It’s always a pleasure to read the words of former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, so imagine my joy at breakfast this morning when I opened up the Globe and Mail and found his latest article, entitled “Peace in Ukraine requires a carrot and stick approach.” You get a sense of where it’s going from the very first sentence, which says: “I just returned from the contact line in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, which separates free Ukraine from the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbass region.” I suspect that a lot of Irrussianality readers would have stopped right there and turned instead to the sports section, but it’s my job to read this guff, so I ploughed on. And what great reading it made!
It’s pretty clear how Rasmussen sees the war in Donbass: Ukraine v. Russia, not Ukrainians fighting Ukrainians. “Nearly three million Ukrainians in the Donbass region live in fear,” writes our friend Fogh. True enough, perhaps, but I don’t think that for most of them its Russian artillery that they’re afraid of. But Rasmussen doesn’t let such little details bother him. Apart from spelling Donbass with two s’s, what follows in his article could pretty much have been written by the president of “free” Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, as if Rasmussen had just jotted down some Kiev briefing notes and recycled them for the Canadian press.
The core of the article is Rasmussen’s proposals for a “political solution” to the war. This involves “providing defensive equipment to the Ukrainian soldiers,” and “deploying a robust United Nations peacekeeping force to the Donbass region.” The former should include “night-vision goggles, signal-jamming equipment and radar to detect enemy firing positions.” Quite why this is purely “defensive” military equipment, Rasmussen doesn’t explain. It can just as easily be used for offensive purposes. As for his peacekeeping proposal, it fits exactly with what Kiev has been suggesting – not a mere protection force for OSCE monitors, as Russia has proposed, and not a larger force to separate the sides and patrol the area between them, but a mission which “stretches all the way to the Ukraine-Russia border to avoid turning the contact line into a de facto new border,” and which should also “protect the population and the infrastructure.” In short, it would be a UN occupation force, a bit like the one NATO sent to Kosovo in 1999. We all know how that ended up. In essence, this is a proposal for the Donbass rebels’ surrender. It’s also contrary to the Minsk Agreements, which stipulate that Ukraine should regain control of its border only after it has granted special status to Donbass and carried out local elections.
But good old Anders has some carrots to offer as well – “full sanctions relief”, when and if “Russia delivers on the withdrawal of troops [who these are he doesn’t say] and the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty … when all of Russia’s obligations are met.” No mention here of Ukraine’s obligations under Minsk, you will note. It’s not much of a carrot. “Give in to all our demands and then we’ll be nice to you,” is what it amounts to.
For that reason, Rasmussen’s proposal doesn’t have a chance of succeeding. When a war reaches stalemate, you can’t get peace by demanding that one side makes all the concessions. It won’t agree to it, and because the war is stalemated, you can’t force it to do so. In such a situation, the only way forward is something which takes both sides interests into consideration. Rasmussen seems utterly uninterested in that.
So what’s the alternative?
In another new article, Mark Galeotti cites the Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, General Muzhenko, as saying that, “Kyiv’s military is now in a position to retake Donbas in as little as ten days – if it is willing to suffer 10,000-12,000 casualties, including 3,000 fatalities, as well as more than 10,000 civilian deaths.” I don’t doubt the last bit of that statement – “more than 10,000 civilian deaths.” Any attempt to retake the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics by force would be extremely bloody. 10,000 civilian deaths would be the minimum, I suspect. But as for the General’s confidence that he could do the job, and in just ten days, then I have to say that he’s living in cloud cuckoo land if he actually believes that. The Donbass rebels have about 40,000 troops and hundreds of heavy weapons systems. Take a look at Syria and Iraq, and how long it took to capture cities such as Aleppo, Mosul, and Raqqa, against armies much smaller and less well-equipped. Donbass contains at least two major cities, and many other large towns. There is no way that they could all be captured in street by street fighting in 10 days. This is just ridiculous.
Any talk of a military victory should be dismissed out of hand. The Ukrainian Army probably isn’t capable of it, and even if it were, it would take it months and would cause a vast humanitarian catastrophe. And this is where Rasmussen’s proposal to arm the Ukrainians is positively dangerous. Galeotti gets it right when he says:
Those who advocate arming Ukraine, generally with the very best of intentions, risk distorting the political calculus for Kyiv by encouraging the belief that there can be a purely military solution to Donbas. It also will hand President Poroshenko political capital that, based on past experience, he will spend on fudging rather than accelerating reform. A lack of conditionality attached to Western support has instilled the notion in Kyiv that the West will look after Ukraine even if its own government will not.
This is spot on. What’s wrong with the West’s unconditional support for post-Maidan Ukraine is that it encourages it in its worst behaviour and provides no incentive to change that behaviour in favour of something more likely to bring peace.
So, we are back to our previous question, “what’s the alternative?” Galeotti suggests “Cleansing the political system, constraining oligarchic power, streamlining the administration … creating a working, law-based, economically-vibrant and genuinely pluralist Ukraine.” Superficially, this makes sense. It’s something I’ve said myself. Three years ago, in a long conversation with the Ukrainian ambassador in Ottawa, I told him that if his country wanted to get back Donbass, its best hope was to make a success of itself, so as to make Ukraine an attractive choice. But let’s be realistic. Three years on is there any evidence to suggest that there is any chance of this actually happening? A recent opinion poll gives us a sense of just how attractive Ukraine is to those of its citizens it currently controls, let alone to those whom it doesn’t. Take a look at the following charts:
Let’s be brutally honest. Ukraine isn’t an attractive place. It isn’t going to be able to win Donbass back by being a model of super-dooper wonderfulness. It’s just not going to happen. Ukraine also isn’t going to win Donbass back by means of military conquest. And it isn’t going to win it back via some harebrained scheme involving arming the Ukrainian army and some UN peacekeeping mission.
So what’s left? If Kiev really truly wants Donbass back it has no choice. It has to negotiate with the rebels and come to an agreement on autonomy and amnesty which satisfies the rebels (or at least satisfies them enough that Moscow can force them to swallow it). In short, Kiev has no practical option other than following through with its Minsk obligations. I’ve said all this before, but it’s worth saying again. This is the only way for Ukraine to regain its lost territories. This isn’t a conclusion based on moral reasoning. It’s just practicalities. And practicalities matter. So, if we in the West want peace in Ukraine on terms which sees Ukraine reunited, then instead of encouraging Kiev to believe that it can find an alternative solution, we should be making all aid entirely conditional on it taking the steps required to make peace. And that means a policy very different from that proposed by Anders Fogh Rasmussen.