As the first heavy fighting began in eastern Ukraine in early May, with an attempt by Ukrainian forces to retake the town of Sloviansk, and as violent clashes spread elsewhere, including Odessa, in the country’s southwest, there has been a growing sense that a larger confrontation, one that could involve Russia and the West, may be unavoidable. Such a perception is a terrible mistake. There is nothing inevitable about the future course of the conflict. It is absolutely essential for Western governments to focus on what they can do to avoid war, preserve democracy, and keep Ukraine united.
What they cannot do is help the government in Kiev to win with military force in the east. The rebel forces that have taken control of cities of the Donbas, the largely Russian-speaking industrial and mining region in the east, appear well organized, have much local popular support, and are implicitly backed by the 40,000 Russian troops deployed to the Ukrainian border. It would take many months—probably many years—for Ukrainian forces to reach sufficient strength to retake the Donbas swiftly and relatively bloodlessly, or to defeat a Russian invasion of the east and south of the country. Moves to raise Ukrainian nationalist volunteer forces should be strongly discouraged by the West. The intervention of such groups would risk repeating what has just happened in Odessa, where dozens of people were killed in street battles on May 2. It would make a Russian invasion a certainty.
And the West itself will not fight for Ukraine. All the blowhard posturing of US and European government officials cannot hide this essential fact. In these circumstances, to give the unelected interim government in Kiev the idea that we support it with military backing is irresponsible, immoral, and contemptible. Did we really learn nothing from the experience of Georgia in 2008? For that matter, did we learn nothing on the playground at the age of six?
If Ukrainian forces continue their assault on rebel strongholds in eastern Ukraine, then only three things can happen, separately or in sequence: they will be beaten back with the help of Russian weaponry, which has so far been used to shoot down three Ukrainian helicopters at Sloviansk; they will retake one or two towns, after which Russia will reinforce other towns with lightly disguised Russian special forces, making their capture much harder; and if Ukrainian forces resort to heavy weaponry to blast the rebels from their positions, Russia will invade. The only question then will be where the Russian army will stop: whether Moscow would be content to hold the Donbas, as it previously held South Ossetia and Abkhazia as quasi-independent statelets formally still part of Georgia, or whether it would go on to seize half of Ukraine.
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.