Timothy Ash: West may be telling Ukraine to stand on its own against Russia

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Aug. 15, 2014, 3:16 p.m. | Op-ed — by Timothy Ash

People load their furniture in a vehicle as they leave after a shelling in Donetsk, on August 14, 2014. Heavy shelling smashed into the centre of Donetsk, once a bustling city of one million. Fierce clashes between government forces and rebel fighters have killed 74 civilians over the last three days in east Ukraine's war-torn Donetsk region, local authorities said on August 14. AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF

Timothy Ash

Timothy Ash is the London-based head of Central Eastern Europe, Middle East & Africa credit strategy for Nomura International, a Japanese financial holding company.

The most interesting thing over the past 24 hours was the Russian military convoy passing through the border into Ukraine, witnessed and photographed by Western and even Russian media outlets.

And, more remarkably, has been the muted reaction from the West and indeed from the Western media. Some 4-5 weeks ago, the White House PR machine would have been going into overdrive, and warning of new sanctions iterations in the pipeline unless Russia “de-escalated.” Thus far nothing we have seen next to nothing of note.

Officially the Russian Ministry of Defense has denied the convoy exists/crossed – but the evidence is as conclusive as it could be from the tweets/snaps by the Guardian/London Telegraph/Novy Vremya. I sense this denial was tongue in cheek. But what is more important, I think the Russians wanted everyone to see this convoy crossing the border. Journalists were guided to the border crossing by the convoy of Russian white humanitarian trucks – and then the military convoy just appeared, turned right and crossed the border in front of the journalists. Russia wanted everyone to see that it has the capacity to cross the border into Ukraine at will – even with full Russian military regalia.

It would seem as though Russia is goading/testing the West – to see the Western sanctions response.

The fact that the European Union and the US have failed to respond to the Russian action yesterday in any meaningful way suggests that they really don’t want to know now – they have had their sanctions fill, and Vladimir Putin has played them into sanctions stalemate. 

This much was probably evident from comments from the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, this morning, suggestive that Western sanctions have been counter-productive, and these were echoed by similar comments by his Slovak counterpart – I tend to disagree in terms of their impact (they stalled Russian action, and bought time for the Ukrainian military to find its feet). They also come as Europe suffered pretty weak macro data releases this week, suggestive that the crisis in Ukraine and with Russia is weakening sentiment across the European continent.

For Ukraine, that probably means that its fate is now in its own hands – don’t wait for its EU brothers to ride to the rescue, or the US for that matter which is currently focused elsewhere. The EU is divided anyway, and ineffective, and has been subject to “divide and rule” from Russia which has been using its own business leverage, “patronage,” and contacts to full effect over recent months.

Already Ukraine is taking things into its own hands – with the Verkovna Rada passing its own sanctions legislation against Russia this week. The Ukrainian military have also found their feet, in terms of their military capacity on the ground. Could they beat the Russian military in a full frontal invasion – probably not – but they would likely do a lot of damage, and make the Russians think twice. This is now probably the main factor holding Russia back further, albeit perhaps not from a more direct and targeted intervention in Donbas, in some form of peacekeeping capacity. This would in effect halt the assault of the Ukrainian military, freeze the front lines, and create a frozen conflict where both sides have to negotiate.

The above now seems the most likely scenario – albeit while this might deliver a ceasefire on the ground, it is more difficult to see a lasting long term solution, as the two sides positions are just too far apart – the Maydan was never really about EU membership, but about European values, which Russia and Putin fear in terms of their application to Ukraine, because they might just be transferable across the border. 

And also how can any Ukrainian negotiate a settlement which would involve Crimea – as Russia will want acceptance of its annexation as part of any long-term deal. This is simply undoable for any Ukrainian politician, and especially after so many deaths, and with parliamentary elections looming. In such a scenario, Putin would appear to win, securing Crimea, a frozen conflict in Donbas, which he will assume will cripple the Ukrainian economy and the prospects of a Maidan administration ever succeeding.

Can this be the basis for any peace for a Ukrainian politician?

At first glance perhaps not. But while Ukraine may have lost Crimea, and may struggle to get a large slice of Donbas back under its control for an extended period of time, and while Europe has yet again disappointed, the big “win” for Ukraine is that the nation has been born.

Finally, after 23 years, Ukrainians do feel a sense of identity and affinity with the state of Ukraine. They have been willing to lie down their lives for the state, and will likely be willing to struggle to ensure its survival and success, irrespective of Russia having lopped off bits of its territory.

This is the big chance for Ukraine, to live to European values, and modernise the economy – because it has to, rather as Georgia did in 2008. Russia may have outmaneuvered the West and Kyiv to a stalemate, even a short term tactical victory over Crimea and Donbas. 

But importantly, over the longer term Russia has failed in allowing a new nation to be forged – 2014, could be the defining moment for Ukraine, equivalent to 1848 or 1861 in Europe, 1776 in the US, et al. 

Russia may hence have gained Crimea, and possibly bits of Donbas, but may have lost Ukraine permanently. Perhaps Ukrainian politicians have to be content with that, and focusing on ensuring that what is left of Ukraine, is successful – and I would guess that it will hope therein to have sufficient support from the West.

Timothy Ash is a senior analyst of emerging markets for Standard Bank in London.

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