Argument

A Premature Party for Poroshenko

Vladimir Putin is still setting the terms in Ukraine. Why is Washington okay with that?

MYKOLA LAZARENKO/AFP/Getty Images
MYKOLA LAZARENKO/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s state visit to Washington today was undoubtedly planned as a celebration of his young democracy’s resilience in the face of a powerful authoritarian neighbor’s hostility — as proof of the Europe-bound nation’s ability to stay the course. It now looks more like a show of U.S. solidarity with a badly wounded and bleeding country whose pleas for help have been ignored by the West.

The emergence of a potentially democratic and pro-Western Ukraine, following the ouster of the thieving pro-Russian autocrat Viktor Yanukovych this past February, posed an existential threat to Vladimir Putin’s regime. From the moment the Maidan revolution in Ukraine triumphed, Putin’s goal was to punish, humiliate, destabilize, dismember, and ultimately subvert and derail the new nation.

Putin has never deviated from these objectives in the seven months since Yanukovych fled Kiev. To believe that Putin’s "peace plan" means he is ready to forgive and forget and peacefully co-exist with a democratic Ukraine on his border is to disregard everything we have learned in the last 14 years about the Russian president’s character and modus operandi.

He has relentlessly pursued a consistent strategy by every tactical means available. And when it became clear that a motley crew of Russian proxies — thugs and mercenaries led by special forces and military intelligence officers — were on the verge of defeat in late August, despite the outpouring of Russian manpower, arms, and equipment across the border, Putin did not hesitate to send thousands of regular Russian troops into Ukraine.

Despite the stubborn resistance of Ukraine’s forces and heavy losses for Russian troops, Russia appeared to be on the verge of taking the major Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov at the end of August. Faced with the prospect of all-out, bloody war, Poroshenko accepted Putin’s "peace plan," which called for a pullback of Ukrainian troops from the Russia-controlled regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, without so much as a word about disarming the rebels or withdrawing Russian regular troops.

It is not clear whether Putin’s appetite for destroying a Europe-aligned Ukraine has been temporarily sated. What is clear is that he has achieved virtually everything that he could have hoped for when he ignited the conflict seven months ago. After being driven to near-extinction a month ago, the Russia-controlled enclaves of Luhansk and Donetsk are well on their way to becoming de-facto permanent Russian protectorates. These impoverished regions contain about 15 percent of Ukraine’s population, and are bristling with Russian arms. Like Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Luhansk and Donetsk are Russia’s Trojan horses. They can be activated for another round of armed conflict the moment Ukraine moves too close to Europe or becomes too much of a Western-style democracy.

In the meantime, Ukraine’s nascent democratic statehood is already undermined by Poroshenko’s proposal to offer the broadest possible self-rule — "special status" — for Luhansk and Donetsk for three years, complete with a near blanket amnesty for the perpetrators of violence.

The regions are to have their own courts, judges and police, and special local elections are scheduled for December. It is almost certain that in the new Ukrainian constitution the Russia-controlled region will be accorded an equally "special" status and granted a permanent bloc of seats in the Rada, amounting to a veto power over domestic and foreign policies (Bowing to Russia, Ukraine has already delayed lowering its import tariffs for European goods, a key provision of the Association Agreement with the EU, until 2015).

The new arrangement is also a devastating blow to the economy of a country with a budget deficit of over 10 percent of its GDP, and facing a very cold winter after Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy company, stopped the flow of Russian natural gas in June. As an astute Russian observer pointed out, it is hard to expect investments and economic growth in a country that "cannot defend itself." And if the economy continues to nosedive, the end of the Poroshenko consensus and the reversion to the "all-against-all" politics of the past 20 years will not be far behind — bringing Putin closer to his goal of destabilizing the country.    

By withholding military assistance to Ukraine — the only thing that could have changed Putin’s mind by giving Kiev a chance to turn the tide on the battlefield — the West has greatly contributed to Poroshenko’s decision to accept a very bad deal. No amount of ovation, not even a standing one, during Poroshenko’s address to the joint session of Congress today can obscure this grim reality.

Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991.

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