The Ukraine crisis has offered some textbook examples of how conflict can spin out of control. Each step along the way (so far) we have seen opportunities to resolve the crisis slip away. Instead, we got escalation. When you see this in a conflict — any conflict — you need to step back for a second and think about what is driving things forward. Events have a deeper meaning than what you can see on the surface.
Usually, this can be sensed from the incident that sparked the crisis. In the case of Ukraine, that would be the moment when Yanukovich was sent packing. To the west, this seemed to be an expression of popular discontent. That event had a very different meaning to Vladimir Putin.
What was it? Some think that Putin saw a logical next step in satisfying a certain amount of “blood lust” that he had unleashed in the Russian media for political reasons. A cheap win would solidify his grip on power. Well, whatever it was, it led him to cross various “red lines” pertaining to European security arrangements. The first red line was instigating unrest. The second red line was using force to take Crimea. The third red line was supporting separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The fourth red line was shooting down a civilian airliner. The fifth red line was openly invading eastern Ukraine.
We cannot know for sure the true nature of the “thing” that motivates Putin. BTW, we might also disabuse ourselves of the idea that Putin is dealing from strength. If this were the case, he would not be taking such big risks. And we do know that he is “locked into” a path. He will not be dissuaded from continuing down that path by talk. And this means that the west is “locked in” too. The west cannot ignore the cumulative flouting of security arrangements that we rely on.
How will the west respond tactically? Well, more sanctions of course.. And it is likely that Ukraine will start getting military assistance. As we follow these likely events, we should keep in mind that as this conflict gets hotter, we get more and more locked into our paths. It gets harder to break out. That suggests, this is now likely to be a simmering crisis for some time.
So what is at stake? On Putin’s side, perhaps it is the dream for a greatly empowered “new” Russia. Defeat in Ukraine will be more and more difficult to square with this idea, the more he invests in stirring the pot. So from Putin’s side, he cannot be seen to lose. On the west’s side, it is not just Ukraine. it is a crisis in confidence in NATO. Without NATO, Europe becomes a minefield of small conflicts. with potentially big consequences. That is unacceptable. So NATO cannot allow Ukraine to be seen as defeated by invasion. On Ukraine’s side, this is a test of its coherence as a nation state. The Ukrainian government cannot give in to coercion and maintain credibility. This is a head on collision of agendas. Train wreck ahead.
See what does one do?`Well, if I were advising the west, I would accept the inevitability of prolonged conflict here. Don’t listen to what Putin says (he will say whatever he thinks is useful at that time), watch what he is doing. And don’t “low ball” the commitment to Ukraine. Maximize the costs to Putin for continuing down this path. Doing less will just make things more difficult later. If I were advising Mr. Putin, I would be sure that he is aware of the risk of long term negative effects from a crisis that may not merit them. One wonders if he actually sees this risk or if he believes that he has no choice due to domestic political reasons.
If you feel the west should refrain from escalation, keep in mind that, the west has tried low balling the crisis from the beginning – signalling that sanctions would ratchet up if Putin went further. Well, Putin has gone further again and again. That threat game is basically over.