Last fall, as it seemed like the Obama administration was about to launch airstrikes in Syria and/or have that option rejected by the U.S. Senate, Vladimir Putin turned a sarcastic suggestion from John Kerry into a real proposal: getting rid of all chemical weapons from Syria. I argued then that, given the Obama administration’s erratic Syria policy, this was a foreign policy gift from the gods and should be seized with both hands. Remarkably, the proposal did wind up working — Syria no longer has chemical weapons, the Obama administration saved face/did not get involved in another civil war, and Putin looked like a geopolitical genius.
I bring this all up because the time might be ripe for the United States to exercise a similar gambit on Putin in Ukraine.
Just to review: as it currently stands, the separatist rebels are losing, Donetsk is now encircled, and so the rebels are split into two. That said, Ukrainian forces are likely to encounter stiffer resistance as they try to capture urban areas. Both a NATO spokesperson and the Polish Prime Minister explicitly raise the notion that Russia will use “the pretext of a humanitarian or peace-keeping mission as an excuse to send troops into Eastern Ukraine.” The odds look excellent that Putin will need to escalate in order to preserve Russia’s deteriorating position in Eastern Ukraine (though see here for a more optimistic take on Russia’s situation).
I strongly suspect that this is not Putin’s first choice — unlike what happened in Crimea, a Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine would be far from bloodless. On the other hand, as I noted last week, Putin has painted himself into a corner.
Russia’s pretext for intervening is the worsening humanitarian situation in the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. As it turns out, this has the virtue of being true. The UN has warned that continued fighting “could lead to a massive exodus and massive destruction.” Human Rights Watch has blasted both the rebels and government forces for actions that harm civilians. Russia will be able to claim that it is acting solely to relieve a humanitarian disaster.
So here’s my proposal: why not propose a United Nations peacekeeping force for eastern Ukraine to alleviate the humanitarian suffering?
There would be some significant advantages to getting Russia to agree to such a proposal. First, there’s the direct effect of ending the violence in eastern Ukraine and providing humanitarian corridors for residents in Donetsk and Luhansk to leave. That ain’t beanbag.
Second, the moment UN peacekeepers get on the ground, Russia’s ability to use force to change the facts on the ground would be severely restricted. It would be hard-pressed to send in force when there are baby blue helmets all over the place.
Third, this buys everyone — but especially the Ukrainian government — some time. The longer Ukraine doesn’t have to fight a war with Russia, the more Kiev can do the necessary state-building and military consolidation to ensure that it’s ready should a future conflict arise. Every day Ukraine stays independent from Russia is a day when Putin’s dream of a Eurasian revival fails.
Fourth, this gives Putin a face-saving exit from a lousy bargaining position. If he can prevent a total separatist collapse, then Putin’s propaganda machine can spin this into a great diplomatic victory at home. Which lessens the pressure on him to forcefully intervene.
Fifth, this gives Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko a face-saving exit from a bloody urban assault. He could legitimately claim that government forces have reclaimed an awful lot of Ukrainian territory prior to any cease-fire.
Just to be clear, I understand that the odds of this working are not great. As Jay Ulfelder noted this morning, it would take at least a few weeks to gear up a peacekeeping operation. Putin might try to change the facts on the ground before that.
Still, I’d like to see Putin put to the test of his New York Times op-ed from last September, in which he claimed, “No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.”
The worst-case outcome for the United States and Europe is that Putin will act hypocritically and reject the very thing he pleaded for in Syria. In which case, Russian hypocrisy will likely alienate European citizens even more, which will give European governments more freedom to respond. The best-case outcome is that lives would be saved. It seems to me it’s a gamble worth taking.
What do you think?