One last red line.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Why Putin Is Lying About Ukraine

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin is now an official party in talks to bring about a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. That marks a big shift from last September, when Moscow forced Ukraine to accept the pro-Russian rebels from Donetsk and Luhansk as negotiating partners. But Moscow still won't admit it has troops on the ground in the war zone and Kiev won't officially declare a state of war. That might appear to be a meaningless formality, but it's the last remaining red line in the escalating conflict, and it may be crossed if the United States decides to arm Ukraine. 

Ukraine has long insisted it's fighting Russia and not local bands of rebels. "How many evidences does the world still need to recognize an obvious fact -- there is a foreign military equipment, mercenaries, Russian military coaches and regular troops," Poroshenko's official site quotes him as saying at the Munich Security Conference last Saturday. During the speech, the Ukrainian leader brandished Russian passports and military IDs that he claimed belonged to soldiers who had fought in the east of the country.

Still, Poroshenko has refrained from declaring a state of war against Russia. In December, he promised to do that if the September cease-fire crumbled. "If there is an exit from the peace process and major military aggression is unleashed or continued, I can promise you that a state of war will be introduced immediately," he said. Then, in late January, the rebels repudiated the cease-fire and started a major offensive -- and Poroshenko did not keep his promise. Instead, he repeated his threat in an interview with Spain's El Pais, published on Feb. 5 -- this time making it more vague: Kiev will declare war if the conflict in the east escalates. 

Poroshenko explained that he's been reluctant to take the decisive step because he didn't want to risk limiting Ukrainians' civil liberties or drive away foreign investors: "Who will want to go into a country that's in a state of war?"

These arguments make sense, however, only if Poroshenko doesn't believe his own claims to Western audiences that Russia is already waging an all-out war against his country. If that were the case, this would be no time to worry about Kievans' right to assembly or about the investment climate: Ukraine would have to focus on its survival.

Russia's official position is still that it's not involved in the conflict. The Russian foreign ministry has demanded copies of the passports Poroshenko showed in Munich, saying they "could easily be bought."

Yet there has been plenty of proof of Russian soldiers' participation in the fighting. Russia's remaining independent media outlets have provided evidence of servicemen dying in eastern Ukraine. Today, the daily RBK published an investigation showing the soldiers who were sent to aid the rebels came from a limited number of crack military units that make up Russia's international peacekeeping force. No one in the West believes Russia isn't involved, and Putin's agreeing to be a party to peace talks is yet another confirmation of the obvious.

Why, then, are both sides playing coy? If they are at war, shouldn't they make it official?

As things stand, Poroshenko understands his ill-trained, badly armed, bloodied troops are not facing the full might of the Russian military. If he declares a state of war, that might invite Russia to do away with the disguises and send in an expeditionary force as it did in Georgia in 2008. That war ended in five days with Russians threatening to take the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The Ukrainian president doesn't mind portraying himself as the West's last line of defense against Putin if it wins him international aid, but he doesn't want to risk an all-out Russian attack.

Putin's is a more difficult case. U.S. Senator John McCain appears to think Putin doesn't embark on an open offensive because he is afraid it might erode his domestic support. "If we help Ukrainians increase the military cost to the Russian forces that have invaded their country," he said at the Munich Security Conference, "how long can Putin sustain a war that he tells his people is not happening?"

Putin, however, is likely to be relieved if the U.S. decides to provide military aid to Ukraine: Then, he can finally tell Russians about the war, explaining that he's fighting the meddling U.S., not impoverished and culturally close Ukraine. In fact, he is already trying out that pitch. In a meeting with students on Jan. 26, Putin described the Ukrainian armed forces as a "NATO foreign legion." As long as the West refuses to arm Ukraine, that reasoning will sound thin. But it will work much better once that barrier has fallen.

Putin's lies aren't directed at concealing the war from Russians: They know what's going on, because dead soldiers are impossible to conceal. Putin's lies are a message to the West, a signal that Russia isn't yet fully committed. They're a veiled threat, an invitation to compromise and a lever to help get Russian troops onto any eventual peacekeeping force that is called on to separate the sides. 

Western leaders may not admit it, but they want Putin to keep lying about the absence of Russian troops from the war. Once he stops doing that, a point of no return will be passed and the conflict will escalate until Russia, as the stronger side, wins a decisive military victory -- or until the West drops its reservations and sends in troops, too. Both these scenarios would be disastrous for Ukraine.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Poroshenko arrive in Minsk for talks on Wednesday, they will be aware of Putin's last card. The outcome will turn on whether they believe he's capable of actually throwing it on the table.

If they do, they will be amenable to a compromise to avoid throwing the West's long-term containment strategy into disarray. If, on the other hand, the negotiators decide Putin is bluffing, Putin will probably continue his undeclared war until he feels an open offensive is his only remaining option.

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:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net