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What Options Do Putin and Ukraine Have Left?

Russia's gas cutoff and the possibilities for peace


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko released his peace plan for subduing the conflict in the east on Monday, just as Russia announced it was cutting off gas deliveries to Ukraine. The timing is auspicious—the ambitious, two-part peace plan will take time, but has the potential to put Russia at a strategic disadvantage in the conflict. 

From Poroshenko’s point of view, Russia could not have picked a better time to cut of Ukraine’s gas supply. For starters, it’s summer, so there is no urgent need to use gas for heat. (Russia has cut off gas to Ukraine twice before, in 2006 and 2009, both times in the dead of winter). Additionally, much of the country’s industrial sector, which certainly relies on Russian energy, is not operating at full capacity because of the conflict. Ukraine has built up enough energy reserves to last months, and may also begin to receive energy through reversed European gas flows. “Ukraine is in a better position than they were in 2006 and 2009,” said Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “They don’t need to import gas from Russia in the next several months—they don’t need to rush to a solution.”

It’s a good thing that Ukrainian officials have time on their side, because they will need it to implement Poroshenko’s two-step peace plan. In a meeting with the Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council on Monday, the newly elected president said that he will offer a ceasefire to separatists in the east “as early as this week,” but only on the condition that Ukrainian forces are first able to fully secure the Ukraine-Russia border.

The thinking is that once the border is secured, separatists will be cut off from Russian resources and more likely to negotiate on the government’s terms. It will also afford Ukrainian troops some much-needed relief from the aggressive anti-terrorist operation, which killed 49 troops over the weekend when separatists shot down a Ukrainian plane near Luhansk. “There’s probably a realization on the part of the Kiev government that an operation on this scale by the military would be very challenging if not impossible given the forces that they have,” said Eugene Rumer, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program. “They could be offering a ceasefire as a proverbial olive branch to signal a willingness to negotiate...that creates a political justification for them to [later] say ‘we tried, now we’ll use force.’”

It’s not a bad plan, and it’s certainly a shrewd political move for Poroshenko, who is hoping that the peace plan’s emphasis on decentralization will drum up support for his government among eastern Ukrainians. But there are also a few serious problems that could compromise the entire effort, the first of which is that it is nearly impossible for Ukraine to secure the border at current capacity.

Ukraine’s land border with Russia is about 1,200 miles long, and so far Ukraine has secured only some 155 miles of it, as Poroshenko reported to the National Security and Defense Council on Monday. According to the peace plan, over the next seven days Ukraine will aim to assert full control over critical checkpoints along the border in order to prevent any inflow of troops, armor, and additional supplies to separatists; the army’s ability to do so is “the only limiting factor for the implementation of the cease-fire,” Poroshenko said. Realistically, the military will not be able to secure the entirety of the border. “They simply don’t have the manpower to do it,” said Raymond Finch, a Eurasian military analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office. “I don’t know if they’d even be able to do it in a year.” As Rumer put it, securing the border is an “aspirational goal.”

But Ukrainian forces may in fact be able to secure enough critical checkpoints to weaken the separatist enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk. “If there is a true effort to prioritize strategic resources to resecure the border, Ukraine will likely be able to do it, unless Russia intervenes more directly,” said James Greene, NATO’s former diplomatic lead in Ukraine. “That really puts the ball in Putin’s court, so that if he wishes to continue to exert influence and not see his project die, he needs to further escalate, with the use of Russian forces.” So far, the Kremlin has responded to the peace plan by naively claiming it does not understand Ukraine’s proposition to close the border. “As to statements of Kiev authorities’ representatives about the intention to completely close the border with Russia, I do not quite understand what case in hand is this and to what it is referred to,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Minsk on Monday, according to ITAR-TASS. “If they are going to block all channels of free movement of our citizens including labor migrants, we would like to specifically understand what exactly they mean to do.”

Meanwhile, thousands of Russian forces remain stationed near the Ukrainian border, and according to Vedomosti, more troops have been dispatched “​​for border security in connection with repeated violations by Ukrainian military movements.” Last week, Ukraine and Russia accused one another of illegal troop movements across the border, and the U.S. State Department confirmed that three Russian tanks had in fact entered Ukraine. Thirty Ukrainian troops were killed in fighting with rebels near the border on Tuesday, Reuters reports.

Even if the border is adequately secured in the near future, it’s unlikely that the separatists will agree to a ceasefire. “That too is an aspirational goal, frankly, because there appear to be many factions, many actors who don’t seem to be reporting to one single controlling authority,” says Rumer. “A ceasefire accepted by one faction doesn’t mean that other factions will accept it.” The separatists already refused to cooperate with the creation of civilian corridors for the evacuation of civilians, despite the fact that both Russia and Ukraine endorsed the effort. There’s no reason to think they’ll agree this time around—unless, as the Ukrainian government hopes, they are forced to.

As for the Kremlin, it would probably still like to avoid an overt military invasion, but also needs to ensure that Russia can still claim victory in the conflict. “Putin faces the problem of a potential failed policy in Ukraine…[He] needs to maintain a critical leverage over the country, and it’s looking like that’s not succeeding—the gas deal is part of that,” says Greene. “He needs to find a lever, whether it's corruption, or federalism, or whatever, so that he can try to ensure Ukraine is not sovereign.” Your move, Putin.