"The West could never prevail in a military confrontation over Ukraine with Russia, which would always be prepared to go further." This line, from a Financial Times editorial last week, reflects a commonly-held view among Western commentators about the crisis in eastern Ukraine. But if taken literally, it would imply that Vladimir Putin is insane.
NATO self-evidently has no wish for a direct confrontation, but the risk of one in some form is nevertheless there. As it stands, Kyiv has provided a far more powerful and effective military and political response to Russian aggression than the Kremlin can ever have expected. Though the Kremlin continues to deny troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine, it is certain that they are, and that, though the numbers are disputed, they have taken a significant number of casualties.
Whereas the West honours and remembers its dead and injured, the Kremlin refuses to recognize their existence. This reveals Russia’s moral bankruptcy. Russians present their quarrel with Ukraine as a struggle for mastery over its territory between the 'East' and the 'West'. Ukraine insists, and has every right to insist, on its right to its independent sovereignty.
Military confrontation, whether between Kyiv and Moscow, or notionally Russia and the West, is necessarily part of a wider context. The Kremlin has buttressed its attempts to establish what it sees as its right to determine how Ukraine is governed by means of direct intervention and a series of demonstrative military exercises, and also by repeated − and irresponsible – ‘reminders’ that Russia remains a major nuclear power. In doing so, it has done its best to put over the message that the Kremlin has not just the will but also the ability to up the ante, whatever the West, or Kyiv for that matter, might do.
But the reality on the ground is quite different.
Moscow has imperfectly secured a position in a now ruined part of Donbas through its support for − and reliance on − an unstable group of local militants. That is a far cry from the ‘Novorossiya’ Putin spoke of after the coup he engineered in Crimea in February 2014. Putin may suspect that a renewed military effort might enlarge the area dependent on Moscow and, if the West is truly irresolute, Kyiv can eventually be forced to submit. But it is hard to see how it might profit Russia over more than the shortest of terms.
Where could he safely stop? Another agreement analogous to the flawed Minsk II accords currently under strain would simply store up trouble. The risk of still more troubling sanctions in the event of renewed military action would surely be considerable, and even Putin, for all his assertions to the contrary, must realize by now that his country is in serious economic crisis. Pressure for direct military supplies by the West to Ukraine would increase. Providing them would be proclaimed by Moscow as confrontational, as if its own supplies of deadly weapons were not.
Putin’s personal ratings remain high, in part because no alternative to his rule is discernible, and the collapse of the Russian state without him is feared. But the Russian people have no wish for a military confrontation with the West. Another gambler’s throw would not reinvigorate the patriotic adrenalin. Not even the Kremlin can always double its bets.