Gwynne Dyer: How to avoid a war in Ukraine

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      On one hand, eastern Ukraine appears to be slipping out of the government’s control, as pro-Russian groups seize control of official buildings in big eastern cities like Donetsk and Luhansk and demand referendums on union with Russia. They almost certainly do not represent majority opinion in those cities, but the police stand aside and people who support Ukrainian unity are nervous about expressing their opinions in public.

      On the other hand, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has just announced that the EU, the United States, Ukraine, and Russia will all meet somewhere in Europe next week to discuss ways of “de-escalating the situation in Ukraine”. That will be the first time that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has agreed to meet with a representative of the Ukrainian government.

      So is this crisis heading for a resolution or an explosion? It still depends on whether Russian president Vladimir Putin thinks that the annexation of Crimea is enough compensation for the humiliation he suffered when his ally in Kyiv, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by a popular revolution. And clearly Putin hasn’t yet decided that himself.

      Rationality says take your winnings to the bank and quit the game while you’re ahead. Putin’s action has guaranteed that almost any imaginable Ukrainian government will be hostile for the foreseeable future, but the NATO countries will be willing to forget about Crimea after a while if he goes no further. Does he really want the United States, Germany, France, and Britain as his enemies too?

      Yet the temptation is there. Putin’s agents are everywhere in eastern Ukraine, he has 40,000 troops ready to go at a moment’s notice just across the frontier, and all the Russian navy’s amphibious assault ships are now in the Black Sea—he could grab the Ukrainian coast all the way west to Odessa at the same time. The Ukrainian army would fight, but could not hold out for more than a day or two, and NATO would not send troops. Why not do it?

      There are lots of good reasons not to. Putin would face a protracted guerilla war in Ukraine (he would call it terrorism, of course). He would find himself in a new Cold War that Russia would lose much faster than it lost the last one: it has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and now depends heavily on Western markets for its modest prosperity.

      He would find new NATO military bases opening up in various countries on Russia’s borders that joined the alliance for safety’s sake, but have so far not allowed foreign (i.e. American or German) troops to be based permanently on their soil out of consideration for Russian anxieties. He really shouldn’t even consider grabbing Ukraine, but he is a man with a very big chip on his shoulder.

      So what sort of line should the Europeans, the Americans, and the Ukrainians be taking with Russia next week? This is about hard power, so appeals to sweet reason are pointless. “Sanctions” are also irrelevant: this has now gone considerably beyond the point where gesture politics has any role to play. The economic and strategic prices that Russia would pay need to be big and they need to be stated clearly.

      But at the same time, Russia’s own legitimate concerns have to be addressed, and the main one is its fear that Ukraine might someday join NATO. That requires a firm commitment that Ukraine will be strictly neutral, under international guarantee. Russia will also try to get a promise that Ukraine will be “federalized”, but that is none of its business and should be rejected.

      In the meantime, the shambolic Ukrainian provisional government needs to get a grip: not one of its leading figures has even visited the east since the revolution. In particular, it needs to take control of the police in the east (whose commanders were mostly Yukanovych’s placemen), and restore the chain of command from Kyiv to the local municipalities.

      Then it will be relatively easy to take back the occupied government buildings without violence. Just stop all movement in or out, turn off the water, and wait. None of this stuff is rocket science, but it’s not being done, and so the situation gets steadily worse.

      Finally, money. Russia, under relatively competent authoritarian rule, has a GDP per capita of about $14,000. Ukraine, after a quarter-century of incompetent and sporadic authoritarian rule, has less than a third of that: $4,000 per head. It helps that Russia has a lot of oil and gas, but the contrast is huge, and Ukrainians are aware of it—especially in the east.

      Ukraine needs lots of money, in a hurry, to stay solvent while it holds an election (on May 25) and sorts itself out politically. And if all that is done, then maybe Putin will settle for Crimea and put up with the prospect of having to live next door to a neutral but democratic Ukraine.

      Otherwise, it’s going to get quite ugly.

      Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.



      I Chandler

      Apr 10, 2014 at 1:45pm

      "Russia, under competent authoritarian rule"..."he is a man with a very big chip on his shoulder."

      You didn't get the memo? The competent authoritarian blew up Moscow apartment buildings to start a war:

      See PBS's report, De-escalating unrest in Eastern Ukraine is delicate challenge for Kiev:
      "Putin staged a terrorist attack in Russia as a pretext for starting the second Chechen war."

      Or CBC's Neil Macdonald's report: "A portrait of Putin - Vladimir Putin's twisted way to power"

      Neither CBC or PBS mentioned that men with chips on their shoulders, pulled down 3 office buildings as a pretext for starting the second Iraq war:


      Apr 10, 2014 at 5:32pm

      “former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by a popular revolution.”

      No Dyer, he was overthrown by an outside orchestrated coup financed by the U.S. State Department. This author is just toeing the MSM line, and is out to lunch with the rest of them.


      Apr 10, 2014 at 7:44pm

      Hypie, there still isn't any evidence of that. In fact, it's quite unlikely that it's even possible for a foreign power like the US to start a popular revolution; usually it's as surprised when they occur as anybody else is.

      They might be able to trigger one, of course, but that would require the conditions necessary for revolt to already be there. In this case, the trigger to the Ukranian revolution was Yanukovich's sudden about face on EY membership, even if the uprising was more about corruption than foreign policy.

      The other possible way to get a revolution to happen is to provide education and greater access to information about world events. This will potentially make a revolution more likely, but again, only if other conditions are present. Much is made of US funding to democracy building NGOs in Eastern Europe, but their impact really isn't all that big, particularly if Russia and Belarus are any indication. In this case, the obvious cause is that Ukraine is among the poorest countries in Eastern Europe, this poverty is widely perceived as a result of government mismanagement. There was already one popular revolt in 2004, but things didn't really get much better, and in 2010, Yanukovich, the man ousted in the Orange revolution, got his job back. In the intervening years, he showed that he was as corrupt and abusive as ever, and in November something snapped.

      Now I predict that your response will contain a personal attack, possibly an accusation of being paid by the US government or whoever to discredit "the truth", and a bunch of context-free factoids that don't really mean anything. I sometimes wonder why I even bother.


      Apr 10, 2014 at 7:48pm


      If it is true that Putin organized the bombing that started the second Chechen War, and it very well may be, then it was a very successful operation from his perspective. Russia regained control of Chechnya, and Chechnya largely lost the sympathy of the international community, or at least the sympathy of those who believed it was a Chechen attack.

      Indeed, in general, being competent and being amoral are not mutually exclusive. Putin is a very bad man, but he's pretty good at what he does. He does, of course, make mistakes from time to time, though.

      joao almeida (Lisbon, Portugal)

      Apr 11, 2014 at 5:18am

      It took almost a week for the Russians to take Crimea. They do not have the means to mount any coup-de-main to overrun eastern Ukraine in a useful timetable: too slow, and the USA will compel the EU to do what they do not want to do. But, how far are eastern Ukraine from the Russian strategic hinterland? In a time that likes to relegate MAD to the history books we may find ourselves contemplating the unthinkable less prepared than ever... This situation looks like much more to a 1919 Weimar Rep. than to a 1938 IIIReich. The difference resides in the capability to resort to nuclear threats compounded by the symmetry of the stand-off... And there is always the USD hanging by a (bare?) thread from an almost bankrupt FED... Interesting times indeed!


      Apr 11, 2014 at 5:37am

      Hypie, if the US orchestrated the coup that forced Yanukovych out, you would think they might be a little bit better prepared to deal with the aftermath than they have shown thus far. Generally if you have half a brain in your head and you cause something to happen, you generally have a strategy in place to take advantage of it.

      I haven't seen any indication of such a strategy by the U.S. Or anyone else, for that matter, except Russia. So based on that it's much more likely that Putin engineered the coup to provide pretext for his moves in Ukraine (which I don't believe, by the way).


      Apr 11, 2014 at 5:40am

      I have to disagree with Mr. Dyer on this one: "That requires a firm commitment that Ukraine will be strictly neutral, under international guarantee."

      Mr. Putin has already demonstrated his willingness to violate international agreements that Russia has freely entered into, to wit the agreement that guarantees Ukraine's territorial integrity in return for access to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. Now he has the port AND has violated Ukraine's territorial integrity.

      There is no guarantee that Putin would keep any international agreement regarding Ukraine that might be hammered out at any summit.

      Bela Bugliosi

      Apr 11, 2014 at 8:16am

      As per SOP the western mass media/corporate propaganda machine is working up a sweat demonizing Putin. Even left leaning outlets and journalists have been conscripted for this pantomime. Meanwhile, back in Realityville, I'm still lmao at the absurdity of the US government taking Putin to task for his annexation of Crimea. Don't try that at home kids...unless your parents are willfully ignorant lackies of Imperial America or have no memory of the numerous times America has propped up brutal dictators or undermined legitimate democracies or invaded and carpet bombed countries on a flimsy pretext.

      At least Putin doesn't pretend to be something he isn't. Leonard Cohen, and countless other sane people, must be wondering if democracy will ever come to the USA.

      I Chandler

      Apr 11, 2014 at 11:47am

      " it was a very successful operation from his perspective."

      Successful operations don't usually involve getting caught?

      The Wall Street Journal reported just last week (busy month for false flag stories? ) that the Russians had announced that a building was bombed days before it actually was bombed:
      "On Sept. 13, 1999, the speaker of the Russian Duma, took to the rostrum , to announce that an apartment building in Volgodonsk had been bombed the previous night—but the Volgodonsk bombing would not take place until three days later."

      Of course the BBC also announced that a building had collapsed 5 minutes before it actually did:

      John Feffer describes how the crisis in Ukraine is the geopolitical equivalent of Viagra:
      "The US has urged NATO to get out more, court new friends, consider new relationships, become more expansive. NATO has returned to the preoccupations of its youth: staring down alpha males and providing collective security to the flock... It's time for downsizing and memoir-writing, not hanky-panky in the east."

      Adam C. Sieracki

      Apr 11, 2014 at 2:12pm

      Ukraine joining NATO is NOT a 'legitimate' concern for the Russian government, whoever they are. Whether the Tsars, commies, or the corporatist petro-kleptocracy that is the current Russian government, the management may change, but the threat of Russian imperialism is the same. If Ukraine ends up joining NATO, like Poland and the Czech Republic, it is because of a well-founded fear of Russian imperial irridentism that has only become more obvious with the Crimean land grab.

      Putin and his clique of billionaire oligarchs care nothing for 'Russian speakers' in Ukraine, any more than they care for ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation. There are huge gas deposits under Crimea, and large gas and oil deposits withing the offshore territorial limit of the peninsula. Keeping those from competing with Gazprom's exports was the priority. But Putin is rattling a rusty sabre. Thanks to Soviet economic policy, Russia depends on Ukrainian imports of engines, avionics and other components for the Russian military's vehicles, missiles and systems. These are nearing the end of their life cycles, and domestic replacements are not a near-term option. Even before this mess, Russia's economy was barely growing, in the sub-1% range. Sanctions and FUD have clobbered growth further. And there is no appetite among Russians for conscription into another dirty war for Russia's petro-oligarchs. Russia cannot sustain a war with NATO, nor will Vladimir Putin's leadership survive this conflict.