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Russian-backed insurgents put Ukraine advance on hold – and wait for the West’s next move

Mariupol residents protest against the rebel advance. PHOTOMIG/EPA

Not long ago, it seemed that pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine were fighting a losing war – but recent events have changed the status quo dramatically.

Russia’s delivery of reinforcements to anti-Kiev insurgents in Donetsk and Luhansk oblast in East Ukraine has swiftly accomplished three things: it’s halted the advances of pro-Kiev forces, proven the resilience of the armed rebel uprising, and given a taste of Russia’s military superiority should it decide to officially invade Ukraine.

In the immediate term, it seems likely that Russia is approaching its main tactical goal: to persuade Kiev and the West that the pro-Russian insurgents can not be defeated militarily. And having flexed its muscles, Russia will now pause to see how Ukraine and Western powers and institutions react.

Vladimir Putin has issued an official address to what he called the “Novorossiya militia”, congratulating it on successfully “intercepting Kiev’s military operation.” He also called on the insurgents to provide a humanitarian corridor for encircled pro-Kiev forces to retreat to Ukrainian government held territory, something which the rebels later agreed to do. He also urged the Ukrainian authorities to negotiate a ceasefire with the rebels.

The reference to Novorossiya, the historical Russian imperial term referring to a whole swath of southern and eastern Ukraine, is the first in Putin’s official statements. That is a provocation; it hints that the insurgents, and the Russian servicemen fighting alongside them, might soon seek to push further into Ukrainian territory.

However, the statement itself suggested that the pro-Russian forces would pause their advance until the West’s reaction to the latest escalation becomes clearer.

Hedging their bets

That was confirmed by events on the ground. Pro-Russian insurgents with unmarked Russian equipment entered Ukrainian territory in the south-eastern corner of the frontier and captured the seaside resort village of Novoazovsk – but they did not advance on the large strategic city of Mariupol, which if taken would be a major provocation.

Meanwhile, about 4,000 people joined a pro-Kiev peace rally in the city, which Serhii Taruta – the Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk region, who has been based in the city in recent weeks – vowed to defend.

While the Ukrainian government claimed Russia had “invaded” its territory, Western politicians have been more guarded in their use of language. Barack Obama and David Cameron notably declined to use the word “invasion”, preferring instead to speak of “incursions” in their latest comments.

But even as both sides of the proxy war are using misinformation and propaganda, the following facts are plain.

Softly softly

There has been an escalation in the training, organisational support and equipment that Russia is supplying the pro-Russian separatists; Russian servicemen are fighting alongside local rebels and foreign (mostly Russian) volunteers and mercenaries, and a counteroffensive has been underway for some days. But there is still no evidence of a conventional invasion, let alone the large-scale invasion that some of the more shrill commentary has claimed.

Instead, Russia is acting much more stealthily. In the short term at least, it does not need to invade nor necessarily escalate the insurgents’ military activities. All it needs to do is to make sure the rebels are not defeated by Ukrainian military force.

So far, Russia and the West have been engaged in a carefully calibrated tit-for-tat escalation of rhetoric, sanctions and military activities – but there’s still a risk that the West could get sucked into a serious East-West war.

To the summit

The Ukrainian authorities still seem to believe they can win a military victory by drawing the West into an open conflict with Russia. To this end, Ukraine will seek tangible support at the NATO summit in Cardiff at the end of next week. President Poroshenko is scheduled to attend the summit, and may seek some sort of elevated “ally” status.

However, Obama has ruled out direct Western military intervention – suggesting that at some point Kiev will have to consider a painful climb-down. EU leaders, who are soon to meet in Brussels to appoint a new Council President and foreign policy chief, have plenty to fear: Ukraine could threaten to halt gas supplies to Europe to blackmail a divided EU into supporting it, which would surely destroy what remains of European relations with Russia.

Clearly, the West should ignore calls for exaggerated retribution, and should work hard to de-escalate the crisis. But it should also reject Putin’s proposed peace talks between Kiev and the rebels; this would simply freeze the conflict in its current confused state, which is precisely Russia’s short term aim.

Instead, the Western powers must convene meaningful high-level international peace talks to discuss the future status of Ukraine focusing on geopolitical alignment, economic integration, energy relations and the territorial administration of the country. That must by definition include a serious consideration of the fate of the Donbas and Crimea.

But before any such talks take place, the Ukrainian authorities have to realise that they cannot re-establish their sovereignty and territorial integrity militarily and the West has to recognise that “winning” a war-torn Ukraine, by incorporating it in Euro-Atlantic structures, may not be worth the prize.

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