Disconnect between diplomacy, reality in Ukraine

02:37 - Source: CNN
'Old-fashioned' war unfolds in Ukraine
Washington CNN —  

I left Ukraine last weekend with a deep sense of foreboding. I wasn’t imagining a severe deterioration of the crisis on the ground. I was hearing it from American and western diplomats, Ukrainian officials and Ukrainian citizens.

“It is a life or death moment for us,” one Ukrainian MP told a senior western diplomat.

Ukraine is at war. It’s not a 21st century, media-driven war – or even an air war with surgical strikes – but an old-fashioned, mid-20th century land war, complete with tank battles and the intentional bombardment of civilians. For comparison, one senior western diplomat recommended I see the movie “Fury,” the Brad Pitt Hollywood vehicle set in World War II Germany, to get a sense.

It’s an alarmingly apt comparison.

Let’s make the stakes clear. As I constantly remind friends and colleagues, this is not a war in some distant land. Ukraine is in Europe and surrounded by NATO allies.

As they met in Washington Monday, both President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel described the war as a threat not just to Ukraine but to Europe as a whole.

READ: Merkel in the middle of U.S., Russia standoff

“We are in absolute agreement that in the 21st century, we cannot stand idle..and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of the gun,” said Mr. Obama.

On point, Chancellor Merkel followed, “For somebody who comes from Europe, I can only say, if we give up this principle of territorial integrity, we will not be able to maintain the peaceful order of Europe. It`s essential.”

The deep sense of urgency does not appear to be matched by urgent action on the ground. At their press conference, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Merkel did not announce any new economic sanctions against Russia. A new round of incremental sanctions is on hold to allow time for the continuing diplomatic process. And they did not announce plans to send arms to out-gunned Ukrainian forces, though President Obama said he is leaving the option open. On this point, in fact, Merkel and Obama publicly disagreed.

In private, Ukrainian officials told me they are disappointed. In public, they are more diplomatic but still forthright. When I asked Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk last Thursday if the West is damning Ukrainian forces to fail, he wouldn’t answer but he did say Ukraine is simply trying to defend itself.

“Why we are asking for increased defense capabilities of Ukraine? It’s not for the offensive operation. This is for the defensive operation,” he said. “To get peace you have to defend your country and you have to deter Russia, not allowing Russian troops to move further and further.”

The trouble is, Ukraine is losing that fight. Since the Minsk accord, Russian and pro-Russian forces have taken over hundreds of square miles in new territory. The concern is that Moscow is creating new borders and new facts on the ground that President Putin will not give up in any negotiation.

READ: Jindal pushes Obama on Ukraine

Russia is carrying out what increasingly resembles a full-scale military occupation of sovereign Ukrainian territory. Since the last time Russia, Ukraine and the West negotiated a ceasefire in Minsk, Russia has sent in hundreds of tons of munitions, heavy artillery and rockets. It has established elaborate command and control. Russian forces are now running what amounts to a formal “train and assist” mission for separatists, akin to what the West is providing local forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to fight ISIS and the Taliban.

And so on to Minsk once again Wednesday, where the same players will meet in the same city to try to resurrect the same peace agreement with only worsening conditions on the ground.

Chancellor Merkel, who hails from the former East Germany, recalled her own country’s enormous progress to express hope.

“Think of President Reagan, when he said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ many people said at the time, ‘How can you possibly say that?’ But it was right.” She continued, “I cannot give you a guarantee for the outcome of the Wednesday talks or further talks, and maybe nothing will come out of it, but then we’re called upon again to think about a new possibility.”

Not the most ringing endorsement of the negotiations from the most powerful leader in Europe: war just as likely as peace. Visit Ukraine and you’ll likely agree.