Skip to main content

Opinion: Fog lifts to show Russia at war

By Ulrich Speck, Special to CNN
updated 11:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
At a press conference on Thursday, August 28, Dutch Brig. Gen. Nico Tak, a senior NATO commander, revealed satellite images of what NATO says are Russian combat forces engaged in military operations in or near Ukrainian territory. NATO said this image shows Russian self-propelled artillery units set up in firing positions near Krasnodon, in eastern Ukraine. At a press conference on Thursday, August 28, Dutch Brig. Gen. Nico Tak, a senior NATO commander, revealed satellite images of what NATO says are Russian combat forces engaged in military operations in or near Ukrainian territory. NATO said this image shows Russian self-propelled artillery units set up in firing positions near Krasnodon, in eastern Ukraine.
HIDE CAPTION
NATO: Images show Russian forces in Ukraine
NATO: Images show Russian forces in Ukraine
NATO: Images show Russian forces in Ukraine
NATO: Images show Russian forces in Ukraine
NATO: Images show Russian forces in Ukraine
NATO: Images show Russian forces in Ukraine
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The U.S. this week said Russian forces were "directly involved" in fighting in Ukraine
  • Ulrich Speck writes that this moves the eastern Ukraine conflict from a proxy war to war
  • It also likely ends Berlin's attempts to use diplomatic means to prevent the worst, he says
  • Speck says Russia and Europe are now heading towards a much less cordial relationship

Editor's note: Ulrich Speck is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. Follow @uli_speck and @Carnegie_Europe on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author's.

(CNN) -- The fog has been lifted. There is no serious doubt left that Russia is "now directly involved in the fighting" in Ukraine, as Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. Ambassador in Ukraine has said on Twitter.

"Russian supplied tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and multiple rocket launchers have been insufficient to defeat Ukraine' armed forces. So now an increasing number of Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory. Russia has also sent its newest air defense systems including the SA-22 into eastern Ukraine," he wrote.

Ulrich Speck
Ulrich Speck

This is the step from proxy war to war. It is also probably the end of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's attempts to prevent the worst through diplomacy. She spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin more than 30 times this year on the phone, much more often than any other Western leader.

What Germany tried was to convince Putin to step back from war in eastern Ukraine by using carrots and sticks: Western economic sanctions on the one hand, and on the other the promise of a return to a close partnership with the West if Russia were to stop supporting separatists in Ukraine.

For Berlin, which was in the lead in Western negotiations with Russia, the goal of the talks was to give Putin a face-saving exit option that wouldn't look like a defeat. But for Moscow, those talks were meant to achieve Russia's goal -- control over Ukraine.

While Russia talked about "federalization", which was meant to give regions a veto over the country's core political decisions, Germany talked about "decentralization," a system of administration that would leave the capital in control of Ukraine.

Putin's choices

German tactics were built on Russian deniability of any direct involvement. The diplomatic game was based on the pretense that both sides were not much more than concerned neighbors, that Russia was not part of the conflict.

The West's grand strategy of transforming Russia into a liberal democracy by weaving it into a web of interconnectedness has failed.
Ulrich Speck

But indirect involvement was not enough to hold territory in Ukraine. That's why Putin either had to accept defeat or to step up his efforts and end the pretense of Russian non-involvement. He chose the latter.

Putin did so knowing that this would lead to more Western sanctions, more costs for Russia. But he may have gambled that the West would not massively increase sanctions, as the appetite for conflict with Russia is low in many European countries, especially in Western Europe. It is also possible that he may even be ready to accept economic divorce with the West.

The West has tried everything to convince Putin to step back from the brink of open war in Ukraine. But it has not worked. The success of the Ukrainian army on the ground has forced Russia to make a choice between ending efforts to bring back Ukraine under Moscow's control -- or moving to open war. Putin had to leave the fog and make a move.

The German approach now looks like a failure, but it was worth trying nevertheless. It might have worked. Diplomatic efforts may also have kept Russian involvement to a minimum in the last few months -- they may have caused Putin to keep a low profile, thus allowing Kiev to recover and win back territory.

A pause in diplomacy

The West has no "Plan B." Merkel's carrot and stick approach had the great advantage of being "sellable" domestically: to her coalition partner in Germany, SPD, and in the EU to countries like France, Spain and Italy, which are much less concerned about Russian neo-imperialism than Germany or Poland.

How will the world respond to Ukraine?
Ukraine: 'Full-scale invasion' by Russia
'A war could explode the continent'

More robust tactics won't fly in Germany or in the wider EU. Anything that appears to raise the risk of direct military confrontation with Russia will be vetoed. The only possible option now is to increase sanctions. Diplomacy will take a pause. And every hope of a return to the way relations with Russia used to be will be buried.

What is clear now is that Russia and Europe are heading towards a much less cordial relationship. The next few years are going to be characterized by a mix of confrontation and cooperation. The West's grand strategy of transforming Russia into a liberal democracy by weaving it into a web of interconnectedness has failed.

By moving from proxy war to open war, by giving up pretense and deniability in Ukraine, Russia has very clearly made that point.

Germany has taken the lead in the crisis because it has become a central player in Europe, and because it had a lot at stake. Its attempts to put the genie back in the bottle were ultimately unsuccessful. But in that process, Berlin has taken responsibility for Western relations with Russia.

It should now take the lead on the long game as well: by building a new strategy that balances confrontation where necessary with cooperation where possible.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:58 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 broke apart in the air after it was hit by a burst of "high-energy objects" from outside, a preliminary report by Dutch aviation investigators said Tuesday.
updated 7:34 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
"There were many scenes that defied logic," writes OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw, who was one of the first international observers to arrive at the site.
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
On a country road in eastern Ukraine, a scene of bucolic tranquility was suddenly interrupted by the aftermath of carnage.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
In the city of Donetsk, the devastation wrought by weeks of fighting between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces is all too apparent.
updated 8:00 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
CNN's Diana Magnay reports from the front lines in the Ukrainian conflict.
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
A few miles south of the town of Starobeshevo in eastern Ukraine, a group of men in uniform is slumped under a tree.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
It's been building for months. And now, according to some, Russia has launched a "full-scale invasion" of Ukraine.
updated 9:43 AM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
A shopkeeper's mutilated body, relatives' anguish, homes destroyed ... this is Donetsk.
updated 7:12 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.
updated 3:31 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Photos illustrate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as fighting continues to flare in the region.
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
Western leaders stepped up sanctions, but the Russian President shows no sign of backing down.
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Future imports, exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts continue.
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
updated 4:37 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Information about Ukraine, the second-largest European country in area after Russia.
Learn more about the victims, ongoing investigation and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
updated 5:25 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT