National Security

Putin Doesn't Want Peace, He Wants Donetsk

U.S. and European leaders meet to forge a solution.

Feb. 11, 2015
Donetsk International Airport in December

Ukraine is filled with the crack of Kalashnikovs and the roar of artillery, and the time is running out to find a peaceful solution that doesn’t embolden Russia.

Russian-backed rebels have pushed Ukrainian troops further east. Last week, the rebels drove government troops from the ruins that were once called the Donetsk International Airport, and heavy fighting continues.

European nations are working for peace. Germany and France have spearheaded the effort, with U.S. backing, trying to make the guns fall silent – the ones that were supposed to fall silent in September. The leaders of those countries jetted to Russia in the last few days to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The talks will culminate with a meeting in Minsk today involving the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine.

A violent game of thrones is not an option for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said, “I hope that we shall be able to solve this conflict by diplomatic means because I think by military means it cannot be solved.”

In the midst of it all, the United States is suggesting that, if the peace talks fall through, it will stop sending blankets and beans to the beleaguered Ukraine and start sending weapons, such as anti-tank ordinances. Those will be used against the same Russian tanks the Kremlin denies are even in the country.

Early this week, after meeting with Merkel, Barack Obama suggested a new strategy in dealing with Russia. He said, “If, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options. And the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that’s being examined. But I have not made a decision about that yet.”

At first blush, the news sounds promising – as if Obama has gotten his spine back and will finally bop the Great Bear on the nose. But not so fast. This is the same Obama who drew the “red line” for Syria and then backed away from his threat. And it’s the same Obama whom Putin has outmaneuvered for years. In short, Obama doesn’t have the spirit to win this showdown.

While Europe and America decide what to do with Putin, he visited Egypt and blamed NATO for the unrest in Ukraine, saying NATO was backing a “coup d'etat in Kiev.” It was part of a larger effort, he alleged, “to tear states which had been parts of the former USSR off Russia and to prompt them to make an artificial choice ‘between Russia and Europe.’”

Putin insists Ukraine is rightfully Russian territory he must control. An old Soviet propaganda poster shows a picture of the western part of the USSR, with arteries stretching to the four corners of the country, all coming together at the heart of Russia’s industrial complex – what is now the Donetsk region of Ukraine.

Furthermore, Putin has rhetorically couched this fight in fascist terms. He isn’t fighting for the well-being of Russia. He’s not fighting for the tattered glory of the USSR. No, Putin is fighting for “Novorossiya,” or the new Russia, a Russia that began with the Tsars and was only destroyed by the West and NATO a mere 20 years ago.

As for Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner just wants the two nations to stop fighting since Russia is, as he likes to say, on the wrong side of history.

In a phone call Tuesday, Obama demanded Putin agree to peace talks, or else more sanctions will come and eventually the U.S. might start funneling weapons to the conflict.

This is probably just a bluff, for Obama would have to show actual resolve if he starts giving RPGs to the Ukrainians. First, Putin and his thugs would be incensed. They would use the developments as a propaganda glut, which would likely escalate the violence in Ukraine. Second, the Ukrainian government is notoriously corrupt and security cannot come to that country without major reforms, reforms that are almost unfathomable in the face of Russian aggression.

But the results of this conflict will have far-reaching consequences for U.S. foreign policy and the relationship Russia has with the rest of the world. “This conflict will determine the future character of Russia – whether Moscow goes into a full revisionist swing or understands that the post-1991 order isn’t going to be reversed,” writes Ulrich Speck, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “In other words, whether Russia will be a nation-state with borders or will aspire to be an empire with a center and a periphery, starting endless conflicts with its neighbors.”

In the end, Obama must decide what stand to take. He may talk tough, but his National Security Strategy is to achieve peace through weakness. That will fail – especially when the man fomenting the violence is one such as Putin.

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