Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced on September 10th that he intends to build an extensive set of fortifications along Ukraine’s frontier with Russia and the Russian-occupied enclave of the Donbas. Called “The Wall,” the defensive line would consist of a ditch, a “no-man’s land,” an actual wall, and watch towers.
Although the name brings to mind the Berlin Wall, Poroshenko actually compared Ukraine’s planned fortifications to the Mannerheim Line, the Finnish defense against the Soviet Union, clearly suggesting that he sees today’s Ukraine as interwar Finland and Putin’s Russia as Stalin’s USSR. That reference alone underscores just how profoundly Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has changed Ukrainian attitudes to Russia. The formerly big and intrusive strategic partner has become a mortal enemy akin to the Soviet empire under its genocidal dictator, Stalin.
More important than the symbolism is the fact that The Wall is an excellent idea with significant implications. It’s high time for Ukraine to do the only sensible thing it can do vis-à-vis its far stronger, imperialist neighbor: switch from offense to defense and build up a defensive capacity that would deter Putin even in his wildest dreams from embarking on a further aggression. It’s important to realize that Ukraine will never be stronger than Russia militarily. Calls for wars of liberation of the Crimea, or the Donbas enclave occupied by Putin and his proxies, are just demagogy.
That being the case, a Ukrainian withdrawal to strategically defensible positions is in order. Thereafter, those positions must be made sufficiently strong to prevent any Russian leader from expanding westward into Ukraine. “Sufficiently strong” means that the costs in terms of Russian soldiers’ lives would be high enough for Putin or his successor to think twice about an invasion. Were Putin determined to throw the entire Russian army against Ukraine and send tens of thousands of Russian soldiers to their deaths, no Mannerheim Line could stop him. The underlying logic behind any defensive line is thus that all leaders, even those that seem irrational, have some sense of the costs of Pyrrhic victories.
A ditch, a no-man’s-land, a wall, and watch towers may keep out small numbers of aggressors, but deterring a massive land attack by tanks, aircraft, and infantry will obviously require that Ukraine supplement the line with the requisite armaments. It’s clear that, among other things, armaments will need to include anti-tank missiles and limited-range surface-to-air missiles. Neither weapon could be construed by Russia as being offensive; both would inflict enormous damage on attacking Russian tanks and planes. Poroshenko would be well advised to collect a group of Western defense experts to advise Ukraine on just which armaments it does and does not need in order to fortify The Wall. And the sooner, the better.
The Wall has important political implications. By cutting itself off from Russia and the Donbas enclave controlled by Putin and his proxies, Ukraine will effectively be freezing the conflict and declaring that the enclave is Russia’s responsibility. Naturally, the Kyiv government will insist otherwise. But don’t be fooled by declarations of implacable determination to win back lost territory. A wall will keep the Russians out of Ukraine, but it will also keep Ukraine out of the Donbas enclave.
A frozen conflict will actually be to Ukraine’s benefit. The enclave, which is where much of the region’s population and industry were concentrated, is in ruins. Hundreds of thousands of middle-class professionals have fled and will not return. Industry is shrinking. Infrastructure has collapsed. All these negative tendencies will accelerate, as Putin’s terrorist proxies, remnants of the (formerly ruling) Party of Regions and the Communist Party, the Kremlin, the Donbas oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, and the Russian Orthodox Church duke it out over influence. In a word, the Donbas enclave is finished, and, as deindustrialization continues, depopulation will proceed apace. Whoever inherits the mess caused by Putin and his proxies will have a ball and chain on his leg. Fortunately for Ukraine, it doesn’t—and in all likelihood will not anytime soon—control the enclave. Rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly, legally or illegally, the burden of control, and the burden of governance, will fall on Putin. Bully for him. The day is not far off when the economic disaster that is the Crimea and the Donbas will burden Putin, and he will be hard-pressed to claim that his imperialism has served Russia well.
So, sure, let Kyiv proclaim that it will never ever give up its sovereign territories. But then let Kyiv build The Wall, beef up its defenses, and get down to the business of fixing the country. Kyiv has time on its side. As I’ve frequently suggested, Putin’s fascist regime is doomed. Let it choke on the Donbas and the Crimea. Let it degenerate into an exclusively repressive regime. Let its economy decay thanks to Western sanctions. And let it remain isolated from the rest of the world and Ukraine. And then, when Russians reestablish a democracy, as one day they surely will, The Wall can come down.