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Why We Can’t Let Ukraine Lose the Donbass

By William Risch

Last night, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, told his nation that they were at war.  The Ukrainian government, after attempting peace talks for several days, was ending its unilateral ceasefire with pro-Russian forces in the Donbass region, which it has been fighting for over two months.  “They have publicly declared their unwillingness to support the peace plan as a whole and particularly the ceasefire,” he said.  “Militants violated the truce for more than a hundred times.” Thus Ukrainian forces, including the army, National Guard, Ministry of Interior forces, and paramilitary battalions have officially renewed the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO).

This time, the ATO promises to be an all-out war.  Since the ceasefire took effect June 20, both Ukrainian and rebel forces have reinforced their positions.  More tanks, rockets, personnel, and supplies from across the Russian border have reached pro-Russian forces.  The Ukrainian online news source Inforesist reported June 30 that separatist Igor Girkin (a.k.a. Strelkov), after complaining for weeks about a lack of support from Russia, had assembled a force capable of seizing Izium, the headquarters of Ukraine’s ATO:  5,000 armed men in Sloviansk and dozens of armored equipment, tanks, and multiple rocket launchers.  Fresh reinforcements have arrived in nearby Krasnyi Liman and Kramatorsk.  Inforesist stressed that Strelkov not only could take Izium, but also advance toward major industrial city of Kharkiv, due to the Ministry of Internal Affairs forces lacking heavy armament.

Facing forces like Strelkov’s, Ukraine’s ATO will cost many lives.  It will make worse a refugee crisis that has already led to at least 27,200 internally displaced persons from eastern Ukraine as of June 27, according to a recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report.  The hundreds of military and civilians killed could reach the thousands if air strikes and artillery assaults become even deadlier.

Despite the nightmarish scenario, all-out war looks inevitable.  There is not even one hint that the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) or the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) even took President Poroshenko’s ceasefire seriously.  During it, their forces killed a total of 27 Ukrainian security forces personnel and wounded 69. DNR and LNR leaders have suggested plans for creating a larger entity, New Russia (Novorossiia), which would incorporate other regions of eastern and southern Ukraine.  On June 26, one of their key supporters – Oleh Tsarev, one of their representatives in peace talks with the Ukrainian government – announced competitions for designing national symbols for Novorossiia and a history textbook for the start of the new school year.

In the face of war, neither the United States nor the European Union can afford to let Ukraine lose the Donbass.  The Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which led to Ukraine giving up its stockpiles of Soviet nuclear weapons, guaranteed that the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America would refrain from using force “against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”  Over the past few weeks, Russia’s lending separatists advanced weaponry and armed volunteers from across the border has seriously threatened Ukraine’s territorial integrity.  What looked like a local conflict lacking popular support at the beginning of June has turned into a full-scale invasion at the beginning of July.  This invasion and Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea have made a total mockery of the Budapest Memorandum.

Supporting Ukraine’s war for the Donbass does not mean sacrificing the blood and treasure of U.S. or E.U. member forces.  Western countries could send military advisors to train a more effective army (one badly undermined by corruption over the past quarter century).  They could send ammunition.  They could help finance the construction of a more secure border between Russia and Ukraine.  Most importantly, they could support more vigorous economic sanctions against Russia.  The West either must do what it can to support Ukraine’s military effort, or it may have to admit that international borders need to be redrawn and that international guarantees like the Budapest Memorandum are mere scraps of paper.

William Risch is a contributing journalist at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Associate Professor of History at Georgia College.  He is author of The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Harvard University Press, 2011).

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