24th Mar 2018


Who won the Russia-Ukraine war?

  • Protesters in Kiev: everybody lost (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

The Ukraine ceasefire might collapse any day. But if it sticks and the war ends here, it poses the question: who won?

In military terms, the answer looks clear: Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

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In March, the Russian army seized Crimea. Last week, it routed Ukrainian forces in east Ukraine.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko asked EU and Nato leaders for weapons. They said “there is no military solution to the conflict”.

But Putin showed there is - several thousand Russian infantry, fighting as formed units, supported by tanks and artillery.

The Russian invasion and the lack of Western support is why Ukraine signed the “Minsk protocol” - a 12-point peace plan - last Friday (5 September).

It creates a big chance the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics will become de facto states which stop Ukraine from getting EU, let alone Nato, membership for decades.

The Minsk paper says pro-Russia rebels can stay if there is no fighting, with Ukraine to pass a law “prohibiting the prosecution and punishment of persons in connection with the events”.

It also gives two rebel leaders - Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Ihor Plotnitskiy, the “prime ministers” of Donetsk and Luhansk - an air of legitimacy.

Last Thursday they were “terrorists”. But on Friday they became co-signatories of a document endorsed by Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE, a European multilateral body.

The Minsk accord obliges them to “remove unlawful military formations, military hardware … from the territory of Ukraine”. It adds that the OSCE will monitor the Russia-Ukraine border.

It sounds good. But there could be long debate on what is “unlawful”.

Plotnitskiy, speaking on Sunday, said: “We believe the military equipment of the Ukrainian army is illegally present on both Luhansk and Donetsk territories”.

On OSCE monitoring, he added: “If this is some kind of plan to try and take the republic by surrounding us again, it won’t work”.

He need not fear.

Russia, an OSCE-veto holder, will decide where OSCE personnel go. Based on OSCE monitoring of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, they will come two days after an incident, file a report, then go away.

Meanwhile, the Minsk protocol says nothing on Russian troops in Ukraine.

They don’t exist on paper. So no one needs to ask non-existent soldiers to leave for the peace deal to be called a success.

With his forces in place, Putin can invade other parts of Ukraine if things don’t go his way.

But occupying a whole country is more expensive than occupying a strategic part of it. Especially if the objective - keeping Ukraine out of Western blocs - is already in the bag.

Losing Ukraine

So what if Putin won Crimea and bits of Donetsk and Luhansk - he lost the rest of Ukraine. Right?

Russia’s attack has seen pro-Western feeling soar in the rest of the country.

Polls now say Ukrainians want to join Nato. They also say pro-Western parties will sweep pro-Russia MPs out of parliament in upcoming elections.

The EU and the International Monetary Fund have started paying out money.

The implementation of the EU trade pact will remodel the Ukrainian economy on the lines of the single market, joining them at the hip.

But if Ukraine’s pro-EU revolution showed one thing - at times, there were more than 1 million people on the streets - it showed Ukraine was not Putin’s to lose in the first place.

Something changed since independence in 1991 and the Orange Revolution in 2004.

Ukraine was not going to join the Eurasian Union or to accept Putinism in the form of Yanukovychism - the larceny and Kremlin-subservience of ousted Ukraine leader Viktor Yanukovych.

Putin bit off what he can swallow.

And as euphoria fades, hard work begins: transforming what’s left of Ukraine into a “European state” in terms of good governance will take a long time.

Ukrainian oligarchs won’t make it easier: Tetyana Chornovil, a reporter who was chosen to head a new anti-corruption bureau, recently quit saying her work is impossible.

Putin won’t make it easier either. Ukraine’s ratification of the EU treaty will prompt a Russian trade embargo. The winter is likely to see gas shortages.

Putin has levers in Kiev: One of his men, Viktor Medvedchuk, is still a leading power broker. He also has EU levers: German chancellor Angela Merkel has said Russia should co-decide how the EU trade pact is implemented.

Political infighting and EU fatigue saw the collapse of one post-Orange Revolution government after another while reforms stood still.

Poroshenko could meet the same fate.

Pyrrhic victory?

So what if Putin won, the price he paid is too high. Right?

Dead Russian soldiers and their families paid a price.

But most Russians will never know because they live in an authoritarian state where civil society and free press are under siege.

Some of Putin’s cronies paid a price by getting on EU and US blacklists, while the downturn caused by economic sanctions will hurt Russia’s middle class.

What did Putin get in return?

Its strategic value aside, east Ukraine is a war-torn rustbelt that will take billions to modernise. Crimea, with no tourism and no fresh water or electricity, is also a burden.

But the Minsk protocol - which speaks of “a programme of economic revival and restoration of life in the Donbas region” - could see Ukrainian and EU money used to rebuild Russia-occupied zones.

It is also hard to put a value on Crimea, a piece of real estate the size of Belgium, especially if talk of gas reserves in Crimean waters comes true.

Putin has said Russian oligarchs who prefer mansions in London to Kremlin loyalty can take a hike.

Anybody who doubts him can ask Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oligarch who turned West in 2003 and who spent the next 10 years in jail.

Putin’s propaganda monopoly has seen many Russians buy the myth of an imperial revival.

No one foresees mass protests on the streets of St Petersburg or Moscow over the loss of parmesan cheese or jobs.

If people in Donetsk, Luhansk, or Crimea are condemned to economic misery, that’s OK: the vast majority of Russians have put up with misery for generations already.

Peace at any price

For its part, the EU this week showed it is happy for Ukraine to pay the price for peace in Europe.

Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Germany, and Italy put the brakes on a new round of sanctions to help implement the Minsk protocol.

Merkel has routinely blocked any promise of an EU or Nato perspective.

Last week, she blocked the creation of new Nato bases in eastern Europe.

If there are no sanctions over Russia’s invasion of east Ukraine, the next step is to start rolling back the ones in place.

Hungary and Slovakia have publicly called for a u-turn. France has said its big decision - freezing the delivery of a warship to Russia - will be taken back if there is a “ceasefire and political solution”.

Europeans were astonished when Russian tanks rolled into Georgia in August 2008.

But its then foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, wrote a paper saying Russia relations are too big to fail, and Russian leaders were invited to an EU summit in France in November.

The EU’s new foreign policy chief, Italy’s Federica Mogherini, is to meet Putin at an EU event in Milan in October. She has also said the EU should let Russia build the South Stream gas pipeline.

It’s no great stretch of the imagination to see a return to business as usual: France delivering the ship; Bulgaria resuming South Stream construction; the next EU-Russia summit in December or early 2015; the World Cup in Russia in 2018.

What next?

Whatever happens next, the question ‘who won the war in Ukraine’ is perhaps the wrong one to ask.

It depicts the crisis in Putin’s own macho terms.

The truth is that everybody lost.

EU civilians (MH17), 2,600 Ukrainians, and who knows how many Russians lost their lives. Ukraine lost territory. The EU and Nato lost credibility.

But Putin will go down in history as the biggest loser: He lost the chance to make Russia, one of the world’s richest nations in terms of natural resources and culture, and Russia’s neighbourhood into a decent place to live.

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