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Why Ukraine Can't Win an All-Out Military Victory—and Shouldn't Try

Ukrainian army battleship waits on its position facing Slaviansk on July 4

Photograph by Sipa via AP Photo

Ukrainian army battleship waits on its position facing Slaviansk on July 4

Suddenly, Ukraine’s army is winning. Over the weekend Kiev’s troops recaptured several cities in the eastern Donetsk region, sending pro-Russian rebels fleeing to strongholds further east. Now President Petro Poroshenko is planning a “complete blockade” of the region’s two other main cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, according to a Ukrainian television report that quoted the deputy head of the country’s National Defense and Security Council.

That’s a striking turnabout from just a few weeks ago, when Ukraine’s forces seemed ragtag and reluctant to fight. But it doesn’t mean a military victory is likely, or desirable.

The cities retaken over the past few days were relatively small (the largest, Kramatorsk, has a population of 165,000) and lightly defended. Donetsk, the region’s biggest city with some 1 million inhabitants, is still in the hands of rebels. Rooting them out would be a long and brutal process. “They would have to do it street by street,” says Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University. “The cost in body bags would be high.”

True, Ukraine’s forces are now better trained and equipped than before, thanks in part to $23 million in recent U.S. aid. But they’re still no match for Russia’s military—and Russia won’t let Ukraine retake Donetsk without a serious fight, Ian Bremmer, head of the political risk research firm Eurasia Group, told Bloomberg Television today. Although the flow of aid to the rebels from across Russia’s border appears to have slowed, it could resume at any time, turning the battle for the city into a bloodbath. “I don’t see the Ukrainians holding Donetsk and the Russians sitting on the sidelines,” Bremmer said.

While Russia is unlikely to invade Ukraine, it could step up its involvement to weaken the Ukrainian military’s effectiveness against the rebels, Galeotti says. One possibility, he says, might be a no-fly zone enforced by the Russian air force.

Ukrainian forces have used heavy artillery to dislodge rebels from some other locales, but that tactic would “produce many more civilian casualties” in densely-populated Donetsk, Edward Walker, head of the Soviet & Post-Soviet Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley, writes on his blog. “Kiev is going to face a very difficult decision.”

The advances of the past few days could put Poroshenko in a better position to negotiate a peaceful settlement. That still looks like the best solution for Ukraine and for Russia. “Putin’s aim is to get Kiev to strike a deal that he can spin at home as ‘mission accomplished,’ that keeps Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of influence,” Galeotti says. “A great apocalyptic war in Donetsk doesn’t advance that case.” It’s understandable that Ukraine is taking a stronger stand against rebels who repeatedly violated a ceasefire, he says. But “trying for an all-out military victory could go horribly wrong.”

Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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