Ukraine running out of options against Putin
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is running out of options against his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, whose offensive could cause his country territorial losses for the second time since 2014.
Defying Western warnings, the Russian president on Monday ordered the dispatch of troops to eastern Ukraine to support the independence claims of two pro-Russian separatist territories.
Western capitals are still trying to decide whether this expected deployment of so-called “blue helmets” constitutes the dreaded invasion, and the starting signal to trigger major sanctions against Moscow.
Hitting too hard and too quickly would leave Ukraine’s allies little room for subsequent sanctions, especially in the event of coordinated action by the 150,000 Russian soldiers positioned on the Ukrainian border.
But the Ukrainian president, backed by the European Union and Washington, faces an even greater dilemma.
In the eyes of public opinion, he cannot allow himself a posture of resignation in the face of Vladimir Putin’s decision to take control of part of his country. But neither can he afford to challenge the Russian armed forces, which are far superior to the Ukrainians, or risk an even bigger war breaking out in his country.
“Zelensky’s options have seriously narrowed,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta center for political studies in Kiev. “The main objective now is to avoid a big war. The main objective is to prevent the war from spreading beyond the current front” to eastern Ukraine or even to the rest of the country.
Memory of Crimea
Ukrainians are still traumatized by the annexation of their Crimean peninsula in 2014.
Vladimir Putin then sent his soldiers there, nicknamed “little green men” because they wore no insignia, to take control of key structures.
Ukraine had by then lost almost its entire Black Sea Fleet and the entire region without firing a shot.
Independent political analyst Mykola Davydiouk believes that Zelensky’s political career, barely begun, would be quickly ended if Ukraine capitulated to Russian forces in the same way.
“If he now begins to make concessions to Russia, he will not be able to retain the presidency,” predicts Mr. Davydiouk.
Mr. Zelensky announced on Tuesday that he was actually considering severing diplomatic relations with Moscow.
He also urged Westerners to strongly sanction Russia today.
“Legally, I think the assault has already started,” he told reporters.
“A Real War”
From an operational perspective, Ukraine’s ability to resist Russia is unclear.
Ukrainian forces are positioned along the frontline that runs through the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, known as Donbass, about a third of which are in separatist hands.
Putin announced on Tuesday that he recognized all of these regions as independent, including the areas controlled by Kiev.
For some analysts, this could mean that Moscow is preparing to take the rest of Donbass by force.
If an offensive by Kiev against Russian troops in the Donbass seems unrealistic, the Ukrainian army, which was in ruins at the start of the war with the pro-Russian separatists in 2014, is today a much more experienced and trained adversary, thanks in particular to Western support.
“There will be no repeat of what happened in Crimea. There will be no withdrawal or concession of land,” warns analysis Volodymyr Fesenko. “Yes, it would be a real war.”
“Raise the Bids”
Before recognizing the independence of the separatist “republics”, the Russian president went so far as to assert that Ukraine was an artificial creation resulting from an error of the young Soviet Union.
For Anatoliï Oktyssiouk, an analyst at the Democracy House centre, it is a question of the Kremlin drawing its red line, categorically refusing a pro-Western alignment of Kiev.
“Putin will not let go of Ukraine”, analyzes Mr. Oktyssiouk. “He ups the ante.”
“Putin’s speech was a declaration of war, not a declaration in support of the independence of the separatists,” added analyst Mykola Davydiouk.
Along Ukraine’s northern border with Russia, some young people fear losing newfound identity
There was little talk of the crisis currently holding Ukraine in its grip as people lined up at a small kiosk selling coffee and cigarettes on a Kyiv street Tuesday morning.
It was Adele playing on the radio, not analysis of — or excerpts from — the speech delivered the night before by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, describing Ukraine as a Russian creation that had never really been an independent state.
But people were still taking note.
“Before this I thought that maybe we haven’t a war,” said 60-year-old Roxanna Kharchuk, who was walking by the kiosk. “Now I am convinced that the war will be.”
When Kharchuk was growing up, Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The Russian-Ukrainian crisis seen by geography
To understand history, politics and war, nothing beats geography. And according to the observation of the geographer Waldo R. Tobler (1930-2018), the first law of his discipline goes as follows: “All things are related to each other, but near things turn out to be more related than far things. »
Dura lex … The precision as well as the correctness of this fundamental rule are further confirmed in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, which is experiencing tragic developments. “Russia considers that the fifteen or so former Soviet republics and Ukraine in the first place are part of its near abroad, according to the old Soviet formula still used by Vladimir Putin”, notes Étienne Berthold, geographer, professor at Laval University and specialist of the USSR and Russia.
“For Ukrainians, especially ethnic Ukrainians, this is a tragedy. For Russia, it is rather a question of assuming a form of imperialism which, moreover, has never been sacrificed since the end of the USSR in 1991. There is something very strong in the logic Russian politician and leader. »
There was even a Russian empire before the USSR, and so the imperial will survived the fall of communism. The one and only census of the population carried out in the Russian empire of the tsars in 1897 had revealed a proliferation unique in the world of languages, ethnic groups and religions distributed from Europe to Asia, from the Arctic to the Caucasus.
For the USSR, the peripheral demarcation lines served to repel foreigners while preventing nationals from emigrating. Within the federation itself, on the other hand, the border remained a rather random and often malleable reality.
“The Russian Empire before the Revolution was made up of principalities and provinces,” explains Professor Berthold. The USSR expanded even further. After the Second World War, Stalin went to seek the Baltic countries and territories in Central Asia. But between 1922 and 1991, the internal borders were artificial. They existed, but on paper. The borders between the 15 republics inside the federation were arbitrary. »
The case of Crimea illustrates the consequences of this border flexibility. The region was part of the Greco-Roman world in Antiquity, then Byzantine in the Middle Ages, before passing into the Ottoman Empire until its attachment to the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century . It was ceded to the Socialist Republic of Ukraine by the USSR in 1954 and obtained the status of an autonomous republic (except for the major strategic port of Sevastopol). Crimea seceded and was eventually annexed to Russia in 2014 . The Russians rather say that the Crimean peninsula was simply incorporated.
The Donbass region, at the center of current tensions, is itself shared between Ukraine and Russia and in turn seems on the verge of falling into the bosom of Moscow. It is home to a high proportion of Russian speakers and even ethnic Russians. At the same time, ongoing tensions are galvanizing Ukrainian nationalism in the western part of the country.
“Putin said he recognized the autonomy of Donbass ,” said the geography professor. We are not yet in a process of incorporation. But it could come, and even come from an armed conflict, this time. »
The external enemy
The great reporter Tim Marshall recalled in Prisoners of Geography (2015) that the Russian paranoia on its western front was fully justified. You don’t need to have attended the military academy in Moscow to think of the French invasions in the 19th century and the Germans in the 20th century . Only, Napoleon like Hitler learned it the hard way: this long demarcation line of more than 5000 km can be pierced, but quickly closes like a trap.
Russia has always felt geopolitically threatened on the side of its northern plains, from the Baltic Sea to Germany via Poland. From his point of view, Ukraine acts as a buffer zone between the West (actually NATO) and the Russian Empire. Moreover, etymologically, “Ukraine” designates a march, a stronghold in a border area responsible for defending neighboring territories. All things are interconnected…
The Western bloc has already breached the promise made to the former Eastern bloc not to expand its military alliance after the lifting of the iron curtain and the reunification of Germany. Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were quickly integrated into NATO. The military aid provided to Ukraine (including by Canada with instructors) goes in the same direction, according to Moscow. The “NATOization” of Romania and Bulgaria has also very, very irritated Russia.
“Among Putinians, there is a shared feeling of betrayal in relation to the agreements made in a catastrophic context for the USSR, which was doing very badly economically and which had reached the end of its military capacities at the end of the 20th century , says the professor from Laval University. When the former Eastern Bloc countries mostly joined Western conventions and NATO, Russian leaders decided that this transformation would not affect their near abroad. »
A Eurasian axis
The geographical perspective also allows an understanding of the interplay of alliances that takes place between Russia and China, in a distant foreign country for Westerners, one might say. President Putin met his counterpart Xi just before the Beijing Games. The traditional Olympic truce was respected, but Moscow triggered the international crisis less than 48 hours after the closing ceremony of the Olympics.
The western front of Russia should not make us forget either that this imperial country extends to the Sea of Okhotsk. The rapprochement between the two Eastern powers could signal the formation of a Eurasian bloc feared by Western strategists for three centuries. The British geographer Halford J. Mackinder (1861-1947), considered the founding father of geopolitics, already explained that to dominate the world, you have to find a geographical tipping point.
“Could we move towards a China-Russia axial consolidation? I cannot answer, said Professor Berthold. For the moment, we must listen to what is being said on all sides. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has been there as long as Putin, describes Westerners as hysterical. […] At the same time, we are no longer in the 1950s, at the time of the Korean War, when we came within a hair’s breadth of using nuclear weapons. I see no other way now than a de-escalation where everyone tries to keep calm. Otherwise, it would be very dangerous…”