Time for the West to Act, But Don’t Count on It

When it comes to engagement with Russia, it’s clear that the West has once again played the fool with Putin. While Europe and North America tepidly welcomed an uneasy ceasefire and peace plan in the form of the Minsk Protocol in September, penchant analytical skills were not required to see that Moscow would only respect the agreement insofar as it conformed to Russia’s desire to subjugate Ukraine. The sham pro-Russian elections held in the Donbas on November 2, officially respected and applauded by Russia, should serve as a wakeup call to the West that a security crisis is still raging in the heart of Europe even as the Middle East garners most of the headlines.

Men in military fatigues, guns strapped across their chests, watched as voters in the pro-Russian territory in the Donbas came to the polls. Outside the polling stations, rebel fighters distributed discounted potatoes, cabbage, and other foodstuff.  Alexander Zakharchenko, a Donetsk local who was previously appointed the so-called prime minister in a leadership makeover to make the pro-Russian movement appear indigenous, was purportedly elected with about 70 percent of the vote. In a practice once common in the Soviet Union, both of the other candidates for the Donetsk Peoples Republic premiership endorsed Zakharchenko. In a region where there were no voter lists and nearly half the population has fled, the DNR claimed 89 percent turnout.

The war drums are again beating in Kyiv, Donetsk, and Moscow. Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, called the separatist elections a farce and asked parliament to remove the autonomous status that had been granted to the rebel-controlled territory as part of the September peace deal. Such a move would put the final nail in the coffin of the Minsk Protocol, as it was a key component of the plan. Ukrainian reinforcements have moved to strengthen the government’s defensive positions in the Donbas. Meanwhile, independent journalists covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine have noted a surge in equipment and militants entering rebel-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. Photographs taken by journalists show well-armed military personnel, almost certainly Russian troops, in the streets of rebel cities. Fighting continues to flare on the front lines separating the Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian military units.

The elections, and the heightened specter of war, deserve a firm pushback from the West. The rebel-sponsored elections are in direct violation of the Minsk Protocol, which specifically called for the region’s autonomy and “early local elections in accordance with the law of Ukraine.” Moscow’s cynical endorsement of the farcical affair, which is referred to as an “expression of the will of southeast Ukraine,” was a slight and an affront to the West. Moscow’s election endorsement is only the latest extension of Putin’s finger wagging at the United States and Europe. As the Russian president recently remarked at an international assembly of Russia experts: “The bear will not even bother to ask permission. Here we consider it the master of the taiga.” In place of the word taiga, read Ukraine and other former Soviet states.

Russia’s strategy, although often described as capricious, is actually quite simple. Russia escalates tension, forcing the international community to begrudgingly accept a new status quo. After the international community accepts the new state of affairs in Ukraine, Moscow once again commits an act of aggression. It is a strategy meant to deflect much-needed attention from the Ukrainian crisis, shield Russia from sanctions, and provoke long-term instability in Ukraine with the purpose of derailing the country’s economic and political transition.

If it weren’t for the sanction policy it is likely that Putin would have acted more boldly. Without any fear of Western retaliation, much more territory than a sliver of the Donbass could currently be in the hands of Russian-backed fighters.

The West needs to make very clear the consequences of a shattered ceasefire. Sanctions against key sectors of the Russian economy will be strengthened and expanded. Russia will suffer even further diplomatically and politically for infringing on the sovereignty of a neighboring state. If reports of an increased Russian troop presence are deemed accurate, then the United States and Europe will provide Ukraine with state-of-the-art defensive weapons that can prevent further inroads from the Russian military. Perhaps the most effective proposed new sanction is also the easiest to achieve: to partially lock Russia out of the international financial system by preventing Russian banks from accessing the SWIFT banking network. Such a step was already urged by the United Kingdom following the Russian Federation’s outright invasion of Ukraine in August. The West needs to lay out on the table precisely what is in store for Russia if its proxies or regular forces launch an offensive to retake cities and towns that have remained in the Ukrainian military’s hands. Judging by the Kremlin’s past actions, its proxies in the Donbas will test Europe’s resolve by launching a limited offensive. Don’t let them.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center