here is a military saying that armies have to fight the wars they can rather than the ones they wish to fight. It is a maxim that western leaders should consider in their confrontation with Russia.
Roughing up Vladimir Putin at the recent G20 summit in Brisbane may have given them a warm moral glow but did little to advance peace in Ukraine. Gesture politics does not substitute for a coherent strategy needed to address the most alarming threat to European security since the end of the Soviet Union.
But although sanctions were a necessary punishment they have proved an ineffective deterrent. They have not changed Russian behaviour. Indeed, they may have only worsened it. Their impact has been to boost the regime’s popularity and strengthen the Kremlin’s hardliners, who relish isolation.
What next? Realism suggests it is time for the west and Ukraine to try to cut a deal with Russia. The imposition of sanctions – and the threat of more – has provided necessary leverage. For the sake of Ukraine’s stability, the west should use that leverage to achieve the diplomatic solution it can rather than the one it may ideally wish for.
The main priority for the west has to be to help a prosperous and secure Ukraine emerge from the turmoil. That is a gargantuan challenge. But it will never succeed with a hostile Russia on its borders (and within its borders) determined to emasculate Ukraine as a political and economic entity.
One response would be to force Russia to withdraw. But short of starting World War III, that is not going to happen. The west is not prepared to deploy troops to defend Ukraine, nor – for the moment – is it even willing to supply heavy weapons to Kiev.
Worse, the west is failing to provide the financial support needed to prevent the Ukrainian economy disappearing into a black hole. The economy is forecast to contract by more than 7 per cent this year and the threat of default looms.
The Minsk Protocol, the ceasefire agreement signed by Russia and Ukraine in September under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, provides the basis for a comprehensive political deal.
the west is failing to provide the financial support needed to prevent the Ukrainian economy disappearing into a black hole
On the economy, Kiev should ensure that trade deals with the EU do not entangle its ties with Russia. Before the conflict, Russia accounted for one quarter of Ukraine’s exports. Russia too has a big stake in Ukraine’s economic revival: its banks and exporters are staring at massive losses in one of its most important markets.
The west should also respond to Mr Putin’s desire to discuss Europe’s security architecture. He should be reminded that Nato’s collective self-defence means what it says, especially in the Baltics. But the west should also accept that Nato will not expand into Ukraine. It would be unwise for the security alliance to push for the inclusion of a country that is so divided.
Of course, there is no guarantee that Mr Putin would agree – and deliver on – any such deal. His goal may be de facto partition of Ukraine. Moscow has ripped up the Budapest Memorandum it signed in 1994 guaranteeing Ukraine’s independence and so far failed to uphold the Minsk Protocol.
But as George F. Kennan wrote in his famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs in 1947 on how to contain Soviet expansionism, the west’s “demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.” Given that Russia’s president insists no Russian forces are present in eastern Ukraine it should be easy enough to magic them away.
If Moscow were to reject a deal, then it would be time to re-read and implement the rest of Kennan’s prescriptions. Then we will be back to the world of counter-force and containment.