Events this week may finally wake up Kyiv to the reality it is facing. Ukraine is at war with Russia. It has been so for many months, as was obvious some time ago to those with eyes wanting to see. Ukraine’s government has not been in that group, and as military reverses mounted, hiding from painful facts has continued. In their own way, Kyiv mouthpieces have been nearly as dishonest in their depictions of the Russo-Ukrainian War as the Kremlin.
In the face of mountains of contrary evidence, Kyiv insisted that the war in the Donbas has been an “anti-terrorist operation” and that the enemy found there are “terrorists” rather than the Russian soldiers that most of them are. In recent days, Moscow has dropped any pretense and is dispatching battalions across the border essentially openly. Once commonplace efforts to mask insignia identifying these units as regular Russian troops have dissipated as Vladimir Putin feels he no longer needs to hide his aggressive presence in Ukraine.
Why should he? Kyiv is a paper tiger, the Europeans are cowered in the corner, terrified of the Kremlin’s next move, while Obama is talking tough about how Russia is losing this conflict, despite the fact that obviously it is not. As usual, Obama is all vapid and chest-puffing talk, coupled with very little action. The White House’s tendency towards escapism in foreign policy has become increasingly marked in a manner that ought to worry all those who like a free Europe, but Obama has no grounds to criticize Kyiv for its dishonest depiction of events in Eastern Europe.
The fall of Donetsk airport this week says a lot about Petro Poroshenko and his presidency, none of it flattering. While there was little Ukraine could have done about the loss of Crimea last spring — they were floored by Putin’s unleashing of Special War with its “little green men,” just as NATO was, and Ukraine had no desire to confront Russia head-on, thinking a wider war might be averted — Kyiv’s leadership since then deserves harsh assessment.
Ham-handed summertime efforts to put pressure on Russian troops and their local proxies led to disaster at Ilovaisk, where ill-prepared and supplied Ukrainian troops and volunteers were cut to pieces. Rather than take the obvious lesson from this, that due to a lack of troops, especially battle-ready ones, Ukraine needed to establish more defensible positions in the Southeast, Kyiv did nothing of the sort.
Instead we wound up with the needless siege of Donetsk airport, an objective of no strategic value except that Poroshenko and his administration said many times that it must be held at any costs, implying Ukraine itself would be lost if this worthless heap of rubble fell to the rebels. Given such rhetoric, one might expect a no-holds barred effort to reinforce the defense, but this being Poroshenko, nothing of the sort happened.
Instead the “cyborgs” bravely holding on to Donetsk airport remained outnumbered, poorly supplied, and dismally led, so their eventual defeat was only a matter of time. With astonishing stupidity, just last weekend Poroshenko, breathing fire, publicly promised that all lost Ukrainian land would be retaken, then turned around and said he was a peace president, not a war president. Then he promptly flew to Davos to hang out with the global one-percent-of-one-percent jet-set. It’s no surprise that many Ukrainian frontline soldiers hate Putin yet actively despise their own president.
I’ve already called on Poroshenko to step down if he cannot manage the war, and it’s painfully clear that he cannot. My counsel last week, that Ukraine must emulate Croatia in the 1990’s — and definitely not Georgia more recently — if it wants to win this war, has been met with pushback from fans of Poroshenko, whose argument really boils down to: this is hard. Yes, war is very hard, perhaps even hell if you believe certain battle-tested generals.
A lot of Ukrainians are angry that they have been left in the lurch by NATO, forgetting that they are not a member of the Alliance. NATO will never go to war over the Donbas and the sooner Ukrainians accept that and stop feeling sorry for themselves and get in the war, the better. To be clear: Putin has engaged in naked aggression against his neighbor, just as Milošević did against Croatia in 1991. Yet if Zagreb had approached that war as Ukraine has dealt with its current crisis, complaining instead of fighting, substituting hashtags for strategy, one-third of Croatia would still be in Serbian hands today, an eternally frozen conflict, and that country would still be decades away from membership in NATO or the EU.
Given the complete lack of serious mobilization for war by Poroshenko, the next move is Putin’s. Given rather strongly suggested Russian objectives, plus looking at a map, it’s likely Russian forces will next move on Mariupol, in an effort to create a land bridge to Crimea. Outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian troops will resist bravely, again, and again they will lose. At this point there is nothing militarily stopping Putin from creating Novorossiya, a Russian pseudo-state running from the Donbas across the Black Sea coast over to their pseudo-state in Transnistria.
Creating Novorossiya would deprive Ukraine of any coastline, which is another reason Putin may seek to do that. It needs to be understood that, after so many needless and humiliating Ukrainian defeats, Putin is only one operational-level victory away from breaking hard-pressed Kyiv’s military in any meaningful sense. The Kremlin can already dictate its terms in the Southeast of Ukraine, and soon it will be able to exert its political will, without a full-scale invasion, over the whole shambolic country.
Putin has the military means to take over all Ukraine, particularly given Russia’s total control of the air, but that would be a fool’s errand, a humanitarian nightmare coupled with an endless insurgency. We can assume the General Staff has told “the boss” what would happen in that case, and we can hope Putin is listening. More likely is the creation of Novorossiya, step by step, under the Russian tricolor, and with that the shattering of any Ukrainian conventional military capability — and political will.
After that, the partition of Ukraine will be easy. The most likely end-state would be a three-way cutting up of the country, with Novorossiya, like Crimea, being joined to the Motherland by a triumphant Putin. The middle of the country around Kyiv, still called Ukraine, would emerge a rump Russian vassal state, independent in name only, to serve as a buffer between Russia and NATO. Ukraine’s West would go its own way, by default. Consisting of an expanded East Galicia, Austrian until 1918, this is the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism, unclaimed even by Russian hardliners, who acknowledge its special status and history. Those with long memories will recall that in 1918, after the Habsburgs fell, the West did not seek immediate union with the rest of Ukraine: expect the Kremlin to “remember” this soon. West Ukraine, the remnant not eaten by the Russian shark, would soon join NATO and the EU, as the Russians off-record understand and accept.
This fate is not preordained, yet it approaches fast, and should be acknowledged as the likely outcome of this war by Ukrainians who seem unable to grasp the gravity of the situation Ukraine faces — starting with Poroshenko. Should Ukraine be broken and partitioned by Russia, a sad history will have repeated itself, and Putin will have thoroughly overturned Europe’s post-Cold War order. This is only part of a broader struggle between Putin and the West — since members of the Russian elite are publicly warning of war with the United States, we may want to pay attention — but Ukraine is the main battleground for now. There Putin is winning, and he will continue to triumph unless Kyiv decides to get serious about the war that has been forced upon Ukraine. They will lose much more than Crimea and the Donbas if they do not.