It appears that the separatist enclave in Ukraine is about to fall. They have been squeezed into the two cities of Donetz and Luhansk, and the link between them has now been cut. The Kiev military is using artillery and other weapons to pound their positions in these cities, causing much destruction and many civilian casualties.
At the same time, the United States has provided an example of armed intervention to aid its friends (the Kurds) and provide humanitarian aid to civilians caught up in the fighting. Why doesn't Putin follow this example and launch some air attacks on Ukrainian artillery and heavy weapons, and open up a 'humanitarian' corridor to the besieged area? (It is doubtful that Samantha Power's belligerent threats at the UN would deter him!). What, then, is holding Putin back?
To understand this issue one needs to realise that the policy makers in the Kremlin are hard-headed realists. For them foreign and military policy is a calculus of relative gain and loss; sentiment does not play any role in their policy decisions. As far as Ukraine is concerned, their calculations probably go along the following lines:
- The primary prize was Crimea. Having won it, nothing should be allowed to jeopardise this gain.
- Eastern Ukraine was a secondary prize, with its gains and costs narrowly balanced. If the population of the area had generally supported the separatists, and been prepared to do so when they were attacked, it would have been worthwhile (and necessary) for Russia to back them (politically and militarily) up to a successful conclusion of their struggle.
- In the event, only a relatively small number of pro-separatists were prepared to take up arms to achieve their goal. Russia provided them with as much aid and support as it could without incurring too much in costs, but is not prepared to incur more.
- There are advantages to having the separatist enterprise end. The ability of the US and NATO to use Ukraine to mobilise Europe against Russia will be curtailed. All the internal problems and stresses of Ukraine, now suppressed due to the war, will emerge. The full burden of supporting a broken, bankrupt Ukraine will fall on the West.
The signs of an end to the resistance are starting to appear: Ukrainians are taking over from Russian functionaries in the separatist administration; the separatists have declared their readiness for a ceasefire.
The Kremlin realises that the ending of the Ukraine fighting will not end the US/NATO campaign against them, just the focus is likely to change from the separatist campaign to the annexation of the Crimea. The Russians are preparing for this; they have realised that this is the start of a long campaign against them, another Cold War.
Even though Russia has made a lot of effort to normalise relations with the West, trying hard to be accepted as a partner, it has not succeeded. The main reason behind this campaign against them appears to be related to the problems, internal and external, facing the US; it needs an external 'enemy' to cope with them.