Angela Merkel grew up under Communist rule in the old East Germany. She speaks fluent Russian. She has been the chancellor of Germany for the past 10 years. And for all that time she has been negotiating with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on wide variety of subjects—including, for the past year, Ukraine. They may not like each other much, but they certainly know each other.
So listen to what Angela Merkel said about the debate in the U.S. military, in the Congress, and even in the White House about sending direct American military aid to the Ukrainian government. “I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily,” she said. “I have to put it that bluntly.”
Does anybody think that Angela Merkel is wrong about this? Does any sane person think Putin would flee in panic if he hears that the U.S. is going to send Ukraine “defensive weapons” (anti-tank weapons, anti-artillery radar and the like)? If not, then this is crazy talk.
Nobody in the United states is talking about sending state-of-the-art U.S. tanks and planes to Ukraine, and they’re certainly not offering to send American troops. Secretary of State John Kerry is merely talking about giving some sophisticated “defensive weapons” to an army that doesn’t even use the weapons it has very well. The Ukrainian army is poorly trained, badly led, and controlled by a government in Kiev that is as incompetent as it is corrupt.
It sometimes wins when it is fighting the equally ragtag troops of the two breakaway “republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk. But if the Ukrainian government troops and the assorted volunteer battalions that fight alongside them start to win, then the Russians send in a few thousand well-trained soldiers and push the Ukrainians back.
That’s what happened last August, and now it’s happening again. Putting more advanced “defensive weapons” in Ukrainian hands is not going to change this pattern, and military professionals in Washington know it. This proposal is pure, strategy-free tokenism.
Of course, Putin’s stated concerns about Western plots to draw Ukraine into NATO are not very rational either. He’s exceptionally ill-informed if he thinks that Western European countries like France and Germany would let Ukraine join NATO, since that would mean they were taking on a treaty obligation to fight Russia on Ukraine’s behalf.
He’s completely deluded if he takes his own military’s hoary arguments about Ukraine’s military importance seriously. It is 2015, not 1945, and Russia has lots of nuclear weapons. It simply doesn’t matter whether NATO’s tanks are far from Russia’s border or close to it. Wherever they are, nuclear deterrence still works.
And Putin can’t really be worried about the example that a democratic and prosperous Ukraine might set for his own people. Ukrainian incomes are far lower than Russian ones (thanks mainly to Russian oil and gas), and the West shows no inclination to pour money into Ukraine in quantities large enough to change that. And though Ukraine is more democratic than Russia, its government is no less corrupt.
What drives Putin, therefore, is a grab-bag of emotional motives. His man in Kiev got overthrown, and he doesn’t like to lose face. Even if Ukraine has little strategic or economic importance, it was part of Russia for 300 years, and he hates the idea that it might just slide into the West on his watch. He shares the paranoia about the evil intentions of the West that every Russian inherits (for very good historical reasons).
None of this is worth a full-scale war in Ukraine, let alone a serious military confrontation with the West or a new Cold War. Maybe if the United States were prepared to go in boots and all, showering Ukraine with weapons, money and even U.S. troops, Putin might back away, although it would be a terrible risk to take.
But some token “defensive weapons”, basically to make Americans feel better? That involves less risk of a huge Russian over-reaction, admittedly, but it would still be a big step towards a new Cold War, and for no possible gain.
That is why Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande flew to Moscow last Friday: to head Kerry off by patching up some new ceasefire (or reviving the old one) in eastern Ukraine. They will be meeting with Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk on Wednesday in the hope that they can make it happen.
At best, that would mean the effective loss of Ukrainian sovereignty over two more provinces (Crimea is already gone), and a semi-permanent “frozen conflict” on Ukraine’s eastern border. Not great, but realistically Ukraine has no better options anyway.
We know that Putin is willing to settle for such “frozen conflicts” in order to cripple disobedient former Soviet republics, because he has already done it with Moldova and Georgia. We know that the victims of such tactics can thrive despite Moscow’s games. Georgia certainly does, and Ukraine could do even better with strong European Union and U.S. support.
There is no satisfactory military solution for either side. Settle for a stalemate, and move on.