The Ukrainian army is in retreat on every front. Since Russian regular army units came to the aid of the hard-pressed pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces a week ago, the tide of battle has turned decisively.
Meanwhile, those of us further from the scene are being bombarded with dodgy historical analogies. This week is the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, so it’s a good time to see if these analogies really stand up to scrutiny.
The first analogy is that Russia’s long-ruling president, Vladimir Putin, is another Adolf Hitler, committed to expanding Russia’s borders back out to the old Soviet frontiers, or maybe even further. Stop him now or it will be harder and more expensive to stop him later on – and anybody who disagrees is an “appeaser”.
There are echoes in Putin’s project of Hitler’s first priority after he took power in Germany in 1933, which was to recover all the German-speaking eastern territories that had been stripped away from the fatherland after the First World War. But Hitler’s second, bigger project was the destruction of the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union, which required a very big war. In fact, it turned into a world war).
Putin has no second project. He’s not even talking about taking back the rest of Ukraine, and the other former Soviet possessions in the west, the Baltic states, are already NATO members with solid defence guarantees. So there’s no need to nip his plan for world conquest in the bud.
This leads to the second big difference between 1939 and now. Back then Britain and France issued an unconditional guarantee that they would go to war if Hitler attacked Poland, because they felt they had to draw a line in the sand. Whereas NATO has not offered to defend Ukraine militarily no matter what Russia does.
Those are the realities. Ukraine enjoys great sympathy in the West, but nobody will risk a nuclear war by committing NATO forces to save Donetsk and Luhansk. So if Kiev cannot stop the Russian/rebel offensive in the east, and there’s no foreign help coming, what should it do?
The first thing is to freeze the front lines by accepting a ceasefire – which is now being discussed by Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. With every passing day Ukraine is losing more territory, and it won’t get it back for decades (if ever).
Russia will settle for a freeze, because Putin’s real goal, if he can no longer directly control the government in Kiev, is to paralyse the country by creating a permanently dissenting, pro-Russian entity as part of the Ukrainian state. The way Ukraine can avoid that fate is by hardening the borders around the rebel-held territories as much and as fast as possible.
Let the rebels run the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk (Kiev has no choice in that), but DON’T integrate them into some rejigged federal state where they would hold a veto. And DON’T recognise their legitimacy if they declare independence or join Russia either. Treat them as another Crimea, in other words.
And wait. Wait for corruption to dwindle and prosperity to grow in Ukraine, as it probably will when the country gets closer to the European Union. Wait for Putin to grow old and/or for Russia to get distracted by events elsewhere. And don’t get any more people killed when further fighting will just lose you more territory.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries.