Amid mounting tensions and troops amassing and marching along the Ukrainian border, the moment is of paramount importance. The tremors have been felt across Europe, where the repercussions of Russian aggression could shape the future for decades. In the east, where other former Soviet republics watch anxiously, but most significantly in Ukraine itself, where this is not about geopolitical struggle but the threat of a massive humanitarian crisis. Ukrainians are already fleeing abroad or to the country’s west; others have vowed to fight. It is estimated that there could be millions of refugees.
The recognition by Russian President Vladimir Putin of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states in eastern Ukraine, and his order to send in ‘peacekeepers’, culminates developments that began in 2014 when Russia fomented the separatist insurgency that created the two autonomous republics. The presence of Russian personnel has long been suspected, so this could be viewed as a formalization of the status quo. However, by recognizing the separatists’ claims to parts of the Donbas that they do not currently control, President Putin has increased the likelihood that his armed forces would encroach the other area’s Ukraine. The previous day, despite his angry outbursts and the size of the buildup, the Duma was asked to authorize the use of troops abroad.
The Russian leader made absurd claims about Ukraine’s ‘genocide’ and, chillingly, warned that if Kyiv had not stopped the violence of which Moscow accuses it, ‘the decision to continue the bloodshed […] would be the sole responsibility of the Ukrainian regime’. According to him, the most effective solution to the current crisis is for Kyiv to give up its goal of joining Nato and declare its neutrality. Unspoken words: or else. As a result of the Soviet Union’s collapse, he has expressed his deep frustration and desire to reinstate Russian supremacy in the region. As well as his anger over Nato expansion, he also displays contempt for the weakening west; Brexit, domestic political divisions, China’s rise and the prospect of a second Trump presidency all clearly figure into the equation.
However, as Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said, there can be ‘no other path’ than focusing on de-escalation efforts: restating the costs for Russia, and keeping the door open for diplomacy, however, uninterested Mr. Putin appears and however unlikely it might succeed. He watched with discomfort as members of his security council expressed their support for recognition – but they all took what was effectively a fealty oath.
Unity among the Western powers will be essential. Despite high energy prices, Russia has foreign currency reserves, while the west must decide how far it will go amid a cost of living crisis. Germany’s decision to suspend certification for Nord Stream 2 was both surprising and welcome. Germany already receives two-thirds of its imported energy from the Nord Stream pipeline, and the Italian prime minister has said EU sanctions should not be imposed on energy. The UK’s sanctions are anemic, despite Boris Johnson’s bluster, and single out five banks and three oligarchs whom the US targeted years ago. That’s little more than a token crackdown on kleptocracy, and it’s less effective than what the EU is doing.
A lacklustre response is reasonable, but if Mr. Putin is truly set on a course that, as the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny warned, is likely to result in the deaths of Russians and Ukrainians as well as costly to his country, then the response will have little chance of deterring him.