The Coldest Hot War in Ukraine

It had been speculated, over the last four months of a shaky ceasefire, that Putin intended to “freeze” the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in order to maintain a hold over the Ukrainian government.  Over the last three days, the conflict has unfrozen.  The Russians and Russian-backed rebels have launched an offensive, and according to their puppet prime minister there will be “no more ceasefires”.  The timing certainly makes sense: the Russian Army is much better-equipped than the Ukrainian one for high-tempo operations in the dead of winter, and it also allows use of the “gas weapon” to pressure the civilian government.

It remains to be seen if this operation is serious. If past offensives are any guide, it will last for a few days or a week and then peter out by pressuring the Ukrainian leaders into a ceasefire.  It seems as though the Russian MO is to alternate between sharp escalation and drawbacks, in order to alternatively panic the Ukrainians and lull them back into complacency.  But that does not seem like a long-term sustainable strategy – it has not accomplished the Russian goal of toppling the revolutionary government, and it’s not clear what gains the Russians extract from the status quo.  Given the direct occupation costs and the indirect costs of sanctions, a frozen conflict is an expensive policy that gains Russia little.  It will eventually have to either withdraw or escalate to the point it can actually gain something.

There is only one way Ukraine can win this conflict: escalation to full-scale war.  It will almost certainly lose every battle in that war, and the devastation would be horrible. However, it’s a matter of relative willingness to bear costs.  Ukrainians would be willing to lose much more in a struggle for independence than Russians would be willing to lose invading a fully mobilized Ukraine and then struggling to occupy it.  Hopefully this would not be necessary – Putin knows the above, and so would prefer to go to great lengths to avoid a full-scale war.  Credible signaling by Poroshenko that he would go all the way might be sufficient to deter Putin.  But escalation is very difficult to control, and while I think Ukraine would win a war it would entail almost unimaginable human costs.

Both Putin and Poroshenko face very unpleasant choices ahead of them.  I hope each thinks carefully about what they would hope to win and fear to lose – if Putin had more thoughtfully considered that, we might not be in this situation today.

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