This week NATO released images showing a convoy of Russian artillery travelling along southern Ukrainian roads. The same briefing showed self propelled guns deployed outside strategic towns in the south east of the country, close to the Black Sea coast. Combined with testimony from captured Russian paratroopers and the bragging of pro Russian separatists, the case against Russia’s innocent bystander position looks as watertight as the shrapnel ridden vehicles that litter the countryside outside Donetsk.
But where is all heading? On Wednesday this week Kiev announced a reintroduction of compulsory military service, and its forces have recovered well from the original desertion and inertia that epitomised its efforts in the opening weeks of the crisis. In a series of heavy skirmishes the Ukrainian army and paramilitary volunteers have captured swathes of territory in the east, and according to some analysts are likely to encircle the regional capital of Donetsk, a city of one million people and the anchor of the separatist war effort.
This leaves Russia in a difficult spot. It has invested too much political capital in its current stance to easily back down. It has incurred the diplomatic wrath of the world, been tainted with the downing of flight MH37, and is on the receiving end of sanctions which, although crippling, are being felt and will only increase in severity as the conflict continues.
To understand what Russia may do next, it’s critical to remember why it got involved in the first place. Russia is never going to see Ukraine as just another foreign country. Like India was to Britain and Algeria was to France, Ukraine ‘is’ the manifestation of Russian power and influence abroad. Russia’s influence over its southern neighbour was a consolation prize in 1991 as its other vassals and proxies slipped from under the Soviet yoke. There is also the very real military and economic rationale for Russian intervention. Ukraine ensconced in the EU and NATO is the nightmare scenario for Moscow. It is akin to Washington allowing Mexico to join the Shangai Cooperation Agreement and housing Chinese air and naval bases spitting distance from the US. Ukraine is also the transit route for Russian gas and oil pipelines. The next large scale project from the Caspian Sea to Europe had two possible routes; across Crimea or along the bed of the Black Sea, the latter costing $20 billion more. By annexing Crimea, Russia has secured its pipeline route and doesn’t have to pay Kiev a rouble for the privilege.
Putin is doubtlessly aware that in cleaving Crimea from Ukraine he’s also removed 1 million pro Russian voters from the electoral role. Given that the last election saw the pro Russian candidate win by 700,000 votes, the Crimean annexation has probably guaranteed a victory for pro western candidates from now on. Thus, unable to control Ukraine through its government, Russia’s only other way of stopping Ukrainian membership of the EU and NATO is sabotage. By destabilising the east, which contributes disproportionately to Ukraine’s economy, Russia can ensure that Ukraine is too much of a basket case to qualify for candidacy for either western institution.
Hence the current Russian strategy: drip feed men and material into eastern Ukraine, support the rebels just enough to keep going and the economy in tatters, but not so much as to escalate the fighting beyond a Ukraine. For the EU, dependent on Russian oil, gas and coal, and militarily emasculated after decades of reliance on the US, this is a fight they cannot influence beyond propping up Kiev with soft loans and diplomatic support. For the US the current stalemate in Ukraine’s east is the least bad option for the moment, as it struggles to hold the Middle East together at the same time as keeping an eye on a rising China and reckless North Korea.
Endgame in Ukraine isn’t coming any time soon.