By: Harry C. Blaney III
The harsh realities of the defeat of the Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve and the implications of this debacle highlight two realities. One is that Putin never intended anything but deception and aggression, and the West knew it capitulated to overwhelming force of arms. The second reality is what now needs to be done? On this, there is some disagreement. The Europeans seem content with the results; they did not have to do anything to help the Ukrainians, the Ukrainian government is in a state of disarray, and now the question is whether Europe, and perhaps America, can marshal the will, resources, or the moral inclination to save what remains as a result of their inaction and indifference.
Within the NATO alliance, or what is left of it now, there are a range of differences. Some want to go to back to the “normal-normal,” reduce economic sanctions, increase trade with Russia and pretend nothing has happened as Putin incorporates Ukraine into his own cruel dictatorship and forever deny Ukraine the opportunity to be part of a democratic Europe. The hope of this view is that Putin will forever be content with 46 million more souls under his power and no more desire to test the West as he has done with his armies, planes flying to NATO countries boundaries, and his subs around the world. There is some “real politics” to this position; an acknowledgment that the West is at a military disadvantage in this geographic space, most due to the massive cutting back on defense spending, and a loss of a sense of a united and strong Europe by those who do not remember or would like to forget, like Merkel, WW II and its lessons.
The other school frankly is also in some disarray. That school of strategy recognizes the debacle for what it is and argues for a robust response, mostly by strengthened sanctions and added economic assistance for Ukraine, and for a few provisions of arms. There is a real fear that the Baltic States are the next objective of Putin; mostly because they are easy targets with their Russian minorities, and there is an ease of destabilizing tactics by Russian special forces and pressure despite being members of NATO.
What is now clear is that Putin and his mercenary separatist forces violated the latest Minsk cease-fire agreement, and a strong Western reaction will be needed. However, there is likely to be a messy argument about what these reactions should be if anything. With the Europeans in some disarray, the allies are looking to the United States to see our reaction. So far we have gotten words but no action. Likely, there are urgent quiet talks about next steps among Merkel, Hollande and perhaps even the so far immobilized Prime Minister Cameron who seems to disappear under the covers on this other than his empty mindless words.
For America and for Europe the easiest and least “aggressive” option would be a massive economic assistance to Ukraine with lots of strings attached to guard against corruption and incompetency. But most serious strategic analysts believe that providing arms and training should be key part of a new and bolder approach to save what remains of Ukraine and provide some hope for its people for a democratic future. Frankly, this looks and feels like closing the door after the horses have left, but better late than never.
The question then becomes for decision-makers whether to “save” a dismembered Ukraine or let it all fall into Putin’s grip without any further effort. This option has its own implications and risks, which may fall in Putin’s assessment that the West is but a “Potemkin village” empty of will, enfeebled by loss of vision, moral courage, and prime for the pickings.
In sum, there are a number of things we can do to help Ukraine even in its dire straits to survive. I do not agree with the implied assumption of some that we should abandon Ukraine, some 46 million people who longingly want to be part of an open democratic West, to the cruel hands of Putin. President Obama rightly tried to engage Putin with his “re-set button.” But Putin had other less benign objectives.
But the blame game does not get us to a more constructive relationship. It will require a frank acknowledgment that we seem to be dealing with a Putin that is not willing to either reach out cooperatively with the West, nor is willing to tell the truth in his dealing with the West. That does require a deep rethink of our strategy, short term and long-term.
In this sad situation the real losers are not the West, but rather the Russian people. Yet we must not give up on our strategic key long-term goal to help Russia be part of a responsible international community and an open society. For the present moment, Russian hopes are doomed to a dark cold future and real decline, not rise in Russian influence, prosperity, and engagement in global problem solving if Putin continues his aggressive and authoritarian ways. This is sad for all sides. We also need to look after our allies and their fears and concerns.
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