In Ukraine, the start of a new Cold War that Russia can’t win

“Ukraine is me”: Nationalists in Kiev. EPA/Tatyana Zenkovich

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall that ushered in the end of communism in eastern Europe and the break-up of the Soviet Union, all the signs point to a new Cold War between Russia and the West. As the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pointed out, the Ukrainian crisis has triggered an accelerated downward spiral in relations between the erstwhile rivals. More than that, events over the past two weeks may even suggest that this may become a Cold War with a very volatile hotspot right at the doorstep of the EU and NATO.

Following parliamentary elections in Ukraine two weeks ago and separate elections in the rebel strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk last week, it seems the now year-long crisis is heading for yet another climax. Not only were the elections in rebel-held areas in clear contravention of a September 5 agreement between the Ukrainian government and rebel representatives, but whatever ceasefire and disengagement plan the two sides had agreed to on September 5 and further specified two weeks later is now irreparably damaged after the Ukrainian president asked parliament to revoke a recent law offering more autonomy to the east against a background of escalating violence.

Far from just the occasional violations, the past three days have seen a significant escalation of fighting in and around Donetsk. Evidence has emerged of significant military supplies reaching the rebels from Russia. Much of this equipment, as well as additional troops, was confirmed by OSCE monitors to have made its way to Donetsk and Makeevka, including tanks and howitzers. This followed a decision earlier in the week by Ukrainian president Poroshenko to send additional Ukrainian army units to the area in response to what Ukraine and its Western partners consider illegal elections. While Russia has stopped short of recognising the elections, Moscow has stated that it respects the outcome.

The rebels are now firmly entrenched in a large area along Ukraine’s south-eastern border with Russia, stretching from just north of Luhansk to the port city of Novoazovsk at the Sea of Azov. They hold the area around Luhansk airport, but do not have control of either Donetsk airport or the strategic port of Mariupol. Nonetheless, Ukraine has no military capabilities at the moment to cut the rebels off from Russian supply lines as troop and equipment movements over the past days clearly demonstrate.

Frozen conflict

Ukraine’s weakness is only part of the story. A second dimension of the evolving crisis is that Russia is clearly prepared to do whatever it takes to shore up the rebels and enable them to resist any Ukrainian effort to retake the east by force. To achieve this, Russia does not need to recognise rebel elections or referendums on independence or annex the areas as it did with Crimea in March – the Kremlin simply provides enough military capability to the rebels to hold on to the areas they already control. This has the added advantage of keeping the new government in Kiev busy focusing on the east, spending scarce resources on futile military efforts to regain full sovereignty over all of Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Ukrainian servicemen preparing for action. EPA/Dmitriy Lipavskiy

While it may not look like it at the moment, the rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine are on a straight course to become yet another so-called frozen conflict in the Russian periphery. Russian actions over the past few days and weeks have all the hallmarks of policies that were tried and tested in the early 1990s. A shaky, Russian-mediated ceasefire (the Minsk talks leading to the agreements of September 5 and 19), modest gestures of conciliation towards the affected state (the EU-mediated Russian-Ukrainian gas deal of October 30) and military and humanitarian support to consolidate the separatist regime and increase its dependence on Moscow (the various official and unofficial forms of assistance rendered to the rebels over the past several months). That said, it is also worthwhile to remember that establishing de facto states, such as in Georgia and Moldova, was always a means to an end–to dictate the terms of “reunification” to gain permanent control over some former Soviet republics’ foreign policy choices.

Russia, it seems, may be getting away not just with the illegal annexation of Crimea but also with establishing yet another de facto state under its control, thus frustrating another country’s sovereign choice of seeking closer integration with the EU either through the kind of permanent Russian-controlled instability that we see now or through a federated Ukraine in which the eastern regions would be able to represent Moscow’s interests effectively in Kiev. But this may be a serious miscalculation on Russia’s part. Unlike 20 years ago, Ukraine’s Western partners have imposed gradually harder-hitting sanctions, the escalation of the crisis has sent the Russian Rouble into free-fall, and the Russian economy now teeters at the brink of recession. Moreover, sustaining four million people in eastern Ukraine is of an entirely different magnitude as doing so for tens of thousands in South Ossetia and Abkhazia or a few hundred thousand in Transnistria.

Russia may not need a full-scale war to retain a foothold in eastern Ukraine at the moment, but it can hardly afford one either – and decreasingly so. We may well be at the beginning of a new Cold War, but as with the last one, Russia is unlikely to win it. This offers some hope in the long term, but it is hardly a cause for yet another round of the Western triumphalism that Gorbachev considers the main reason for the regression in East-West relations. Because, when Russia eventually loses, this will have come at a much higher cost to many more people and countries than Russia and Ukraine.