Michael Sonenshine is based in Prague and has lived and worked in Central and Eastern Europe since 1992. He is CEO of Symfonie Capital, LLC.
The Ukrainian government faces a serious dilemma in Eastern Ukraine. The pro‐Russian forces operate a guerilla war, supported from within Russia. Rebel forces embed themselves into towns, effectively turning the civilian population into human shields. Rooting the rebels out comes at a heavy price – high casualties and the devastation of civil infrastructure.
Unlike Russia, Ukraine is financially not in position to sustain a prolonged conflict. The Ukrainian government is strapped with high debts. The economy in many regions has virtually ground to a halt. Winter nears. The prospects of food and fuel shortages grow closer with each passing day.
The range of alternatives for Ukraine is in fact shrinking. Diplomacy unfortunately offers little hope. Ukraine suggests it will apply for NATO membership. European and US leaders offer political support in the form of strong words and sanctions, but little else. Political and economic ties and NATO membership might well be viable in the long term, but in the near term they won’t solve Ukraine’s fundamental problem.
Reality is that neither NATO nor the EU, nor the United States has the political stomach to send any significant military support into Ukraine. The Ukrainian government is reluctant to escalate the conflict for fear of losing support from America and the EU. This is a fact Russia knows well and uses to its advantage.
Time is running out and unless the Ukrainian government acts quickly Ukraine is bound to lose its sovereignty. The Ukrainian state as we know it will collapse. Russia will continually send Trojan horses in the form of aid convoys, humanitarian missions and eventually, peace keepers into Ukraine. Rebel forces will cross into Russia, load up with fresh supplies and stream back in. Eastern Ukraine will fall into their hands.
Eventually winter will set in, food and gas shortages will develop, weakening Ukraine further. The Ukrainian oligarchs will see the handwriting on the wall. They will export what capital they can and flee, they will hedge the bets and call for changes in the Ukrainian government that are more pro‐Russian or they will sell the country outright to the Russians. Fear and greed will drive their behavior. The emboldened rebels will seize the opportunity and head for Kiev. Vladimir Putin understands this well and counts on it.
There is really only one viable alternative. Ukraine must act now or it will soon be too late. The Ukrainian government must embark on a bold strategy, escalate the war and isolate the rebels.
Prima facia this seems a frightening thing. Policy makers in the West will wring their hands in fear that a world war will begin. They will, however, be wrong. This is the only strategy that can save Ukraine and in fact this is the strategy that will quickly bring the war to an end.
Ukraine’s strategy should incorporate the following elements. Firstly, the Ukrainian military must be mobilized in much greater strength and much greater numbers than it is mobilised. Ukraine is faced with the possibility of extinction and it needs to act as if that is the case. This may mean doubling, or tripling the number of troops in Eastern Ukraine. This may mean committing heavier artillery to the conflict than has been committed. This may mean mobilising air strikes on rebel positions.
No army can conduct its mission if it is feels it will lose. Anything short of a fully committed army that can vastly outnumber and out gun its enemy is a losing proposition. An undersupported, underfed, underequipped army is bound to suffer casualties and will only be demoralized. Unless Ukraine dedicates the full resources it is bound for failure.
In World War II one of the turning points was D‐Day, when the United States arrived with a convincingly large force that could destablise the German army and embolden the Allied forces elsewhere in Europe.
The second element of Ukraine’s strategy must revolve around sealing off the border to Russia as much as possible. The rebels are being supplied from Russia, obviously. Restricting border access means starving the rebels. A convincingly large, professionally run Ukrainian presence on its border can accomplish the task of building moral, demonstrating the Ukraine’s resolve and cutting off the supply lines. The rebel forces, faced with short supplies, isolation and a convincingly superior force, will surrender or melt back into civilian life. Cut off the money and the supplies and they have no real cause worth fighting for.
The third element of Ukraine’s strategy must be to offer real services and real support to the population in any town that is not rebel held and to quickly rebuild infrastructure and services in any area retaken from the rebels. The Ukrainian government must demonstrate that it cares about the people and about delivering good government services. A population which can’t move freely around the town, get medical services, enjoy clean streets, running water and reliable electricity is not a population that will be supportive of any government. In contrast, a government that offers its people genuine hope and genuine services is a government that will be supported.
Finally NATO and the EU must offer support to the Ukrainian government in the form of real aid. They need not send in troops, but they can send more weapons, military equipment and infrastructure support and humanitarian aid.
To understand why this is the winning strategy requires an understanding of the Russian mentality and cold‐war game theory. Perhaps one of the most important, yet misunderstood things about the Russian psyche is the importance and value of not losing. Winning is different than not losing. Winning means conquering and victory. Everyone likes to win and if Russia can win Ukraine, of course it will want to do so. But Russia is even more concerned with not losing, because losing means weakness that is loathe to the Russian psyche. This means that the second best alternative for Russia must be to be able to find a graceful exit and claim some victory or success in the process.
The Cuban missile crisis would have ended with military conflict had it not been for the fact the US offered to remove its missiles from Turkey. Once the US determined to take missiles out of Turkey Nikita Kruschev was able to claim a victory. He left the conflict better off than he went into the conflict.
Ukraine is not a threat to Russia’s security. Vladimir Putin understands that. The Ukrainian army is certainly no match for the Russian army. But even the ever popular Putin wouldn’t have much internal support for sending a serious military force into Ukraine. Already capital is fleeing Russia.
A serious escalation from the Ukrainian side would deter Russia from exercising greater force in Ukraine. If, upon crossing the boarder Russian forces were dealt a serious blow Vladimir Putin’s position would be weakened. Vladimir Putin must be convinced that sending in real forces would be a disaster. If convincing him means Ukrainian troops must destroy any piece of Russian artillery and use deadly force against any Russian soldier found in the country, so it be.
The few Russian troops that have crossed the border to support the rebel forces in Eastern Ukraine won’t sacrifice their lives for the Ukrainians. They cross the border because at this point they face little or no resistance and they are paid mercenaries. But none want to go into a battle they will lose. If either they can’t cross the border because it is too well defended or crossing the border comes at the expense of enough casualties they simply won’t cross the border. The Ukrainian government will thus eliminate a means of supporting the rebels and contrary to people’s worst fears, no world war will come.
If Ukraine were able to deliver a convincing military victory two good things would happen. Firstly, rebel soldiers facing little support would begin disbanding. Second, Kiev would be better positioned to end the crisis with diplomatic and political initiatives. Kiev should use any such opportunity well and must ensure that the East Ukrainian political and military leadership gets a clear path forward to being part of a Ukrainian government that is truly inclusive. Vladimir Putin can use this opportunity to help repair political schisms, rebuild ties to Ukraine and regenerate a Russian‐Ukrainian partnership. The business ties between Russia and Ukraine are indeed strong.
Reality is that countries that can’t defend their borders are countries that can’t survive when a test of survival comes. Russia understands that and now the Ukrainian government must show that it also understands this basic principal.
Ultimately the way out of this mess depends on the government in Kiev. If Ukraine wants to survive as a state it must now take the serious measures and act as if its survival depends on it because in fact, its survival hangs in the balance.