Vladimir Putin has said – boasted? – that his troops could be in Kiev in two weeks if he chose to order a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. They could probably be there in that time indeed even if the invasion was less than full-scale. As it is the rather modest incursion of Russian forces has probably stymied the Ukrainian government’s attempt to crush the rebellion in the eastern province where native Russian-speakers are in the majority. So it is now clear that Mr Putin is able and, more importantly, willing to do whatever he deems necessary to support the rebellion. Failure to do so would make him look weak. Indeed it would be weak.
Meanwhile the West – Nato, the EU, the USA – is looking pretty weak itself. One after another leaders have ruled out a military response to Russian acts of aggression. Well, there is very little appetite here for intervention. For most of us Ukraine is what Neville Chamberlain called Czechoslovakia: a faraway country of which we know little. We are all conscious that a hundred years ago the murder of the heir to the Habsburg Empire by a Serbian student triggered a terrible European war. Nevertheless ruling out any possibility of a military response to a Russian invasion makes Putin’s position more comfortable.
David Cameron insists that the sanctions already imposed on Russia are doing considerable damage to its economy. He has even gone so far as to suggest that the damage will be “permanent”. Money is being removed from Russian banks which now find it difficult to borrow on the international markets. The Russian stockmarket has been falling and so has the rouble. If something similar was happening in a western democracy, the alarm bells would be ringing loudly. But Russia is different, and in any case Putin probably calculates that any damage done in the short term can be easily repaired. Moreover he knows that several European countries, notably Germany and Italy, are dependent on Russian gas for their energy supplies, and he has recently contracted to supply more oil and gas to China.
Sanctions might be effective directed at a democratic country where public opinion can be quickly brought to bear on politicians, but Russia is not such a country. In any case sanctions take a long time to bite anywhere. Iran has survived punitive sanctions for almost 20 years. The people may have suffered, but the regime has been undisturbed. The same may be said of Zimbabwe. It requires wishful thinking to suppose that the imposition of even more sanctions will deter Putin or persuade him to alter course.
The real question is, what does Putin want? And this invites a second one. Even given that his actions are reprehensible, is what he wants unreasonable?
To answer these questions one must consider the history and composition of Ukraine. It was part of the Soviet Union till it broke away after the collapse of Communism. Previously it was part of the empire of Tsarist Russia. It is a deeply divided country, the western provinces looking towards the EU, the eastern ones to Russia. In the west the people predominantly speak Ukrainian, in the east Russian. The division is not clear-cut, for there are many families of mixed origin, but it has been evident in every election since Ukraine became independent. The coup in December removed a corrupt government that was unpopular in Kiev and western Ukraine, but still widely supported in the East. From the Russian point of view the coup was encouraged – to put it mildly - by the EU and the USA, and represented an attempt to draw Ukraine away from Russia towards eventual membership of the EU and Nato.
Putin responded by the speedy annexation of the Crimea and the encouragement of a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. The first was illegal, but (probably) popular in the Crimea where the majority of the population is Russian. The second obviously has popular support. It is foolish to pretend otherwise. Any political settlement – and surely we agree that the settlement must be political rather than military – must recognise this.
Equally, it must be evident to Putin himself that opposition to Russia and Russian interests is strong in western Ukraine. There is no reason to suppose that he has any ambition to extend his military operation there. That operation has been cautious and limited and is likely to remain so. What he wants to prevent is the extension of the EU and NATO to the Russian-Ukrainian frontier. We may deplore his method but his aim is not unreasonable.
The terms of a political settlement are evident. We should recognize that Ukraine is by its nature a buffer state between Nato and Russia. We should accept that its incorporation into the EU in the foreseeable future is both unlikely and undesirable. Likewise we should recognize that its eastern provinces should be accorded the right of self-determination, with the likelihood that they would vote for a considerable measure of devolution.
Some will denounce this as a reward for Russian aggression. It might certainly be the latter. Even so, we should recognise that this aggression was not unprovoked. From the Russian point of view, what they have done in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine is in principle no different from what we did in the Kosovo war; indeed they can argue that in reality their actions have been more restrained. Nato bombed Belgrade; Russia hasn’t bombed Kiev to persuade the government there to recognise the eastern province’s right to self-determination.
The word “appeasement” has taken on a pejorative meaning. Nevertheless appeasement sometimes makes sense. It is sometimes the right course of action. Since we have already said repeatedly that we are not going to engage in military action in Ukraine, then seeking a peaceful solution is the only sensible option. We should also remember that it is in our interest that we should be on good terms with Russia and in Russia’s interest that it is on good terms with the West. This after all is the assumption we have all acted on since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.