Why Russia Will Lose in Ukraine

So who’s winning the war in eastern Ukraine—Russia or Ukraine? The answer is not as simple as it might seem, because victory means different things for each side.

A Russian victory could take one of two forms: territorial expansion into large parts of southeastern Ukraine or the imposition on Ukraine of disadvantageous peace terms. Or it could take both forms. But neither has happened, and neither is likely to happen.

Anything short of such a victory amounts to a defeat for Russia. Having destroyed the Russian economy, transformed Russia into a rogue state, and alienated Russia’s allies in the “near abroad,” Vladimir Putin loses if he doesn’t win big.

In contrast, Ukraine wins as long as it does not lose big. If Ukraine can contain the aggression, it will demonstrate that it possesses the will and the military capacity to deter the Kremlin, stop Putin and his proxies, and survive as an independent democratic state.

Trusting or Containing Putin?

Now that the first step toward a negotiated settlement of the Russo-Ukrainian war may have been reached in Minsk, the question of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reliability as a negotiating partner should be on everyone’s mind.

In a word, can he be trusted with anything? The answer, unfortunately, is no—for several important reasons.

First, by invading and annexing the Crimea, Putin violated the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom agreed to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine’s adherence to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Putin’s subsequent justification—that the Maidan Revolution ushered in a new Ukrainian state that was not a signatory of the memorandum—was a preposterous claim that, if generalized, would subvert every treaty ever signed. Subsequently, Putin also violated the April 17th Geneva accords and the September 5th Minsk Protocol, both of which outlined specific steps toward defusing the conflict.

The Case for Arming Ukraine

No one could make the case against supplying weapons to Ukraine better than my good friend Rajan Menon, a professor of political science at City College of New York. So, if his best shot falls short, then it’s safe to say that there is no sound argument against America’s provision of military hardware to Ukraine.

That best shot appeared last week as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. And it falls far short of what it sets out to be—a persuasive critique of a report released by the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that argues for US supplies of weapons to Ukraine. Here’s Menon’s first charge:

Putin's War on Civilians Defines Terrorism

Russian President Vladimir Putin is rapidly cementing his reputation as a sponsor of terrorism in Ukraine. One could, with some stretch of the imagination, have qualified the earlier violence perpetrated by his proxies in eastern Ukraine as mere “separatism.” In a blog post on April 14, 2014, however, I suggested that it qualified as terrorism, and that Putin’s Russia was therefore a state sponsor of terrorism. I then provided the definition of terrorism found in Section 2656f(d) of Title 22 of the United States Code:

(1) the term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country;

(2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents; and

(3) the term “terrorist group” means any group practicing, or which has significant subgroups which practice, international terrorism.

Free Nadia Savchenko!

Vladimir Putin’s star political prisoner—Nadia Savchenko—is a 34-year-old Ukrainian helicopter pilot who served with a volunteer battalion in eastern Ukraine this summer and was taken prisoner by Putin’s proxies. She was subsequently charged with abetting the deaths of two Russian journalists who died in an artillery exchange between Ukrainian and Russian forces. Currently imprisoned in Moscow, Savchenko has been on a hunger strike since December 13, 2014. Needless to say, her life is in danger.

On January 9th, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called for Savchenko’s “immediate release”: “We’re deeply concerned by reports that Russia has moved Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko to solitary confinement.”

At a December 18th news conference, Putin made the following comments about Savchenko

What to Expect from Russia, Ukraine in 2015?

What should we expect from Ukraine and Russia in 2015?

My guess is: more of the same. And that’s both the good news and the bad news.

Ukraine will consolidate its democratic institutions, while Vladimir Putin’s Russia will consolidate its fascist regime. Although Ukrainians will complain more than Russians, their country will actually be getting stronger, while the hypercentralized state structure centered on Putin’s cult of the macho personality gets weaker. Democratically ruled peoples whine publicly; dictatorially ruled peoples whine privately. The fact that 80-plus percent of Russians are likely to continue to support Putin won’t mean that 80-plus percent are happy with life in Putin’s crumbling realm.

'The Russian Army Has Huge Problems'

The following is an interview with Rajan Menon, a professor of political science at the City College of New York and a senior research scholar at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

* * *

MOTYL: You and Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment have just completed a book about Ukraine. What is its central argument?

MENON: The Russia-West relationship has collapsed. Russia stands isolated and damaged. But an isolated, nationalistic, and authoritarian Russia isn’t what Europe needs—and it’s certainly not good for Ukraine. Ukraine cannot afford to be in a perpetual state of war with Russia, if only because no Western soldier will ever be dispatched to die for Ukraine.

MOTYL: Do you expect Kyiv to launch radical reforms?

Sex, Politics, and Putin

If you’d like to know one of the reasons for Vladimir Putin’s phenomenal popularity in Russia, pick up Clark University Professor Valerie Sperling’s excellent new book, Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia.

Putin’s actual accomplishments are few. He dismantled democracy and muzzled the media. He constructed a fascistoid regime and perverted the very notion of truth. He marginalized the democratic opposition and, at least until recently, crushed the North Caucasus independence movements. He annexed the Crimea and doesn’t know what to do with it. He started a war in eastern Ukraine and, once again, doesn’t know what to do next. The bottom line is that Russia remains a Belgium with a bomb and a profoundly corrupt petro-state incapable of technological innovation and sustained economic growth, while having become, under Putin, a rogue state.

The Putin-Santa Letters, 2014

The Communist Party of St. Petersburg recently issued a statement to Russian children in which it warned them against the imperialist intentions of the CIA stooge, Santa Claus. (Seriously.)

Fortunately, Russia’s ever vigilant president, Vladimir Putin, is already on the case, as the below correspondence (intercepted by Santa Claus’s imperialist intelligence service) reveals.


Dear Vlad,

Would you happen to know the whereabouts of Viktor Yanukovych? I haven’t heard from him in over a year.



Mr. “Santa Claus”:

Ukraine's Pro-Reform Cabinet

Ukraine may finally have a cabinet able to introduce radical reforms. For the first time in independent Ukraine’s history, its ministers are young and Western. Youth matters, as it’s a measure of the degree to which individuals are still captives of the Soviet past. Western attitudes and experience also matter, as they presumably reflect the willingness and ability of the ministers to embark on pro-Western reforms.  

The composition of the new cabinet was announced on December 2nd. Most commentators focused on the fact that three of the ministers were foreigners—an American, a Lithuanian, and a Georgian. That was certainly indicative of Kyiv’s willingness to think “out of the box,” especially as two of the three received the crucial economic development and finance portfolios.

Decoding Putin’s State of the Union Speech

Vladimir Putin’s December 4th “state of the union” address to Russia’s Federal Assembly once again explained why he annexed the Crimea. This time, his explanation reached new ideological heights, while again confounding academic realists, who continue to insist that Russia grabbed the Crimea in response to an aggressive West. Here are Putin’s words:

[The annexation of the Crimea] has special significance for our country and our people. Because our people live in the Crimea, and the territory itself is strategically important; because it is here that is found the spiritual source of the formation of a multifaceted but monolithic Russian nation and a centralized Russian state. It was here, in the Crimea, in ancient Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized and then baptized all of Rus.

Who Will Save the People of the Donbas?

The answer, as is becoming increasingly obvious, is no one. Having ruined the economy of the Donbas enclave they occupy and caused a humanitarian catastrophe, neither Russia nor its terrorist proxies will come to the population’s rescue. Western powers reluctant to confront Vladimir Putin certainly aren’t going to open their wallets to the tune of billions of dollars. And Ukraine, which continues to proclaim that the territories are “temporarily occupied,” lacks the financial and military capacity to liberate the area. That leaves the enclave’s people isolated and, ultimately, completely dependent on themselves.

As many residents of the area now realize, the self-proclaimed leaders of the Donbas and Luhansk republics are more inclined to destroy than to create. As long as they’re around, the enclave will be unsalvageable, and it looks like they’ll be around for a while.

Time for a Hybrid War Against Russia?

Should Ukraine embark on a “hybrid war” against the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia and its proxies? One of Ukraine’s best military analysts, Yuri Butusov, the Russian-speaking editor of the Censor.net website, effectively argues that the answer is yes.

Hybrid war is the term analysts apply to what many believe is Russia’s new way of war-making in southeastern Ukraine, one that employs a variety of means—propaganda, subversion, outright aggression, support for proxies, and the like—while remaining undeclared or denied.

Does Ukraine’s Reform Plan Measure Up?

The reform plan of Ukraine’s coalition government-in-the-making has received mixed reviews from a team of Ukraine experts affiliated with the policy discussion website VoxUkraine

According to the analysis:

We assign PASS to 3 sections out of 17, and CONDITIONAL PASS to 6 sections out of 17. We find that the draft does not have a coherent ideology and that many sections advocate Soviet style command economy approach to reforms, while only few sections address the structural causes of the problems in Ukraine.

The good news is that the team rates three of 17 sections as excellent, six as subject to improvement, five as “water” (or boilerplate), and only four as bad. That’s nine of 17 that are at least good enough. And those nine include law enforcement, national security, and energy independence (pass) as well as anticorruption, decentralization, regulation and competition policy, infrastructure and transportation, electoral reform, and ecology (conditional pass).

Kiev Cuts Subsidies to Separatist-Controlled Enclaves

Even as Putin’s proxies in the Donbas enclave are preparing a major assault on the Ukrainian army, they are also evidently panicking. And all thanks to the Ukrainian government’s recent wise decision to stop funding enclave political institutions and providing pensions and other social benefits to enclave residents. All of sudden, the Russia-sponsored separatists appear to understand that the territory they control will soon become ungovernable.

Here’s the evidence. On November 12th, the press center of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) issued a statement supposedly crafted by the “society” of the DNR in which said “society” chides Kyiv for cutting off social payments “to our veterans, pensioners, invalids, and mothers,” all of whom are “citizens of [Kyiv’s own] country residing in the Donbas.”


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