As I write this, there are reports of Russian jets buzzing into Ukrainian airspace. That’s in addition to the reported 40,000 Russian troops on her border, playing war games.
How should Ukraine react to this provocation? In particular, should it be deterred from moving against rebels in its south-east, who currently occupy Government buildings and the like?
In my opinion, No. Ukraine can’t survive with an entire corner of it in separatist hands, having already lost Crimea. A running sore eventually kills you. What Ukraine can and should continue doing is treading on eggshells there, trying to achieve its aims by negotiation and with minimal force – including taking into consideration the wishes of ethnic Russians, and curbing its own extremist groups. That’ll make it harder for Russia to find an excuse to intervene militarily. But rest assured, Putin will find an excuse to intervene if he needs one – we know how clever he is at monkey business – so there’s no point being overcautious.
At the same time the West needs to tough it out – but more cleverly. It’s been said the West took its eye off the ball with Russia the last 20 years, and was at times insensitive; for example, pushing Nato up to Russia’s borders. I agree with that, but equally no amount of conciliation is going to push a man like Putin off his geopolitical and economic course – which is, essentially, not to “lose” Ukraine to the West. So, a more nuanced approach from the West is required. At the moment, however infuriating Russia’s behaviour, the dramatic upping in tone of the West’s rhetoric is unlikely to achieve anything positive: even a bully doesn’t like to be bullied.
The West can begin by holding back new G7 sanctions, about to be announced, until there are more concrete developments in Ukraine. Further sanctions will be seen as antagonistic, and won’t change behaviours. However unpalatable it may seem, sanctions may be better employed – at maximum strength – if and when Russia oversteps the mark in south-east Ukraine, to make her think again; the aim being, of course, that by being less antagonistic now, we won’t get there in the first place.
So, it’s a veritable monkey puzzle in Ukraine – but a lot more depends on it than reaching the top of a tree. If the two sides get it wrong, I see no reason we wouldn’t enter a new Cold War with all the diplomatic and economic uncertainty that would bring, let alone a threat to world peace.