The latest ceasefire in Ukraine is already coming apart, and it hasn’t even been a week.
Russian-backed separatists continue to attack Ukrainian forces defending the strategic city of Debaltseve and show no sign of stopping. To no one’s surprise, Putin was characteristically unconcerned with the latest violence. He shrugged it off in comments made from Hungary that “…life is life. It’ll surely go on.” This is hardly out-of-step with his attitude throughout the ceasefire negotiations wherein he was nonplussed at best and downright defensive of the separatists at worst.
It’s remarkable, and more than a little bit disturbing, that Putin is so nonchalant towards a conflict that has already claimed over 5,000 lives and threatens to explode into a full-fledged war. But at this point, Putin’s disdain for diplomacy and willingness to fight should not surprise anybody who has been paying attention.
It is clear that Putin is only concerned with conquering as much of Ukraine as possible, and leaving behind a rump Ukrainian state that is politically, militarily, and economically neutered – and unable to join Europe. These goals are why Putin agreed to a ceasefire last September that promptly fell apart as Ukrainian forces pulled back, but Russian-controlled separatists behaved as though nothing had changed. We saw the same pattern over the last few days.
And it’s why so long as the West is willing to invite Putin to the negotiating table, he will continue to show up in hopes of striking a deal that buys the separatists more time and gives them a temporary advantage, no matter how slight or fleeting. Putin loses nothing by negotiating with the West, but every time Western leaders put their names on a deal that quickly evaporates they lose legitimacy and credibility and the Ukrainians lose more lives.
To be sure, the Western sanctions on Putin are hurting the Russian economy in real and measurable ways. But sanctions have yet to achieve any perceivable policy change from the Kremlin. If anything, Putin has doubled down on getting what he wants in Ukraine.
And it’s important to remember that the EU sanctions on Russia must be renewed in July, which will require the consensus agreement of every EU member country. Greece’s new leftist government has made overtures of friendliness towards Moscow, and suggested that its support for continued sanctions is not a given.
But Greece is not the only country that could block EU sanctions in July.
Hungary’s Viktor Orban has openly criticized the sanctions, despite allowing them to go forward last year. Since then, Orban and Putin have grown closer. On Tuesday, while rockets were falling in Ukraine, Putin arrived in Budapest on an official visit, and Orban proudly declared that, “Hungary needs Russia.” And while July is months away, that’s hardly the kind of talk from Orban that indicates a willingness to stand up to Russia.
If the EU sanctions collapse, the West will be much closer to exhausting its arsenal of diplomatic and economic solutions to the conflict – a reality Putin has been hankering for since he illegally annexed Crimea last year.
Putin knows that Western governments have no stomach for a proxy war with Russia, and he’s confident that the separatists he supports can overpower the Ukrainian military. He is determined to win this war.
So where does that leave America and the West?
We must be as committed to peace as Putin is to violence, and as determined to end the conflict as Putin is to prolong it. That means continuing and expanding the sanctions against Russia and Putin’s inner circle, and rallying our European allies to do the same. It also means supplying the Ukrainian military with the weapons it needs to win this war and go toe-to-toe with separatists who are receiving hi-tech and heavy weapons from Moscow.
America is still the arsenal of democracy, and there’s no good reason to let Ukraine be outgunned by Russia while we stand idly by. Our European allies can and should contribute to arming Ukraine’s military as well. This last week has proven once again that Putin s determined to continue the conflict and conquer as much of Ukraine as possible. America and our allies have the ability and the opportunity to put a stop to Russia’s aggression. But our leaders continue to lack the willpower. Hopefully, this week’s events will change that.