BY EVAN REVAK
It is time for Kiev, the European Union (EU), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and Washington to call off the dogs. Eastern Ukraine has been lost and it is time to accept that reality.
After nearly two years of fighting and a loosely followed Minsk Agreement in February, the intractable Ukraine conflict has exited the consciousness of the international community, who have chosen to place their sympathetic energies elsewhere. And who could blame them? The escalation of barbarity and depravity committed by the Islamic State across the Middle East. The humanist saga of Syrian migrants journeying across Europe to escape war-torn Syria. The nail-baiting existential future of the eurozone due to the Greek debt crisis. These topics have captured the attention of global powers and an international will, overshadowing the humdrum sparring in Eastern Europe.
More importantly, beyond its diminishing relevance from news cycles and dinnertime conversations, the West’s complacent attitude toward the Eastern Ukrainian political impasse is just bad policy and an overall futile strategy.
The reality is that continued inert engagement will result in Eastern Ukraine becoming a “frozen conflict” like that seen in Moldova and the South Caucasus. An Eastern Ukrainian “frozen conflict” – coined for conflicts stemming from the end of the Cold War – will become an impediment to further EU Ascension talks and any resolution to the militarization of the region. But, even more troubling, if continued, the “frozen conflict” allows for Russia to have a greater role in negotiation talks wherein it will apply its obstructionist and entropic policies to deride any kind of settlement within the region in order to retain regional primacy.
In fact, Ukraine’s neighbor, Moldova, provides an outlined prognosis of what will happen if the Eastern Ukrainian conflict is indefinitely extended without resolution.
In Moldova, the territorial issue of Transdniestria has remained a crucial roadblock for further EU negotiations. Being the poorest state on the continent, Moldova cannot further political and economic integration talks with the EU until the territorial dispute with Transdniestria has been resolved. Conversely, as a region protected by the Operational Group of Russian Forces (OGRF) and bolstered by Russian energy subsidies, the Transdniestrian government has no incentive to reincorporate the proto-state into the economic and political indisposition of the Moldovan state. Further complicating the territorial issue, the 5+2 talks, which were purportedly established to find a solution to the conflict, have only created a forum of diametrically opposing members airing their grievances: Moldova against Transnistria; the EU and the US against Russia. This leaves Moldova figuratively in geopolitical purgatory. Static and mute, Moldova is no longer master of its own house.
This too could be Ukraine’s future if the international community becomes too accustomed to the status quo in Eastern Ukraine.
That is why a strategic withdrawal would ultimately force Putin’s hand. Although Russia incessantly propagates and supports the secessionist fervor in “frozen conflicts”, Russia has no interest in annexing these separatist regions, despite predication on unity with Russia. Instead, it prefers to operate within the entropy of the created geopolitical climate: profiting from militarization, posturing in negotiations, and asserting coercive power to force compliance. In the cases of Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia has not annexed them but used them as guarantors for future negotiating conversations during which it can openly project its contrarian, egoist perspective. Thus, these negotiations adjourn, follows-up are scheduled, and Russia checks its calendar.
But Russia’s foreign policy of applied “chaos theory” acts purely as a façade for intuitional incapacity and diminishing capabilities.
Some believe that letting Eastern Ukraine fall within the hands of Russia only empowers Putin to make more grandiose attempts at annexing the Baltics or South Caucasus. With growing military obligations in Syria, crippling economic EU sanctions, and long-term low gas prices, Russia does not have the means to spread itself much thinner without political ramifications. Furthermore, the Baltics remain within the protective coverage of NATO, which has an obligation to protect those who are signatories to this collective security apparatus. Even though Europe has found itself less prepared militarily, Russia’s overly confident actions have unified NATO members to take more proactive measures to combat a more haphazard Russian state. And despite the global ineptitude in preventing the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Georgia’s security has also produced the collective will required to accurately assess Russia’s threats and credibility for action.
Additionally, the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk are not exactly robust industrial centers within Ukraine. In fact, annexing these regions would place unneeded liabilities on the Russian government and the crippled Russian economy. Without petrol-rubles available to underpin such a territorial acquisition, the bill will certainly be footed by the Russian taxpayer who are experiencing 13.5 percent unemployment, increased consumer goods due to EU import bans, and a ruble devalued by around 50percent year-to-date. That is to say, with little economic benefits coming from integrating the pro-Russian sections of Eastern Ukraine, the Russian people aren’t ready to stomach the thought while the Russian government doesn’t have the means to extend a life-line without drowning itself.
Therefore, it is prime time to stop playing into Putin’s hands.
Calculated retreat is not defeat. We have already seen the effects of “frozen conflicts” on the European continent. Our prior strategies have left sovereign states floundering, the EU incapacitated, and Russia dominating. Rather than continuously pursuing Einsteinian insanity, the time has come to call Putin’s bluff.