When one mistake can lead to catastrophe: what next for Ukraine?

A ceasefire has been agreed but it remains in doubt whether Russia plans to conquer eastern Ukraine or establish a quasi-autonomous state there. 

A woman pushes her bicycle past a non-exploded rocket in Ilovaisk, 50km southeast of Donetsk, 4 September. Photo: Getty
A woman pushes her bicycle past a non-exploded rocket in Ilovaisk, 50km southeast of Donetsk, 4 September. Photo: Getty

Just when you thought an all-out Russian invasion of Ukraine had begun, a “ceasefire process” was agreed between the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia on 3 September. There was no immediate response from the rebel forces, who have been fighting the Ukrainian army since April and are likely to continue doing so – with Russian help – no matter what is agreed.

The news followed weeks of mounting tension, as recently released satellite imagery appeared to show Russian armoured vehicles and soldiers in battle formations travelling through the east of Ukraine. On 31 August the EU gave Russia a week to reverse its course or face new sanctions. A few days later, Nato announced that it was considering sending troops to eastern Europe as a counterweight to what it perceives as increasing Russian belligerence.

As ever, the Kremlin denied that an incursion of any kind was taking place, although a leak revealed Putin boasting that he could take Kyiv in two weeks if he wanted.

Over the past few months Ukrainian fears of a Russian invasion have peaked and receded almost by the week. As long ago as May, Ukrainians were telling me that Russian troops would be in Kyiv “within days”, only to backtrack when their claims never materialised, informing me (with who knows what sort of “inside info”) that the plan had been “abandoned for the time being”.

This perennial feeling of uncertainty – which on occasion spills over into paranoia – has played directly into Russia’s hands. As long as there is chaos in the east, Ukraine cannot move forward. The country elected a new president in May but the crisis has prevented him from pushing through domestic reforms necessary to combat the corruption that threatens Ukraine’s viability as a functioning state. Rhetoric aside, little progress has been made to fulfil Kyiv’s desires for EU and Nato membership, requests that enraged Moscow.

As the New Statesman went to press, few details had emerged of the terms of the ceasefire and it was not clear if it would hold. It remains in doubt whether Russia plans to conquer eastern Ukraine or establish a quasi-autonomous state there. A cost-benefit analysis would argue against both. The EU and US have already placed a host of sanctions on Russia, hindering its banks from getting access to international finance as well as targeting leading figures around Putin. The Russian economy is largely dependent on the price of oil (which has fallen recently) and further sanctions would be imposed if Putin attempted to annex the region, dealing another blow to Russia’s economic well-being.

The first question is: is Putin thinking rationally? Russia’s actions over recent months indicate that all may not be going to plan, if indeed there is a plan. Putin has alternately intensified and softened his public pronouncements as fighting between the separatists and government forces has increased, along with the death toll. There seemed to be a line Putin did not want to cross. Rebel leaders have at times lambasted Moscow for insufficient support.

The second question is: if Putin is not thinking rationally and is determined to increase the aggression, what can stop him? Many experts are gloomy about the options. “If we are not prepared to commit militarily, there is little we can do to change Putin’s mind,” says Peter Pomerantsev, the author of a forthcoming book on Russia, Nothing is True and Everything Is Possible.

In the days leading up to the supposed ceasefire, Ukrainian national forces were more prepared than ever for war. I spoke on Skype recently to Anton Skiba, a fixer I’ve worked with in the past, who spent late August travelling across eastern Ukraine. He told me that the main military action was concentrated on the Russian border, with security officials mobilised to protect strategic positions such as bridges and railways. “People are worried about invasion – and patriotism is growing as a result,” he said. “There are far more national symbols like flags in the eastern cities controlled by the army than ever before.

“Both the people and politicians are in almost total agreement: Russia has begun open war with Ukraine.”

In such a militarised atmosphere, the longer the uncertainty continues, the greater the chance of a miscalculation or miscommunication by either side, which would have devastating consequences. In the meantime, President Putin is destroying European stability, and with it the post-cold-war order that has ensured peace on our continent for the past 25 years.