A bridge too far for Ukraine.

Photographer: Anatolii Boiko/AFP/Getty Images

Sorry, Ukraine, You Can't Beat Putin

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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The Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny recently said that were it not for Western economic sanctions, Russian tanks would already have swept west to the port city of Odessa, occupying a huge swath of Southern Ukraine and cutting off the rest of the country from the Black Sea. He's probably right, yet it won't count for much if Ukraine's government doesn't take advantage of the respite sanctions have provided by changing course.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has in recent weeks rekindled the war in Eastern Ukraine, and it's important to understand the role that Ukrainian actions have played in this. It's equally important to recognize that sanctions can't defeat Putin; they can only make him more cautious and open to a settlement.

Standoff in Ukraine

It was just last September that Putin initiated the Minsk cease-fire agreement, halting his tanks after they had reversed many of the gains Ukraine's military had made against Eastern separatists over the summer. And it's a fair assumption that Europe's threat to impose heavier economic sanctions influenced his decision to stop his advance.

Putin had demonstrated that Ukraine's military simply isn't capable of standing up to Russian regulars, and that his tanks could indeed roll on to Odessa if he chose to give the order. In return for stopping, though, he expected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to sue for a political settlement of the conflict, beyond the localized Minsk cease-fire.

Instead, Poroshenko had Ukraine's parliament rescind a law that had committed the country to military neutrality and announced its formal intention to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This was a serious misstep that made a return to war all but inevitable. If one thing is clear in this contest, it is that Putin will not -- and politically cannot -- make peace without some form of public assurance that Ukraine won't join NATO.

Another step Ukraine took after the Minsk deal was to build a defensive line around separatist territory. This it had to do. The city of Mariupol, the first stop on any Russian road to Odessa and Crimea, had been left defenseless before last summer's Russian assault, and the Ukrainian government had a duty to remedy that. Nevertheless, the place where Ukraine's military chose to dig in said a lot about whether its goal was purely to defend itself, or also to prepare to retake rebel-held areas by force. The decision to hold on to Donetsk airport at any cost, despite having agreed at Minsk that this would fall on the rebel side of the cease-fire line, suggested the latter.

Next, Ukraine trumpeted its efforts to resupply its forces with new weaponry from NATO members, including the U.S., which sent radar systems for guiding responsive fire at enemy artillery positions. This set the clock running for Putin to begin an assault before Ukraine's military could be rearmed and retrained.

So it was that, as early as October, Russian armor was heading back into Ukraine. The rebels announced an offensive to take Mariupol and other towns, and it looked as if the war would start again. Collapsing oil prices intervened, and by November the front was relatively quiet again.

Yet this was unsustainable. Putin had still not blocked Ukraine from turning West. What's more, he looked weak. And to make matters worse on that front, U.S. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, portrayed him as defeated:

Mr. Putin’s aggression, it was suggested, was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That’s what I heard from some folks. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated, with its economy in tatters.

As fantasies go, this was right up there with George W. Bush's "mission accomplished" boast after the initial invasion of Iraq. Putin hadn't given up. And if Obama had the first inkling of Putin's character, he would understand that the best way to push him to attack is to boast of beating him.

So Ukraine and its partners lost an opportunity this winter, even if it's impossible to know whether Putin would himself have been willing to make the compromises needed for a settlement. It's also hard to know how far Putin will let his tanks go this time. If he believes there will be no more sanctions, or decides it's worth weathering them, Russian forces could take Mariupol, build a land corridor to Crimea or make the final push to Odessa.

Alternatively, he might merely help the rebels take the key positions -- such as the Donetsk airport, the Debaltseve rail junction and the Luhansk power station -- which they need to make their territory survivable, and then give Poroshenko another chance to sue for peace.

This is Putin's war. He contrived it when his ally Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power in Ukraine, and he largely controls it. Yet so long as the U.S. and NATO aren't willing to fight Russia over Ukraine (and they shouldn't be), they should help Poroshenko understand that this conflict can end only with a settlement that involves politically painful Ukrainian concessions.

Such was the terrible squeeze that Georgia existed in for nearly two decades. Once Russia had secured control over separatist territories in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it could demand a political settlement on its terms. When Georgia refused and tried to resolve the problem militarily, it was crushed. (NATO did not come to the rescue.)

It is understandable that Ukraine doesn't want a super-sized Abkhazia or South Ossetia in Eastern Ukraine, but it is also too late to stop Russia from creating one. The longer Poroshenko pretends to his people that Ukraine can seize Donestsk and Luhansk back by force, the bigger Ukraine's Abkhazia will become and the more lives, sovereignty and wealth Ukraine will lose.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net