Ukraine: Defiant, Against All Odds
During the Peloponnesian Wars, Thucydides chronicled the story of the inhabitants of the island of Melos, a colony of Sparta, but one that maintained its neutrality during the conflict between Athens and Sparta. Taking advantage of an interim truce with Sparta, in 416 CE, the Athenians sent an army to Melos with an ultimatum—surrender and align with Athens, or be annihilated.
Faced with this incontrovertible choice, Melos attempted to reason. At first, they professed their neutrality, pointing out that Melos presented no clear and present danger to the better equipped, more formidable Athenians. Unwilling to negotiate, the Athenians disregarded Melos’s sovereign claims and denounced the island as a threat as long as it remained outside the Athenian camp.
In 2022, the sovereign democratic country of Ukraine faces a similar choice from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In Russian, Ukraina means borderland, and Putin sees no difference between the borders of the Russian Federation and the border of Ukraine. In other words, Ukraine is simply Russian territory on the periphery of the Russian Federation—one land, one people, one nation. Putin intends to re-assimilate Ukraine with or without a fight. He has placed the Ukrainian people on notice with a unilateral declaration of independence for the disputed Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.
In 416 CE, the Melians maintained that surrendering without a fight would demonstrate a lack of courage on their part and therefore would not submit. The Athenians reminded the Melians of the overwhelming odds, and that resistance would lead to an outcome much worse than feelings of guilt or shame.
During his impassioned speech last weekend in Munich, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reiterated his nation’s sovereignty, and emphasized its right to self-determination. His rhetoric and demeanor flew in the face of unreasonable Russian demands. Furthermore, he expressed frustration at failed attempts to negotiate directly with President Putin or the Russian Federation through multiple avenues of approach, including the Minsk accords and the Normandy format. Despite the fact that 190,000 Russian troops are exercising just outside Ukraine’s borders, Zelenskyy appealed for calm in Ukraine. To do otherwise would make matters worse and lead to a run on Ukraine’s central bank and a refugee crisis of epic proportions across Europe.
Centuries before, the Melians believed that its colonial power, Sparta, would come to its aid. The Athenians derided Melos’ collective defense argument, maintaining that Sparta would only do what was in Sparta’s interest and that Melos remained low on the list of Spartan priorities.
Since 2008, Ukraine has pursued NATO membership and is a current Partnership for Peace nation of the alliance. It has not yet, however, been offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP) and therefore NATO membership is nowhere on the horizon. Accordingly, as a non-NATO member, Ukraine does not benefit from Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, i.e. an attack on one is an attack on all. Both the President of the United States and the Secretary General of NATO have made it clear that there will be no US or NATO boots on the ground during a potential conflict in Ukraine. Yet President Zelenskyy remained defiant in the shadow of Russian aggression, amplified his call to NATO for membership and requested immediate clarification from the alliance as to when this might be possible for Ukraine. In fact, he told the audience:
“We are told: the door is open. But so far authorized access only. If not all members of the alliance want to see us or all members of the alliance do not want to see us, be honest. Open doors are good, but we need open answers, not open questions for years. Isn’t the right to the truth one of our enhanced opportunities? The best time for it is the next summit in Madrid.”
Unfortunately, the collective defense of Melos was not a priority for Sparta, and neither is it for NATO in the case of Ukraine. To date, the alliance has done far too little to defend Ukraine.
In the final analysis, Athens forced an answer from Melos and the island people made the following statement to the Athenians:
“Our decision, Athenians, is just the same as it was at first. We are not prepared to give up in a short moment the liberty which our city has enjoyed from its foundation for 700 years. We put our trust in the fortune that the gods will send and which has saved us up to now, and in the help of men—that is, of the Spartans; and so we shall try to save ourselves, But we invite you to allow us to be friends of yours and enemies to neither side, to make a treaty which shall be agreeable to both you and us, and so to leave our country.”
Likewise, President Zelensky’s response to the threat of a Russian invasion was clarified in Munich:
“We will defend our land with or without the support of partners. Whether they give us hundreds of modern weapons or 5,000 helmets. We appreciate any help, but everyone should understand that these are not charitable contributions that Ukraine should ask for or remind of.”
In 416 CE, the Athenian response was swift and cruel. Its armies laid siege to Melos and it was surrounded. Soon thereafter, Melos surrendered as the Athenian army entered the city. The Athenians showed no mercy; all military-aged males were hunted down and executed. What was left of their families—women and children—were sold into slavery.
I fear that like the Athenians, the Russians will execute their plan for regime change in Kyiv and show no mercy. Ukrainians will fight boldly for their freedom, but the odds are overwhelmingly against them, unless NATO and the European Union do more to help. Otherwise, Ukraine may be the first domino to fall in a return to the consolidation of the former Soviet Empire.
The Limits of Liberalism: Adjectives Won’t Halt Putin
Vladimir Putin knew that the West would not act decisively to halt his land grab in Ukraine. Future deterrence needs to be adjusted accordingly.
Russia’s decision to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics should come as no surprise. A Russian-backed insurgency has been underway in these regions since 2014 and a week ago, on February 15, the Duma asked Putin to recognize the breakaway regions.
Now, Russian troops will occupy the territories as “peacekeepers,” putting enormous pressure on the Ukrainian forces attempting to hold the existing front line, while paving the way for a referendum on whether these territories should join the Russian Federation. Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity—never de facto recognized by Putin’s Russia—continues to be eroded. While we can speculate about the future, what has already occurred represents a clarion message—attempts to contain Russia through the threat of economic sanctions and normative arguments about the rule of law and state sovereignty are worthless.
Tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers are not intimidated by adjectives, disapprobation or appeals to international law. The economic tools at the disposal of the European Union and the United States are insufficient to constrain Russia, at least in this case.
As Russian troops establish facts on the ground, Western leaders trouble deaf heaven with their bootless cries. Per the US Secretary of State, there will be “a swift and firm response” including financial sanctions against the breakaway territories. The UN’s head denounced Russia’s actions as “inconsistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” The French President demanded “targeted European sanctions.” The German Foreign Minister called out Russia for “breaking all its promises to the world community.” What’s next? Murmurs that President Putin will be asked to spend some of this week on the naughty step at school? Perhaps the EU will ask the UN Security Council to consider grounding him this weekend. Putin must be terrified.
Never during this crisis was there a question of actually defending Ukrainian sovereignty. No Western leader wanted war or was willing to risk it. Secure in this knowledge, Putin knew he could act as he wished. This failure brutally exposes the weakness of the Western position over Ukraine. We can debate whether the US and EU should have been willing to take the significant and perilous additional step of promising troops on the ground, but we must be mature enough to see the limits of the restraining power of words and half-hearted economic threats. Economically, the West’s threats are simply not significant enough to halt Putin’s ambition. There was never a question that Germany—dependent as it is on Russian oil (34% of German imports), gas (40% of German imports), and coal (45% of German imports)—would send troops to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty. The US had no intention of doing so either.
The West made promises to Ukraine that its policymakers could not keep, spoke fine words, and made largely empty threats against Russia. When the strongest aspect of your foreign policy is the adjectives it employs, you should know your position is weak. For Europe, the crisis is even more acute than for the United States. An aggressive, revisionist power, which will not be cowed with words is on their border. Russian “peacekeepers” continue to expand their reach: from Moldova to Georgia, from Armenia to Eastern Ukraine. Europe’s weapons: normative censure, economic sanctions, and appeals to the rule of law are hollow. If European and American policymakers learn one thing from this crisis, it should be that whatever line in the sand they choose to draw next, it will need to be defended with soldiers and steel, not with adjectives and ideals.
Andrew R. Novo is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with CEPA’s Transatlantic Defense and Security program. He is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Washington, DC and an adjunct at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
Putin, the Re-Maker of History: Revise and Avenge
The Russian president’s idiosyncratic re-interpretation of the past is a menace not only to Ukraine but also to the global order.
In his hour-long “1984”-style speech Vladimir Putin effectively donned the mantle of the sole arbiter and ultimately as the re-maker of history and unifier of Russia’s “lost lands”, whose historic mandate is to right the wrongs inflicted, according to him, upon Russia over the last century.
Putin list of villains is long: short-sighted politicians within Russia itself, nefarious actors in the West, and most of all, by the Ukrainian nation and its leaders, through their continuous attempts to regain independence from Russia and by opposing Russia’s imperialist project in all of its forms.
Putin’s obsession with history, as French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly commented after their recent six-hour meeting, was center-stage in this speech, as the ruler of the Kremlin took Russia and the world on a rambling tour into his own disturbing perception of the perturbations of history from 1917 until present day. The speech was mostly about the past, but in it, Putin showed Ukraine, as well as Russia’s neighbors and the world, what their future would look like it he gets his way.
This is not the first time the ruler of the Kremlin has fulminated against the injustices that, in his view, even some of Russia’s own leaders, such as Lenin and his Bolsheviks, have inflicted upon Russia. During an academic conference in 2016 discussing Lenin’s legacy, he reportedly intervened to scold the speakers for glorifying the leader of the Bolshevik revolution who built the Soviet system with a constitutionally embedded right for Soviet republics to leave the Union at will.
Such designs were opposed by Joseph Stalin although (Putin moaned in his February 21 speech) he did not re-make the Soviet system after he took power, thus leaving nationalists within the Soviet republics, primarily those in Ukraine, with the legal opportunity to secede in the future.
If prior to the February 21 speech Putin’s attempts to impose his own views of history might have been considered a personal quirk aimed at domestic audiences only, his speech now has clearly demonstrated that his dangerous obsession with the past has multiple very tangible and direct implications for the current fate of Ukraine and the security architecture of Europe and the global order.
In words as well as his actions, Putin is motivated by three powerful forces that the entire civilized world thought had long been relegated to the most shameful chapters of the bloody 20th century. Revisionism, revanchism and irredentism (or revise, avenge and redeem) in political, legal and military terms compose are henceforth the three explicit elements of Putin’s modus operandi. In the grand scheme of things, Putin views the existing international order as fundamentally unjust to Russia and Western-centric, and actively seeks to revise it de jure by undermining its foundations de facto, beginning with depriving its neighbors, Ukraine first and foremost, of the sovereignty that he does not believe it possesses or even deserve, being merely the breakaway provinces of a once unified imperial Russia.
Putin’s revisionist views will push him toward further confrontation with the West as he seeks to re-establish Russia’s control over all of Ukraine as its perceived Russian “sphere of influence”, through a combination of salami-slicing land grabs and hybrid pressure on Ukraine’s government and society. On the ground in eastern Ukraine, this effectively means the end of Minsk and the return of Russia to the pre-2015 status quo of territorial expansionism, unfettered by the thin veneer of Russia’s quasi-legal commitments to the West.
With its hands untied, and the failed Minsk process “revised” by the fact of the announced recognition of the breakaway republics, their potential annexation by Russia Crimea-style (likely through a manipulated referendum), and the overt occupation of their territories by Russian troops, the Kremlin can move to step two, and seek revenge. At the strategic level the Kremlin will seek to punish the West for the claimed broken promises to not expand NATO eastward, by fomenting constant instability in Ukraine from the Russia-controlled Donbas, hoping that this would dissuade NATO from ever willing to allow Ukraine, as well as others, such as Georgia, to join. Putin will also seek revenge by punishing Ukraine’s nationalists.
“Now we will show you what de-Communization really means; why stop here?” he ominously stated, thus effectively threatening to deprive Ukraine of all those lands the Bolsheviks unjustly granted it a century ago — a process that did begin with Crimea in 2014, but will hardly be limited to the current territories of the current Donetsk and Luhansk puppet republics, as Putin’s speech clearly indicated.
This would inevitably usher in the third step — the attempts to redeem more such “lost territories” – first those in the Donbas over which Ukraine regained control in the summer of 2014, but potentially other Ukrainian regions, too, thus resuscitating the defunct Novorossiya separatist project.
In his 1984, George Orwell formulated the nefarious rationale of dictatorial regimes’ manipulation of history: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past”. If Putin’s aggressive escalation against Ukraine remains un-condemned and most importantly — unchecked in the most decisive terms, moral, legal, economic and military — by the democratic West, not only the Kremlin will continue dismantling the Ukrainian state as it seems fit, but other autocratic regimes across the world will inevitably use Putin’s Orwellian model to justify their own landgrabs, thus collapsing the international order as we know it.
It is up to democracies to act now, decisively and swiftly at that, lest Putin’s glorified past become Ukraine’s (and ultimately, the world’s) dreaded future.
Mark Voyger is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Analysis. Now, director of the Master’s Program in Global Management at the newly established American University Kyiv, he was previously Special Advisor for Russian and Eurasian Affairs to the Commanding General of US Army Europe.
The Fog Lifts and Russia’s Plan is Visible
Russia has decided to re-make the global order to its own liking.
The fog we all lived in since the end of December when Putin presented his ultimatum to the West, has been dispersed. Russia’s aging president (Putin is 70 this year) eventually understood that he had failed in his unrealistic goal of forcing the West to change the rules via blackmail and finally got to the point. He started by recognizing the independence of the two breakaway Ukrainian regions – LNR and DNR – and sending Russian troops to Donetsk and Luhansk for “peacekeeping”, meaning occupation at the very least.
Some 32 years ago, in 1990, Iraq’s totalitarian regime invaded Kuwait, and soon the rules of the new world were established. With Iraqi forces decisively crushed and forced to flee by a disparate coalition of 35 countries, the world accepted that from then on it should be impossible to occupy your neighbor’s territory and that if you tried it, punishment would follow. This coalition was led by the United States and the most powerful nations of the world joined it.
Three decades later, the rules were changed again so that it was once again possible to occupy your neighbor’s territory. As in 1990-91, the change was imposed by military force, but this time through the unilateral action, acting without the support of anyone at all (unless one includes the ultra-nationalist, would-be state-splitter, the Bosnian Serb, Milorad Dodic.) Russia, with the world’s eleventh-largest economy, its revenues dependent on natural resources, and with a declining population, has decided to re-make the global order to its own liking.
It says a lot about Putin, but it also says a lot about the West and its willingness to stand up to a change of the rules imposed by the military force of an aggressive and not entirely predictable authoritarian regime.
Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are nonresident senior fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.
Putin’s Risk Appetite
Will he go for broke? Or cash in his winnings?
Putin’s “bait and switch” has worked brilliantly. Western decision-makers, misled by their intelligence agencies, focused on the horrible-but-unlikely prospect of outright invasion and occupation of Kyiv.
Instead, Putin recognized the two separatist entities in eastern Ukraine as “independent states.”
This is a bureaucratic fiction. The two satrapies were Kremlin creations anyway. The only practical result is to create a pseudo-legal basis for a (greater, overt) Russian military presence there.
The West will huff and puff. There will be sanctions — but nothing like harsh enough to reverse the move, or deter more aggression.
What we need is a huge, narrative-shifting, decisive reaction right now:
- EU/NATO accession path for Ukraine clarified
- Big financial/military aid including training, weapons, loans, infrastructure
- Diplomatic response including expulsion of Russian ambassadors
- Cancellation of Nord Stream 2 (it seems Germany is at least postponing its opening)
- Sweeping visa bans and asset freezes
- Financial uncoupling, such as delisting of Rosneft from the London Stock Exchange
But we won’t get all of that. As things stand, Russia has won this round.
The question is, what next? Putin could pocket his winnings and walk away from the table. Look at what he has achieved so far:
- The West’s happy talk about unity disguised its impotence
- Western intelligence agencies got it wrong
- Ukraine was isolated
- The status quo ante has been normalized
- The anschluss of Belarus moved closer
- Two new geopolitical trophies.
Those are important gains. They also lay the foundation for a future bout of aggression. Putin will be stronger. We will be weaker.
For now, I think he will switch back to diplomacy. How about an east-west summit to thrash things out? (meaning: more concessions). I can see Emmanuel Macron hungrily looking toward the limelight. Germany will say we need dialogue not confrontation. Italy will worry about gas supplies.
Many voices in the West will say that it is time to “move on.” Debates about the wisdom of NATO expansion will continue. All that’s great for Putin.
Or: he can double down and hope to bust the West permanently, by trying to install a pliant regime in Kyiv (I doubt through invasion — more likely precision strikes, special operations, economic pressure, cyber-attacks etc.) If he gets away with it, the post-1991 world is over.
Until recently I would have ruled out this approach as too risky, at least for now. Putin’s unpredictable, but he’s more bad than mad.
Now I’m not so sure. I watched the whole of his speech yesterday and that absurd session of the Security Council. He sounds deranged.
But maybe that’s just part of the plan.
Buckle Up: This is Just the First Step
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognize the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics as independent states is not an end but a beginning.
His decision opens the door to several more moves that could further erode Ukraine’s security and advance Putin’s project of rebuilding a Russian empire. NATO, the EU, individual European countries and the United States and Canada, must respond.
The recognition of these Russian-manufactured statelets as “independent” is not in itself surprising. Putin did this before with two parts of Georgia (the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions) and holds the card of potential recognition over Moldova’s Transnistria as well. And, of course, he outright annexed Crimea.
What is notable is the explicit rationale Putin gave to this step in his long and emotional February 21 speech: Putin considers Ukraine to be part of Russia, rather than a sovereign and independent state. He therefore considers Ukrainian independence, complete with its own armed forces, as a military threat to Russia, as if Ukraine is an armed insurgency. Ukraine’s relations with the West, including provision of lethal defensive arms, means that Russia itself is under attack. He imagines that Ukraine – which gave up its nuclear weapons under a Russian security guarantee on which Russia reneged – might actually acquire nuclear weapons with Western assistance to threaten Russia!
Putin’s underlying presumption is that Russia is an empire that has been deprived of some of its territories, and which can suffer this indignity and threat no longer.
Putin’s actions going forward will not stop with recognition of these small territories. This step now becomes a new premise for further Russian military action.
- The newly “independent” states have now formally invited Russia to station military forces on their territory to defend against Ukrainian aggression, and Putin last night ordered forces into the area, Reuters reported. Russia’s veneer of deniability for its presence in Donbas has been lifted (its troops have been there for years), and now it will be uninhibited in beefing up its military presence.
- Russia will continue to engineer fake attacks from Ukraine to justify massive “retaliation.” If Putin can succeed in engaging Ukrainian forces as they seek to defend themselves against Russian provocations, he can escalate the conflict into a larger war engaging far more of the nearly 200,000 troops and equipment he has amassed in and around Ukraine.
- Russia will have recognized all of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent, yet Russian-led forces only control portions of these territories at the moment. This makes Ukraine an “occupier” of the non-Russian controlled areas, and provides a justification for a further land-grab by Putin to take all of these two regions, if he wishes. This in itself would create direct return fire by Ukrainian forces, which Putin would claim as an attack.
The European Union and United States (largely in order to keep Germany on board) have demurred from imposing new sanctions on Russia solely because of its military threats and extortionist behavior. The rationale is that sanctions should be a deterrent and deploying them takes away the deterrent effect. Whether or not that rationale ever made sense, it is now overtaken by events. Devastating sanctions must be imposed against Russia now, based on its most recent steps, before it embarks on even larger aggression.
Militarily, the United States and NATO allies need to get far more serious about helping Ukraine defend itself. The US has increased security assistance to $650 million and sped up the delivery of equipment. But the US and allies have also pulled their trainers who were embedded with Ukrainian forces, and many Western embassies have relocated from Kyiv to Lviv, even in the absence of any Russian attack. These send all the wrong signals to both Ukraine and to Russia.
NATO needs to make an immediate statement that it rejects Russia’s recognition of these territories, that it has an abiding interest in Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, that it is extending the alliance Membership Action Plan to Ukraine (consistent with the Rasmussen Formula), that it welcomes steps by individual allies to assist Ukraine with strengthening its defensive capabilities, and that it will provide further assistance to this friendly country as an alliance as and when possible.
With President Putin’s speech today, there can be no more illusions. We are facing a dictator who is launching aggression against his neighbors from the alleged injustice of being denied an empire ruling over other people. We have been through this before. It will be difficult, but we must pull ourselves together to defeat this kind of aggression.
Ambassador Kurt Volker?is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. A leading expert in US foreign and national security policy, he served as US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017-2019, and as US Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009.
What Game is Putin Playing: Chess, Chicken, or The Fool?
It is a cliché beloved of Western editorial cartoonists that Russians are all chess players. This sometimes leads Western analysts and politicians to assume that Putin is always three moves ahead of his opponents, thus allowing them to be intimidated into inaction.
Putin is counting on this aura of diplomatic genius to intimidate some in the West into breaking NATO and EU solidarity. In that — notwithstanding Boris Johnson’s February 20th musing that Putin may be “irrational” not to retreat in the face of sanctions — perhaps he is playing not chess but chicken – hoping that Western solidarity will crack in the face of relentless, confident Russian actions. (although “hoping” may be giving him inadequate credit; I would assume Russian organs of state have been working hard not just to identify, but to deepen the cracks in NATO and the EU.)
It’s easy to imagine Putin judging that, having steeled themselves for the possibility of an all-out Russian assault on Ukraine, some Western governments will look at Russia’s erosion of Ukrainian sovereignty through the recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (all glory to the fraternal Soviet peoples!) and decide, with a little quiet urging . . . that could’ve been worse. They may ask: Do we really need to institute financial sanctions, and cut off our natural gas imports from Russia, over some funky internecine business in the Donbas? I mean, we’ve ignored the Donbas for eight years while thousands died, right? Maybe we should let Putin save face, offer him a summit meeting, meet some of his demands—(and, wow, honey, did you see this month’s gas bill even without sanctioning Russia?) Do we really need to do this? Will it make us the bad guys?
Yes, we need to do this, and no, we’re not the bad guys. We must not convince ourselves that only Russian maneuver battalions rolling into newly occupied areas of Ukraine, or missiles raining down on Kyiv, will suffice to trigger a firm response. The alternative is appeasement in the face of Putin’s play to crush the independence of Ukraine, soon to be followed by the rest of the former Soviet space and what it likes to call the near abroad. So yes, the West needs to implement significant sanctions now, while leaving some additional options open as possible follow-ons.
Russians do play games of chance, by the way, and they know about bluffing. The most popular card game in Russia is Durak – the Fool. Let’s make sure Putin learns he overplayed his hand.
Ambassador Philip Kosnett (Ret.) is a Senior Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis’ (CEPA) Transatlantic Defense and Security program. He recently left the Foreign Service after a career representing the United States in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia focused on international security and governance. His senior roles included Ambassador to Kosovo, Charge d’Affaires in Turkey and Iceland, and Deputy Chief of Mission in Uzbekistan. His other tours included four years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.