standing only 37 miles away from Tbilisi, the country’s capital.
With all eyes on Putin, his actions in Ukraine have been more cautious and more calculated. First, he installed his own man, ex-President Yanukovich, into power, and when Yanukovich was removed in February 2014, Putin’s little green men—wearing no identifying insignia—occupied Crimea without a single bullet being shot.
When annexation was met with sanctions from the West, he made his next move—a rebellion in Eastern Ukraine against Kiev’s new government by separatists who are essentially his proxies in the conflict. But, unlike in Crimea, this time shots were fired and by August 13, less than a month after flight MH17 was downed over Eastern Ukraine, the death toll had risen to 2,086 men.
In this regard, Putin is a political leader who likes playing tit-for-tat games, equivalent retaliation strategy, if you will. He resorts to reciprocal altruism—as a typical KGB agent with an adversarial nature, he will reward his opponents as long as they cooperate, but will punish them as soon as they defect.
Today the prospect for peace in Ukraine is dark. Even if the new Ukrainian government succeeds in pushing the rebels out of the Donetsk and Luhansk districts in the East, Putin will have his army handy to invade its next door neighbor under the pretext of a peace-keeping operation to protect Ukraine’s Russian speaking population. With controversial Russian humanitarian convoy crossing illegally into Ukraine on August 22, such a scenario is likely.
If this strategy fails, the Russian bear carries another trump card in his pocket: carbohydrates. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the country’s primary energy consumption is fueled by natural gas (40 percent) and coal (28 percent). With winter coming to Ukraine in less than four months and the coal mines located in the easternmost part of the country ravaged by conflict, Ukrainians will freeze in their homes as their gas supplies from Russia are depleted. Therefore, if the rebels fail to achieve their goal, Gazprom, Russia’s energy giant, will help Putin to win the war eventually.
And sanctions—while they create annoyance for Putin—are essentially a boondoggle, as they will not yield political and economic payoffs that the West anticipates to achieve in order to contain Russia’s ambition for Ukraine. With Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announcing countersanctions against the Western countries, both sides will incur sufficient losses, making this strategy ineffective.
Moreover, sanctions will force Russia to seek closer economic ties with emerging markets in Latin America and Asia, which will consequently strengthen Russia’s political alliance with regimes that do not necessarily favor Europe and the U.S. This could lead to the polarization of the world that we observed during the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.
Bottom line, it is impossible to reason with Putin, who has too many tools to counteract any political defection along Russia’s borders: with a strong army, domestic support as high as 87 percent and vast energy resources at his disposal, Ukraine without strong action from the West stands no chance against Russia.
In such a dangerous geopolitical situation with far reaching and unpredictable consequences, the best strategy for the new government of Ukraine is to settle the conflict peacefully, i.e. cease military hostilities against rebels and start political negotiations. This approach is the only panacea to the conflict.
Otherwise, Ukraine will face a fiasco and its future will be endangered by a protracted, insidious ethnic war and devastating economic losses that will affect not only this Slavic nation with democratic aspirations but also its European neighbors.
Geysar I. Gurbanov is a Rotary Peace Fellow at Duke-UNC Chapel Hill Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies. He recently returned from Harvard University, where he researched the conflict in Ukraine at the Center for Government and International Studies. Follow him on Twitter @geysar.