Second Thoughts About the West's (Weak) Opposition to the Putin Doctrine

20 September 2014, 1007 EDT


Russia may have agreed to a ceasefire with Ukraine the week before last, but in addition to regular violations of it by both Russian forces and pro-Russian rebels, it is important to understand that what not long ago was considered an irregular conflict has transitioned into open warfare between Russia and Ukraine. Most of the fighting ended in a ceasefire when President Poroshenko — weakened by the West’s refusal to provide lethal equipment and the failure of the NATO summit to address the Kremlin threat in a fully comprehensive fashion — accepted Putin’s terms.

This ceasefire is unlikely to hold, however, as Putin is feeling his oats. Not only did he ignore NATO warnings not to send regular troops into Ukraine, he undermined President Obama and NATO’s efforts to reassure its Eastern members by abducting an Estonian intelligence officer the day the summit ended. With his regular troops, Putin has expanded and reinforced his position in the Donbass and has approached the port city of Mariupol. There are credible reports that Russian agents are at work in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, and Odessa.

If the West continues to react slowly and weakly to Kremlin aggression, Putin will face no serious obstacles to moving further west in Ukraine to Odessa and even the border with Moldova. Doing so would provide a land bridge to Crimea and Transnistria, the frozen conflict in Moldova that Moscow has nourished since the fall of the Soviet Union.

When President Poroshenko visited President Obama and Prime Minister Harper this week, they should have agreed to his request for a rapid supply of lethal equipment, particularly anti-armor, anti-aircraft and anti-missile weaponry. Such supplies would help nullify Moscow’s large battlefield advantage. Sanctions have been necessary but insufficient to deter the Kremlin. Providing the right weapons will place a much higher cost on Moscow for further aggression in Ukraine. Fears that this will escalate the conflict are unfounded; the conflict will be escalated by Putin to the degree that he perceives insufficient support of Ukraine by western allies.

Putin cannot afford major casualties in Ukraine because his public strongly opposes sending its army to fight Ukrainians. A poll by the Levada Center mid-summer showed that only 10 per cent of the Russian public would support the use of regular Russian troops. When the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee announced in late August that over 10,000 Russian troops were fighting in Ukraine, the Kremlin immediately compelled it to register as a foreign agent; and the Kremlin is burying its war dead in secret.

The point is very simple. If Ukraine has the weapons to inflict serious casualties on superior Russian force, Putin may face domestic difficulties if he expands his operation in Ukraine. Weapons supply is a serious deterrent. Banning weapons to the victim is a green light to the aggressor.

Putin understands that he overplayed what was once a good hand, for up until the all-out Russian military onslaught two weeks ago, Russia had lost some key things:  Ukrainians want to be western even more now, eastern Ukrainians in majority terms continue to want this as well, Ukrainians elected a pro-western President, the EU trade deal is going forward, and Poroshenko is pushing for NATO membership. Moreover, the rebel forces he created were losing ground to Ukrainian forces up until two weeks ago, even with a moderate degree of Russian military assistance.

These losses compelled Putin to press forward with an actual invasion, involving over 1000 Russian troops that over a five-day period beginning August 28 meted out a devastating multi-pronged attack on Ukrainian forces. This was not a rebel attack; this was a Russian attack, merely one the rebels benefitted from. Putin did not anticipate that by upping the ante to an invasion NATO would respond by creating a new rapid reaction 4000-strong force, but this merely have him pause.

Putin did not anticipate that by upping the ante to an invasion was all NATO needed to renew and reinvigorate itself, in addition to successfully reassuring eastern European alliance members and deterring Russia from seriously intervening in them.  As a result, with a series of forward placements, exercises, and a new rapid reaction 4000-strong force NATO is stronger and more vigorous than it was even 6 months ago, and Sweden and Finland are likely to join its ranks in the near future. This is what gave Putin pause, leading directly to the ceasefire.

But the U.S., Canada, and the Europeans, having gotten fortifying NATO right, now need to provide Ukraine with antitank Javelin missiles and antiaircraft missile systems, as well as secure communications systems, reconnaissance drones, ammunition and fuel, and counter artillery radar in order to more precisely identify where enemy fire is coming from. Furthermore they should share intelligence and send military trainers to augment Ukrainian forces, including special ops and battlefield medicine training. On top of that they should end the delay of the non lethal aid already in process of being provided.

But what has the West not gotten right?  NATO in fact has only partly reassured its Baltic members, for it has failed to prevent Russia’s ramped up covert efforts in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia that have and continue to destabilize these NATO member states, as signified by the abduction of the Estonian intelligence officer that made real time mockery of NATO’s summit. Worse, after warning Putin not to send regular troops into Ukraine, it failed to respond when he blatantly ignored this thereby undermining its credibility in the process and directly weakening Poroshenko’s hand.

NATO further did this by inviting Poroshenko to Wales for the summit but sending him home empty-handed. The Alliance could not reach a consensus on extending conventional deterrence from Russian aggression to Ukraine, even after warning it not to invade.  And sadly, now both Canada and the U.S. have done it again but lending moral support during Poroshenko’s visit to Ottawa and Washington but no military hardware.  Thus it is highly likely that Russia, clearly perceiving the West will not come to more direct military aid of Ukraine, will soon break the ceasefire and continue where it left off. If NATO’s moves are all the west has up its sleeve aside from the sanctions Russia is already withstanding, odds are Putin will up the ante again.

Putin aims to keep Ukraine unstable, partially controlled by Russia, and beyond substantial control of the West. What motivates him? To a lesser degree it is because NATO expanded to Russia’s borders, wrenched Kosovo from Serbia, and peeled away Georgia (for the most part) from Russia’s sphere of influence. To a greater degree it is because of what Putin fears the most: a successful bastion of democracy, capitalism, and human rights closer to Moscow than ever before. He fears Ukraine becoming like Poland and demonstrating to average Russians that they can do better than Putinism.

So the stakes could hardly be higher for the Russian regime. It will go to great lengths to reestablish its sphere of influence and prevent as much of its near abroad becoming western as possible, even to the point of bringing about economic ruin at home. Thus, Putin is likely to calculate that he may not be able to annex chunks of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, but he will continue to destabilize them and then proceed with annexing still more of the non NATO members Ukraine and Moldova as well. He will continue to pursue the Putin Doctrine where the West does not prevent him militarily.

Stripped of its faux R2P rhetoric, at its core the Putin Doctrine is about naked military aggression. It has substantially undermined the principal pillar of the postwar international order, namely that borders and sovereignty are inviolable. There is even more at stake for the West than all of Europe deserving to be free; there are also would be border violators in Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran who are watching the lack of full western resolve as closely as the one in Moscow.