Commentary Magazine


Does Ukraine Exist?

The latest reporting out of Ukraine is a good demonstration of just how much Vladimir Putin has accomplished without the kind of military incursion he sent into Georgia in 2008. And it raises basic questions about what, exactly, Ukraine’s status is, especially in light of the deal that the U.S., EU, Russia, and Ukraine have reached to turn the heat down slightly in the eastern part of the country.

According to the New York Times, the agreement “calls for armed pro-Russian bands to give up the government buildings they have seized in eastern Ukraine” in return for a general, but not unconditional, amnesty for pro-Russian agitators. There are a couple of catches, however. Russia will play a role in monitoring the evacuation of public buildings, and, more importantly, that’s where Russian obligations end:

But the agreement, described in a joint statement, does not specifically require Russia to remove the approximately 40,000 troops it has on Ukraine’s border, as President Obama has demanded.

Nor does it commit Russia to holding direct talks with the interim Ukrainian government, which has been another American demand. The agreement also does not mention the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula last month.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has been met with grudging acceptance, it seems. There may not have been much the West could have realistically done to prevent that, but Russia has learned a lesson: create facts on the ground, and the U.S. and EU will frown at Putin from afar. It’s a price Putin is willing to pay.

And the question remains how many more times Putin will seek to trade that toothless opprobrium for another patch of Ukrainian territory. As Jamie Dettmer and Anna Nemtsova detailed today in separate reports, the Ukrainian military can’t even seem to get in the way of Russian separatists or protesters, let alone Russian military reinforcements should they be needed. “Pro-Russian separatists seized a column of armored vehicles from Ukrainian soldiers in the city of Kramatorsk on Wednesday,” Dettmer writes. He then references Nemtsova’s dispatch: “Reports of Ukrainian paratroopers defecting and handing over half-a-dozen carriers without firing a shot have triggered alarm in Kiev, with government officials rejecting eye-witness accounts of the surrender.”

Dettmer and Nemtsova’s colleagues, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, co-filed a report today asking if Ukraine is in danger of losing Odessa. Here’s the key sentence: “If forces loyal to Putin can successfully disrupt Odessa, it could effectively cut the county (sic) of Ukraine in two.” If all Putin needs to take a major port city like Odessa and completely redraw the map of the two countries is for “pro-Russian forces” to “disrupt” the city, what kind of governance currently presides over Ukraine?

The answer could be “a weak government.” But even that seems optimistic at this point. The Ukrainian government doesn’t have much (if any) control over its citizens; it arguably doesn’t have fully defined borders; its power to enter into national agreements with other states–a common requirement for state status–is questionable at best; and the Ukrainian troops are by turns refusing to fight and in some cases switching sides.

Ukraine has not descended into total anarchy, of course. But it’s important for Western leaders to make sure they accurately understand Putin’s intentions. They will be tempted to declare a modest victory, or at least claim they have denied Putin a further victory, if the rest of Ukrainian territory stays moderately intact. Yet while I sympathize with Max’s contention that Putin appears desirous of expanding Russia’s borders deeper into Ukraine, it’s not clear that Putin sees that as the best-case scenario.

Taking on more territory is costly, and sanctions make it more so. Expanding Russia means Moscow has to govern a restive region that just seceded from another country. But Russia’s annexation of Crimea has had another effect: Putin’s threats are being heeded. So the Ukrainian government is virtually powerless to stop pro-Russian regions from asserting, under the claim of federalism, a kind of autonomy that would require Kiev to pick up the check for a part of the country that would be a Russian province in all but name.

Why wouldn’t this be Putin’s endgame? It would demonstrate Putin’s control over Ukrainian governance while essentially charging Kiev rent. It wouldn’t be a Greater Russia, but it would also mean Putin could destabilize Ukraine and exert a pro-Russian policymaking role beyond Russia’s borders without isolating Russia’s business class any more than it is. And it would keep Ukraine hovering somewhere between a failed state and a non-state–in other words, in Putin’s pocket.

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