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Commentary | 3 September 2014

No Easy Way to End Ukraine’s Bloodshed

Image of Kimberly Marten

Kimberly Marten |Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University

Defence Diplomacy Eastern Europe Russia Russia-West Relations Security Ukraine Euro-Atlantic Security

The war in Ukraine is a tragedy all around. It has been clear since the beginning that the only possible solution to the crisis is a negotiated deal that gives Russia some kind of continuing political influence in the country.

The reason for this conclusion isn’t that the ethnic Russian population in Ukraine needed external protection. The interim government in Kiev backed away from its exclusionary language policy immediately under western pressure in late February, and Ukraine had been known for its ethnic tolerance in the post-Soviet era. Moscow’s claims about modern-day Ukrainian fascism are false. It also isn’t that Russian history gives Moscow some kind of right to have influence over its neighbors. Recognized international borders should remain so, and like any other former empire, Russia must eventually learn to live with the reality of its reduced post-Soviet circumstances.

Instead the conclusion arises simply from the fact that with superior military forces and natural gas that Ukraine relies on for winter heat, Russia always held a trump card. Vladimir Putin’s increasingly rash aggression, alongside his growing authoritarianism at home, proves that all that matters to him is victory. The U.S. and NATO, with their globalized economies and genuine electoral politics, cannot afford to be so reckless in response, and at some level Ukraine has always known this.

But now more than 2,600 people have been killed. They have been tortured and brutalized by the pro-Moscow side, and shelled without sufficient care to avoid civilian casualties by the pro-Kiev side. Much of eastern Ukraine’s infrastructure has been destroyed in the process. Ugly nationalist sentiments have been stirred up on both sides, with some Russian and Ukrainian officials and fighters framing this as a new World War II: a total war of slaughter and annihilation.

What has made it worse is that no one knows what Putin really wants—perhaps not even Putin himself, who has always been more of a reactive tactician than a master strategist. At first it seemed that he would simply work with warlords in Donetsk and Lugansk to create a new frozen conflict in the east. But now there is no question that Russian armed forces are in eastern Ukraine, and that they have expanded the conflict south towards Mariupol and a possible land-bridge to Crimea.

It is tempting to argue that Ukraine should negotiate with Putin, and sign a ceasefire agreement right away so that the bloodshed stops. But there are costs to accepting defeat too early or too easily. There is potential harm to the majority population of ethnic Ukrainians in eastern and southeastern Ukraine (their majority status—at least according to the most recent 2001 census—is easy to forget) who might be forced into Putin’s orbit, at a time when ethnic Russian nationalism is on the rise. There could be crippling losses for Ukraine’s industrial and agricultural economy, if Kiev loses control of some of its key resources. There are ongoing costs to Ukraine’s ability to consolidate real statehood, if a deal is too unfavorable to its border security and territorial sovereignty. There are costs to Ukrainian stability, if nationalist extremists see an agreement as a sell-out that requires revolution or insurgency in response.

There are also long-term costs to Russia’s other neighbors, if buckling by Kiev were to convince Putin to try again with similar methods elsewhere in the future. And finally there is the cost to the legitimacy of the current international order, if a bully is allowed to change borders at will. A signed ceasefire agreement may be irrelevant in stopping Putin’s actions. Russia after all failed to observe the 2008 six-point plan peace agreement for Georgia brokered by European Union head Nicolas Sarkozy. Moscow was supposed to withdraw its military forces to their pre-war locations and accept international monitoring, but instead built permanent new military facilities in Abkhazia.

Eventually a negotiated settlement will be reached that ends Ukraine’s fighting, and Putin will undoubtedly have gained something politically for his trouble (although the cost in Russian blood and treasure is already immense). But only Kiev can decide when the time is ripe for a ceasefire on its own territory, and how much it is willing to cede in response. That time may not yet have arrived.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.