There are multiple accounts suggesting that there was actually a productive meeting among the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine earlier this week over the conflict in eastern Ukraine. According to the BBC:
[German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter] Steinmeier said all parties reaffirmed that the ceasefire, which has held for almost two weeks, needed to be consolidated.
The warring sides were now “very close” to a deal that would see the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the frontline, he added.
He also said there was some progress on the legal groundwork towards holding local elections in eastern Ukraine in October.
If the conflict in Ukraine has stabilized while, at the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin has deployed more military force to Syria, what does it mean?
Shockingly, commentators are split on this question. My colleague Jackson Diehl thinks it’s a sign that Putin is winning:
Some analysts claim that a floundering Putin is meddling in the Middle East out of desperation because his bid for Ukraine has failed. But another way to see it is this: Putin’s use of force succeeded in inducing the West to accept his Ukraine demands — and he is trying to repeat his triumph in a second theater….
Well, that’s possible, but as Diehl’s embedded links suggest, there’s another way of interpreting the emerging cease-fire. For example, the German Marshall Fund’s Ulrich Speck writes:
Russia will not announce defeat in Ukraine. But Ukraine’s resistance against the Russian-led attack in Donbas in combination with support from the West has made it impossible for Moscow to win back control over Ukraine any time soon without a major war. Instead of falling back into Russia’s sphere of domination, Ukraine has started along the long and hard road toward building a liberal-democratic nation state….
[N]either Ukraine nor the West is ready to accept Russia’s interpretation of Minsk II. Instead of becoming a tool to control Ukraine, the Donbas region is becoming another “frozen conflict,” a Russian-controlled enclave, similar to Transnistria. Under economic stress because of the fall of oil prices and Western sanctions, and without substantial support from other important players (such as China), the Kremlin seems to be ready to give up on the goal of reintegrating Ukraine, at least for the moment.
So it would be safe to say that there are differing interpretations of what’s happening in Ukraine. And these interpretations matter greatly. If you agree with Diehl, then a robust response in Syria is absolutely necessary, because Putin now thinks that he can do whatever he wants with his military without fear of retaliation. If you agree with Speck and others, then Putin’s Syria gambit looks like a much more desperate gamble.
So who lost Ukraine? The answer depends crucially on your starting point. If you ask who lost Ukraine compared to the status quo in, say, February 2014 after Viktor Yanukovych fled the scene, then you’d have to answer the West. Ukraine has gone from being a triumphal story of social movements translating into a pro-Western government in Kiev to a country dismembered by Russia. Moscow now controls the Crimea and will not be returning it. Russian forces and Russian proxies control a slice of eastern Ukraine, and that conflict looks like it’s frozen — and that’s the best-case outcome for the Ukrainian government. In essence, Vladimir Putin has been able to violate Westphalian sovereignty with impunity on the European continent, and has more territory as a result. Putin retains the option of heating up the frozen conflict whenever he wants. There is no way to paint this as a victory for the West or Western norms.
On the other hand, if you ask who lost Ukraine compared to the status quo in, say, September 2013, then you’d have to answer Russia. It’s worth stressing that at that point, Russia had a perfectly pliant ally governing its most strategically vital neighbor. Moscow was about to pull off a feat of economic statecraft in forcing Ukraine to abandon the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program. Ukraine looked set to join Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. And now, after a significant loss of Russian blood and treasure, Moscow can claim … control over the least economically viable portions of Ukraine. No matter how much Russia ratchets up the violence, it will not be able to peaceably hold much more Ukrainian territory.
I wrote the following in July:
The hard truth remains that Putin’s strategic position now is weaker than it was five years ago. Now he has to deal with a weaker domestic economy, a hostile Ukrainian government that will create more Russian casualties, and a NATO that’s gearing up to more credibly defend Eastern Europe. Putin has responded in numerous ways, none of them terribly effective. Sure, he’s embraced the east — but China will be happy to exploit this opportunity for commercial gains and not much else. And for all the talk about Russia’s efforts to propagandize its way into the hearts and minds of some European populations, the fact remains that European leaders are likely to be more resolute in an escalating crisis, and the European Union is still way more powerful on the continent than Russia. The only way in which Putin’s strategy has worked is in bolstering his own domestic standing.
Nothing has changed in Putin’s favor in the months since. Wait, actually, that’s not true, because the price of Russia’s primary exports has fallen further, and it looks like China is going to screw Russia over even more on the gas deals.
This fact is worth keeping in mind when everyone starts freaking out about Russia’s military presence in Syria. This is not to say that such a presence is a good thing for anyone. It’s not. Rather, it would be a mistake to infer that Russia’s use of military statecraft amounts to a permanent expansion of Russian influence. As with Ukraine, Russia’s strategic position in the Middle East was stronger five years ago than it is today. Or, to sum it up in a tweet: