On 22 April Russia announced that it would pull back a large part of its troops near the eastern border of Ukraine. Earlier this year Russia had built up a military force of 100,000 there, apparently with the goal to intimidate Ukraine. The self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are located on the eastern border of Ukraine, which rebelled against Ukraine several years ago. We know that Russia provided military support to these rebels (which Russia continues to deny) and enthusiastically provided the inhabitants there with Russian passports. Now Russia’s argument is that it wants to protect its citizens in these rebellious provinces of Ukraine. Russia threatens Ukraine with war if Ukraine would attempt to bring these provinces back under control or if the West gets involved in the situation.
When Russia provided military support to its ally Syria during the Syrian Civil War in 2015, things were different. The West complained that Russia was aiding an authoritarian regime which was violating human rights on a large scale, but implicitly recognized that Russia had a right to help her ally. The West didn’t issue threats that Russian aid to Syria would lead to war between the West and Russia. And now the West does allow itself to be intimidated by Russia if it wants to aid her ally Ukraine? And it doesn’t respond to Russia’s closure of the Strait of Kerch for foreign navy vessels, so that Ukraine’s navy is denied access to its own territorial waters in the Sea of Azov?
Russia can’t have it both ways. If Russia thought it could help Syria, there should be no problem if the West would send military aid to Ukraine to put down the revolt in Donetsk and Luhansk. Russia closes the Strait of Kerch for ships of foreign navies? Then NATO-member Turkey can close the Bosporus for the Russian navy. The West could have done so sooner, as part of more serious sanctions to force Russia to end its occupation of the Crimea. Let Germany stop with building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, for example. We seem to have forgotten that Russia simply conquered the Crimea from Ukraine and that there was never any strong response with sanctions from the West. The sanctions that were implemented did not impress Russia.
An invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk can be justified because Russia continues to claim that it was not involved with those uprisings, but the Crimea was occupied by Russia itself. Because military action against the Crimea can lead to a large military conflict with Russia it seems better to choose the route of sanctions there. Even if that military conflict would come, Russia would be at a disadvantage against the combined military forces of the EU-member states, if we are to believe Binkov’s Battlegrounds. And that doesn’t even include the USA yet, which would of course come to the aid of the EU in such a conflict. Hopefully such a war would remain a conventional conflict without nuclear weapons, but the bottom line is that the West is the one which should be intimidating Russia rather than the other way around.