Late last week, a cease-fire deal went into effect in east Ukraine, giving both the government forces and the Russian-backed separatist rebels some respite from the bloody fighting.
The lull is not expected to last, as the rebels insist on their goal of an independent state, and Russia will keep on sending armaments and “vacationing volunteers” (battle zone tourism?) to the rebel side. On the other hand, new, heftier sanctions will be inflicted on Russia. The US will soon lead military exercises involving several allies inside Ukraine. A NATO quick-reaction force will be deployed near the western border of Ukraine.
Putin seems unimpressed. The Russian people will suffer the brunt of the sanctions, but pride and the reliving of past glory will probably sustain them.
What amazes me is the dawdling response of the Western powers to Putin’s methodical and aggressive destabilization of Ukraine—when in fact they’ve been provoking this kind of behavior since the Berlin Wall fell in 1990. Over the bitter objections of a weakened Russia, they kept hustling NATO eastward, finally promising eventual membership to Ukraine and Georgia in 2008.
Naturally, Putin was incensed. A NATO spearhead on Russia’s Western border would be a security nightmare.
By then strong enough to invade Georgia, invade he did. And in recent months when the pro-Russian president of Ukraine was ousted in a coup, Putin promptly annexed Crimea and threatened to gobble up the rest of Ukraine. But he knows the Ukrainian heartland is a poisoned pawn, so he settles for destabilizing the country so it can’t join NATO.
On the eve of new economic sanctions, with perfect timing Putin allows the pro-Russian rebels to agree to a cease-fire. A cease-fire that was born moribund. But we can hope against hope that it will last long enough to lead to a real dialogue.
You may dismiss Putin as just a glory-seeking strongman, but the grievances that embittered him are valid. Address those grievances and his jitters, and he well may reveal himself as human. The West should stop treating him like the Cold War loser that a predecessor, Gorvachev, was. This means NATO should stop marching eastward.
What both Europe and Russia need is a buffer zone, in the same way that the French and the British needed a buffer zone between them in Southeast Asia during colonial times. That’s why they allowed an independent Thailand to stand between them. Ukraine—and for that matter Georgia—can serve the same purpose for Europe and Russia today.
So long as Russia binds itself to respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, there’s no need for Ukraine to join NATO. Nor does the West need Ukraine in NATO. With a buffer between itself and NATO, Putin’s Russian bear should be less skittish.
Given that, Putin can be persuaded to leave Ukraine alone to engage Europe to its heart’s content in non-military ways, and to become as democratic as it wishes to be. The same goes for Georgia.
And both Europe and Russia will reap peace dividends.
Now, why should we in ASEAN care about what happens in distant Ukraine? Well, as in the financial realm, there’s contagion in conflict. Look at the tragedy that befell Malaysia’s MH-17.
And there’s the tyranny of limited resources that has gripped even the big powers. If they fight a war over Ukraine, the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham will say thank you, sirs, for your inattention, and merrily keep on growing as an evil global threat. And if the US is in that war, its stabilizing presence in East Asia will become less reliable. Especially in the South China Sea.
So we should all care what happens in Ukraine. Governments here should keep calling on those directly involved in the muddle to start talking sense with one another.