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Ukraine endgame?


The shooting down on 17 July of MH17, some 60km east of Donetsk and just south of the Russian border, by insurgent anti-aircraft missiles has now been swallowed up in the wider drama of the fierce civil war raging in Ukraine's pro-Russian eastern region.

The Kiev government, led by President Poroshenko, on 2 July ended a ten-day ceasefire, launching an all-out military offensive from Ukraine's second-largest city Kharkiv, some 40km from the Russian border. The offensive, involving shelling, tanks and aircraft, was against the outgunned insurgent-controlled cities of Slavyansk, Donetsk and Lugansk. Poroshenko said the rebels had been using the preceding ten-day ceasefire to regroup and restock with weapons from Russia. The offensive cannot have begun without tacit Western assent.

Rebel forces withdrew from Slavyansk (150km from the Russian border) on 5 July. Donetsk, the main rebel stronghold, 50km from the Russian border, is now almost encircled by the Ukrainian Army and may fall to them within hours or days. The city is being shelled in efforts to destroy insurgent headquarters. A badly-targeted shell has destroyed an apartment building, killing one man. If or when Donetsk falls, only Lugansk to the east, 20km from the Russian border, will remain in rebel hands.

Large numbers of civilian refugees have fled their homes in the expanding war zone (which includes the currently contested MH17 crash area). The UNHCR estimated on 25 July that as of 18 July, 230,000 people, mainly from Donetsk and Lugansk regions, had fled. Some 130,000 had crossed into Russia, and 100,000 fled towards other parts of Ukraine. The UNHCR spokesman said on 25 July that the number of refugees would be much higher now. Nearly a week on, by now it would be higher still, with large numbers fleeing from Donetsk.

On 24 July, the International Committee of the Red Cross proclaimed Ukraine to be in a state of civil war, appealing to all those involved to respect the humanitarian rules of war or face later indictment as war criminals. The ICRC may have been prompted to do this by reports of indiscriminate shelling by the Ukrainian Army of civilian sites in contested areas.

The burning question now is, what will Putin's Russia do? To date, its military and political assistance to the rebels was covert and deniable. But I cannot see how Putin could ignore the major challenge to Russia's national interests and prestige if the rebels are routed, amid scenes of large-scale civilian suffering and dislocation in Eastern Ukraine. It would look as if he had abandoned the people to Russia's enemies. Recent developments may soon force his hand into overt military intervention.

The whole region is of great historical and emotional significance to Russians. The battle of Poltava against Swedish invasion took place a little to the west of Kharkiv. The Russian city of Kursk, the site of the pivotal WW2 Kursk Salient battle, in which the Red Army first turned the tide against Nazi forces advancing towards Moscow, is only 200km to the north of Kharkiv.

While the horrifed gaze of the world is focused on Gaza, Putin stands alone, facing a momentous decision. The West is tightening economic sanctions on Russia, threatening economic isolation, and preparing to celebrate Poroshenko's apparently imminent military victory in East Ukraine. I know how Russians will see this.

Remarkably, the supply line of the Ukrainian army offensive, all the way back to Kharkiv, is within easy striking distance of powerful Russian forces massed behind the nearby border. In purely military terms, a Russian attack, even on Kharkiv itself, would cripple the offensive and reinvigorate the flagging morale of pro-Russian insurgents. In political terms, it would represent a major and dangerous escalation of East-West tension.

These are dangerous times. President Obama seems to lack any sense of urgency. He has been shrugging off Putin's repeated warnings over many months that vital Russian national interests are engaged in this armed conflict on Russia's borders.

I would not be surprised in coming days to read of a major Russian-triggered overt escalation of this war. The West seems to be leaving Putin and the Russian Army no face-saving exit strategy, and I imagine Putin will be sorely tempted to strike back at Poroshenko's Ukraine before it is too late. And then what will the West do?

Tony Kevin headshotTony Kevin is a former Australian ambassador to Cambodia and Poland and author of several books including Reluctant Rescuers.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, MH17, Ukraine, Russia, Crimea



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Existing comments

Tony, Although your analysis is undoubtedly correct, we must hope and pray Putin does not feel compelled to attack Ukraine. But even if that scenario is avoided, there are now so many heavily militarised flashpoints on Russia’s borders that under present tensions it is only a matter of time before the fateful shot is fired. The West does not seem to grasp the notion that should Russia go to war, however reluctantly, it would be with considerably more national resolve than the Americans and their nervous European allies could muster. Russia is not going to collapse like the Soviet Union did. Anyone who thinks so is dangerously naive. The hard truth is that we have to live with Russia ? as we have done fairly well for more than twenty years. During the week that is the centenary of Europe sliding into a war that buried at least 18 million, we should all be urging our leaders to take a deep breath and be very honest with themselves and us about what is now at stake. -- H.A. Willis.

H.A. Willis | 31 July 2014  

Western leaders are mishandling Russia today as they have been since the collapse of European Communism. Russia allowed the Soviet Union and dominions to split without a shot. But we'll snooker Putin over a few square miles.

Harry | 31 July 2014  

The area seems to be populated by Russian speaking people who align themselves with Russia rather than with Ukraine. Surely it would be sensible to accede to their wish to have the area become part of Russia. Borders have been created by those in power at the time and are often kept by force, regardless of the wishes of the inhabitants. Is this a good thing?

Anna | 31 July 2014  

H A Willis. We might well have to 'learn to live with Russia'. Perhaps its about time Russia and its leader learned to live with the rest of the world. I can't but wonder what on earth this article is about!

john frawley | 31 July 2014  

I'm delighted to try to answer John Frawley's important question. John is one of my most committed commentators. What on earth is my article about? I think it's about trying to help my fellow Australians see what is happening in the real world, rather than what some of us would like to be happening. The world did not stop for MH17, nor is it stopping for the huge horrors taking place in Gaza. Some of us Australians think the world is about us. It isn't. Upwards of 1/4 million people have been forced to flee their homes in East Ukraine by a war of aggression against them they did not want or ask for. Ukrainian soldiers are shelling their own people as I write this. I won't begin to talk about Gaza. In this centenary week ofthestart of WW1, we Australians need to try to understand the real world. Not the self-centred Boys' Own world that Abbott and Bishop are presenting to us, but the real one in which world wars start because of incompetence and misplaced pride.

Name | 31 July 2014  

Dear Name (TK?). Still confused! Where on Earth do Abbot and Bishop come into this war. I thought it had something to do with Russian supported, Russian speaking rebels wanting to claim part of Ukraine as an independent state for themselves - or perhaps for Putin. I wonder what world Rudd, Gillard or Shorten would present to us in the same circumstances - the self-centred leftist union world I imagine. Thank you (genuinely) for replying to my particular brand of militantism. Perhaps you and I are a lot more similar than it might appear. We both perhaps possess uncluttered tunnel vision, me for conservative politics and your good self for labour politics. Thank goodness! Otherwise none of us would ever learn!

john frawley | 31 July 2014  

Dear Name, (TK?) I should have added that had you and I lived during the 1800s we would have been on the same side at Vinegar Hill and Eureka. The trade unions have buggered up so much including the Australian Labor Party which spawned me!

john frawley | 31 July 2014  

Tony Kevin’s sobering analysis shows how the West’s lack of initiative in dealing with the Ukraine crisis could presage a larger conflict which may prompt Russia to directly intervene in Eastern Ukraine. Though Putin may be a kleptocratic tyrant, obsessed with recreating the Soviet empire, one senses that his current jaunt into the Ukraine is largely motivated by a fear of being “surrounded” pro-western powers, especially on Russia’s southern flank. To defuse this crisis, the West and the Ukraine need to offer Putin the following: (1) Ukraine will not join NATO, ensuring there will be no NATO forces 400kms from Moscow. Ukraine (and Georgia) could be a neutral cordon sanitaire on this flank, similar to the role Finland played after WW2 re Russia. (2) Offer the rebellious East Ukrainians some sort of regional autonomy, provided they remain within Ukraine. The fact that they are very unhappy with the Kiev government has to be recognised. (3) Lift the sanctions on Russia provided it demonstrates that it is no longer providing any military support to the rebels. 4) Crimea returns to Ukraine but with greater autonomy. These offers might be enough to give Putin and the rebels a face-saving exit and avert full-scale war in the Ukraine. Tony’s right: these are dangerous times – and by a weird coincidence exactly 100 years to the month when “the guns of August” began to blaze!

Dennis | 01 August 2014  

I am pleased this conversation is taking place. Yesterday, Ben Eltham in New Matilda called for such a conversation. It is starting here in Eureka Street. I commend the thoughts of H A Willis and Dennis, though I think Dennnis's fourth point (return of Crimea to Ukraine) might now be a bridge too far for Putin. Putin's difficulty now is that his support at home rests on a tough defence of traditional Russian interests and values. If he appears to succumb to western pressure, he would find himself in trouble at home. And the more Kiev routs the rebels, the greater the pressure at home on Putin to raise the ante as my essay suggested. I hope NATO governments are looking at the feasibility of a new diplomatic approach based on something like Dennis's points 1 to 3. Otherwise, we could be in for some tough weeks.

Tony Kevin | 01 August 2014  

All the news over past seven days is bearing out my gloomy prognosis. Civil war in E Ukraine intensifies, Russian troops and airforce mass on their border. East-west sanctions and hostile rhetoric increases. Who is in charge? I see a mindless slide into real danger of major war beyond Ukraine.

Tony Kevin | 07 August 2014  

What concerns me about this situation is the amount of anti Russian propaganda in the media. This coupled with Abbot and Bishops aggressive stance on RUssia makes me wonder if we are just a USA sockpuppet . Why a small country would want to cheerlead an escalation in conflict with a major power has got me beat .

Greg | 10 August 2014  

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