The Ukrainian army is in retreat on every front. Since Russian regular army units came to the aid of the hard-pressed pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces a week ago, the tide of battle has turned decisively.
The two big rebel-held cities, Donetsk and Luhansk, are no longer besieged by Ukrainian forces. Luhansk airport fell to a Russian tank attack on Monday, Donetsk airport will also be captured soon, and the port city of Mariupol, back under government control since May, may be in Russian hands by the weekend.
Meanwhile, those of us further from the scene are being bombarded with dodgy historical analogies. This week is the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, so it’s a good time to see if these analogies really stand up to scrutiny.
The first analogy is that Russia’s long-ruling president, Vladimir Putin, is another Adolf Hitler, committed to expanding Russia’s borders back out to the old Soviet frontiers, or maybe even further. Stop him now or it will be harder and more expensive to stop him later on—and anybody who disagrees is an “appeaser”.
It’s true that Putin has long referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. He recently called for immediate talks on the “statehood” of the southeastern Ukrainian provinces that have fallen partly into the hands of the pro-Russians rebels. This would mean the further dismantling of Ukraine, after the Russian annexation of Crimea last March.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which used to be part of the old Russian and Soviet empires, are terrified by the implications of Putin’s recent actions for their own independence (they also have Russian-speaking minorities). Even Kazakhstan, far to the east, is getting worried, as Putin says that it is “part of the larger Russian world...I am confident that’s the way things are going to be.”
There are echoes in Putin’s project of Hitler’s first priority after he took power in Germany in 1933, which was to recover all the German-speaking eastern territories that had been stripped away from the fatherland after the First World War. But Hitler’s second, bigger project was the destruction of the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union, which would have required a very big war (though he never intended to fight a “world war”).
Putin has no second project. He cannot embark on a Hitler-stye campaign of conquest, given Russia’s relatively modest economic and human resources. In any case the other former Soviet possessions in the west, the Baltic states, are already NATO members with solid defence guarantees.
Until the Ukrainian crisis blew up, Putin hadn’t even done much to regain the old Soviet frontiers during 15 years in power. He’s still not talking about taking back the rest of Ukraine, so there’s no need to nip his plan for world conquest in the bud. He doesn’t have one.
This leads to the second big difference between 1939 and now. Back then Britain and France issued an unconditional guarantee that they would go to war if Hitler attacked Poland. Even though they actually had no military ability to help Poland, they felt they had to draw a line in the sand. Whereas NATO has not offered to defend Ukraine militarily no matter what Russia does: it is basically a local issue.
Those are the realities. Ukraine enjoys great sympathy in the West, but nobody will risk a nuclear war by committing NATO forces to save Donetsk and Luhansk. So if Kiev cannot stop the Russian/rebel offensive in the east, and there’s no foreign help coming, what should it do?
The first thing is to freeze the front lines by accepting a ceasefire—which is now being discussed by Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. With every passing day Ukraine is losing more territory, and it won’t get it back for decades (if ever).
Russia will settle for a freeze, because Putin’s real goal, if he can no longer directly control the government in Kiev, is to paralyse the country by putting a cuckoo in the nest: creating a permanently dissenting, pro-Russian entity as part of the Ukrainian state. The way Ukraine can avoid that fate is by hardening the borders around the rebel-held territories as much and as fast as possible.
Let the rebels run the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk (Kiev has no choice in that), but don't integrate them into some rejigged federal state where they would hold a veto. And don't recognise their legitimacy if they declare independence or join Russia either. Treat them as another Crimea, in other words.
Leave the Russians the task of pouring huge, ongoing subsidies into what is really an immense open-air industrial museum, and concentrate instead on making an economic and political success of the rest of Ukraine—which would still have 90 percent of the population.
And wait. Wait for corruption to dwindle and prosperity to grow in Ukraine, as it probably will when the country gets closer to the European Union. Wait for Putin to grow old and/or for Russia to get distracted by events elsewhere. And don’t get any more people killed when further fighting will just lose you more territory.