A Larger Conflict in Ukraine Is Not Inevitable

Anatol Lieven’s latest piece in the New York Review of Books is a sober analysis of the shaky situation in Ukraine that contrasts sharply with the overwrought commentary in the U.S. that can’t seem to avoid references to pre-WWII European land grabs.

Lieven says the perception that increasing instability in eastern Ukraine puts Russia and the West on an inevitable course to direct confrontation “is a terrible mistake.” A larger conflict, he argues, is not inevitable; in order to stave off conflict, the U.S. should resist calls to “help the government in Kiev to win with military force in the east.”

The rebel forces that have taken control of cities of the Donbas, the Russian-speaking industrial and mining region in the east, appear well organized, have much local popular support, and are implicitly backed by the 45,000 Russian troops deployed to the Ukrainian border. It would take many months—more probably, many years—for Ukrainian forces to reach sufficient strength to retake the Donbas swiftly and relatively bloodlessly, or to defeat a Russian invasion of the east and south of the country. Moves to raise Ukrainian nationalist volunteer forces should be strongly discouraged by the West. The intervention of such groups would risk repeating what has just happened in Odessa, where dozens of people were killed in street battles on May 2. It would make a Russian invasion a certainty.

And the West itself will not fight for Ukraine. All the blowhard posturing of US and European government officials cannot hide this essential fact. In these circumstances, to give the unelected interim government in Kiev the idea that we are giving it military backing is irresponsible, immoral, and contemptible.

Instead of continuing to cultivate the sense of alarm and indignation at Russia’s moves in Ukraine, Leiven argues, the West ought to be realistic about what a reasonable resolution to the immediate crisis looks like: not war, not Russian annexation of all of Ukraine, but autonomy for the east under a federalized system.

What is truly strange and terrible about this looming disaster is that all the leading players already know and agree about what the only solution can be, even if they disagree on the details and the timing: a federal Ukraine with elected regional governments and robust protection for regional interests. This, not further separation, is what Moscow is proposing; and this is what the Ukrainian interim president, Olexander Turchynov, has publicly hinted at for the Donbas. Although the rebels in Donetsk and other eastern cities have declared the Donetsk Republic and are now planning an independence referendum on May 11, many easterners, too, have indicated that they want some kind of federalization and not independence or annexation to Russia. As interviews published in Sunday’s New York Times make clear, even some rebel commanders themselves hope to keep Ukraine united.

What Ukraine is going through right now is the result of a self-interested tug of war between rival global powers in the East and West. As Leiven says, “Ukraine contains different identities, and cannot be ruled unilaterally by one of them alone, or pulled in a single geopolitical direction, without risking the breakup of the country itself.” Even if a recognition of this only happens on one side of the geopolitical divide, it will be a far more peaceful process.

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