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Gary Samore and Simon Saradzhyan

Cornering Putin could backfire

Vladimir Putin pauses at the Czar Cannon at the Kremlin in Moscow last month.Associated Press

The Ukrainian army has made significant gains against pro-Russian separatists in recent weeks, forcing the rebels to retreat to pockets around Donetsk and Luhansk. Victory seems to be within the Ukrainian soldiers’ grasp, but can it be attained and will it last?

First of all, there is a chance that Russia may intervene before the Ukrainian army breaks the backbone of the separatist resistance in Eastern Ukraine. If Russian President Vladimir Putin allows rebels to be defeated without attaining a deal that accommodates Russia’s vital interests, he would not only lose much of his leverage over Ukraine, but he would also lose face and, therefore, much of the popular support upon which his legitimacy rests.


Last week, Russian armed forces doubled the number of battalions positioned on the border with Ukraine for a possible “peace-keeping” operation. Russia may send troops to create a separatist buffer state in eastern Ukraine and recognize its independence if Putin concludes that the rest of Ukraine is “lost” to the West and that the latter is determined to fight a new Cold War.

Those trying to read the Russian leader’s mind and discern his likely reaction to growing pressure would do well to recall that in the first year of his presidency Putin confided to authors of his biography how dangerous it could be to corner opponents.

History books, of which Putin is an avid reader, contain many examples of how cornering can backfire. John F. Kennedy was aware of that danger when confronting Nikita Khrushchev over Soviet missiles covertly deployed in Cuba in 1962. Nuclear war between the two superpowers might have become inevitable if Kennedy hadn’t left Khrushchev an opportunity to settle the crisis peacefully without losing face.

Secondly, there are hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped inside Donetsk and Luhansk. Storming of these cities would result in civilian casualties that would further increase the number of eastern Ukrainians who nurture long-term grievances vis-à-vis the central government over the conflict, which has resulted in 1,100 deaths.


And even if attainable without significant civilian casualties, a decisive military victory over pro-Russian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk won’t bridge Ukraine’s ethnic and political divides between the pro-Russian southeast and pro-Western provinces in the center and west. The losing side will not accept defeat and will wait for the next chance to challenge the outcome, most probably with Russia’s support. In fact, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, acknowledged in a July 30 interview with Reuters that only a political solution can end the conflict. Nor would a military victory eliminate Russia’s leverage on Ukraine, which had depended on its eastern neighbor for one-third of its imports and exports before the conflict.

Leaders in Kiev, Moscow, and Western capitals need to understand the costs of trying to solve the conflict with force and the benefits of finding a negotiated solution. Such a solution could incorporate elements of Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko’s own peace plan, such as amnesty for the rebels, decentralization of power within Ukraine and robust protection of rights of minorities, along with disarming of all the illegal armed formations, a legally binding affirmation of Ukraine’s military neutrality, and unequivocal guarantees (rather than assurances) of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, perhaps, while deferring final resolution of Crimea’s status.

The United States and the European Union should encourage Poroshenko to revive his peace plan. Russia should also press the separatists to negotiate in good faith and aim for realistic goals, such as reintegration into a decentralized Ukraine.


The goal of these collective efforts shouldn’t be total victory for any military alliance, nation, region, or leader. Instead, what eventually emerges ought to be a Ukraine at peace with itself and its neighbors, outside of any military pact, and capable of sustaining itself economically.

Gary Samore, former arms control adviser to President Obama, is executive director for research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. Simon Saradzhyan, assistant director of the US-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, is a research fellow at the Belfer Center.