By James Boggs
Ukraine is in the news once again after a ceasefire between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian armed forces forged in September of 2014 was broken by a rebel incursion into Ukraine.
The renewed attack killed 28 in the first skirmishes last week, and artillery bursts have peppered towns on both sides of the border throughout the week since.
Skirmishes in contested territories are common, and in particular are centered on the city of Debaltseve, a government-held railway hub which connects two rebel-held provincial capitals.
The most intense fighting is occurring around Mariupol, a major city of 460,000 which sits between the Crimea and western Ukraine.
Mariupol, and more broadly Ukraine, is under siege from rebel forces. What’s more, they seem to be under attack from Russia itself.
Russian soldiers, weapons and supplies have been flowing into rebel territory through the border, making it increasingly difficult for the Ukrainian army to hold out.
Although Russia continues to deny its involvement in the conflict, intelligence sources, humanitarian aid workers, Russian citizens and captured soldiers all indicate that Russia is not only aiding the rebels logistically, its military is fighting alongside them, as well.
Thanks to this Russian aid, the rebels have been able to exert a great deal of pressure on the Ukrainian military, which is taking its toll.
Mariupol stands as the last major stronghold in the province of Donetsk, which will cede to Russian rebels and by extension Russia, control of all of eastern Ukraine and the Crimea.
In this increasingly dire situation, Ukraine has been pleading for help from its nominal allies in the European Union, who are, in a way, responsible for the current situation.
Indeed, it was Ukraine’s decision to join the EU that sparked the whole situation. After the Euromaidan protests ousted then-president Viktor Yanukovych and elected the current president, Petro Poroshenko, in his stead, Russia became aggressive, fearing (not incorrectly) that it was losing its sphere of influence to the EU.
Starting in 2014, Russia set up and supplied pro-Russian rebels, which escalated into a full-out brawl between the Ukrainian government and the rebels, which has now engulfed a large section of the country.
Using Russian weapons and soldiers, the separatists were able to take the Crimean region and force a referendum for independence. The referendum passed, nominally declaring that the Crimea was now an independent entity, but the free fairness of the vote was heavily disputed.
Russian separatists now seem intent on enacting a similar plan in the Donetsk province, which would give them, and through them Russia, unfettered access to the Crimea and the Black Sea.
In the midst of this mess, Russia has two main goals: Defend its sphere of influence by preventing the EU from gaining members that neighbor it and regain access to the Crimea, which houses Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Both of these goals have their origin in a single flaw of Russia’s foreign policy: the belief, or perhaps delusion, that there is still a Cold War on and that Cold War policies are applicable in today’s era.
This belief has led Russia to act in an unacceptable way in order to defend a sphere of influence that is no longer useful or even pertinent on the international stage.
They have, in acting this way, at least instigated an insurgency in a sovereign nation, if not fully assaulted it.
In particular, Russia attacked a potential member of both the EU and NATO. It is a moral obligation, if not a legal one, that members of the EU and NATO assist the Ukrainian government in defending its territory.
Of the members of these organizations, the United States has perhaps the biggest burden, being the most capable of providing assistance.
Leaving Ukraine out to dry in a situation like this one would be tantamount to declaring apathy, and would certainly alienate the Ukrainian government, should it survive.
Whether the government survives or not, the United States and the EU would be losing both a potential ally and a trading partner, and allowing the citizens of Ukraine to be subjected to Russian occupation.
It is more likely that Russia is hoping that its bluff won’t be called, and that NATO will let this aggression slide.
If NATO does so, likely in the name of appeasement, Russia will have established that it can act aggressively against neighboring states with no more than a slap on the wrist, particularly if sanctions are let up.
Russia’s next move would then be to try and expand its perceived “buffer zone” by bringing into its sphere of influence the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Appeasement seems unlikely to work effectively in this situation, and NATO abandonment of Ukraine will lead to the loss of a potential ally and the emboldening of a desperate Russia.
NATO, and the United States in particular, ought to act quickly to shore up Ukraine’s situation and reinforce Ukraine’s ability to defend its autonomy.