Ukraine Fights Where It Should Not; With Armed Means Neither Effective Nor Strategic

02/09/2015 04:12 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2015

The theater of struggle for Ukraine is in fact not the Donbas region where an intensive armed campaign is currently taking place. There are three battlefields - none of them eastern Ukraine - on which a long-term outcome of this conflict will eventually be decided.

The ultimate victory for Ukraine is centered around the unity of the international community to side unwaveringly with Kyiv and impose in unison ever more severe sanctions on the Kremlin and its allies, around democratic transition and economic reforms in Ukraine itself, and, finally, the solidarity of the Russian society with Ukraine and mobilization of ordinary Russians against the war, intervention and occupation.

Each of these three battles cannot be waged through arms. They have in fact been undermined by Ukraine's armed strategy - cloaked in the "Anti-terrorist Operation" (ATO) - that was launched in the mid of April 2014 with the goal of recapturing the Donbas region from 'terrorists.' Driven by the romanticized bravado of violent warfare and heighten patriotism that emerged during the Euromaidan revolution and the subsequent illegal and illegitimate annexation of the Crimea by Russia the majority of Ukrainians supported its government's military response toward the deteriorating security situation in the eastern region. The most patriotic youths - whose energy in peaceful times would have otherwise been devoted to Ukraine's reforms, entrepreneurial activities and holding its new government accountable - joined armed volunteer battalions and went to fight and die for Donbas.

When a fragile ceasefire was eventually signed in Minsk on September 5, 2014 the Ukrainian armed campaign had little to show in terms of strategic gains. By the beginning of autumn there were many more Russian troops and military hardware in the Donbas region than ever before, more than 2000 people were killed by then, hundreds of thousands of refugees were on the move, majority of them fleeing to Russia not Ukraine and the region's infrastructure in ruins. Meanwhile, Putin's popularity was soaring, hovering close to 90% in independent polling surveys in fall 2014 with a clear majority of Russians supporting the Kremlin's policies toward Ukraine.

While it lasted till January 2015, the ceasefire - despite its violations -has significantly reduced the scale of destruction. A number of civilian and military deaths plummeted in comparison with the open warfare during the summer 2014. Furthermore, when the shooting and shelling eased civilians began reemerging from homes and shelters. They started demanding from the rebels governance and services -- neither a strong suit of the violent men. Civilian protests in the region increased in the months of October and November while rebels engaged in deadly infighting among themselves. The Ukrainian government has however failed to build on a momentum of grassroots discontent with rebels' rule and develop effective communication and humanitarian strategies to alleviate civilian misery while winning hearts and minds of the locals.

This was also the moment to consider evacuating the military from a majority of Donbas territory or at minimum withdrawing from non-defensible positions such as the Donetsk airport or the Debaltseve area in favor of creating a heavily fortified, 10-15 miles wide buffer zone separating Donbas from the neighboring regions of Kharkiv, Dniepropetrovsk, and Zhaporozhiye. Such buffer zone could have been populated by thousands-strong, internationally-sanctioned, peace enforcement contingent. This containment policy would recognize facts on the ground - a de-facto partitioning of Donbas that is unlikely to end anytime in the foreseeable future -- but make so much harder for rebels and Russian troops to violate ceasefire and much easier for civilians on the occupied territories to hold their new rulers to their promises of peace and prosperity. Those who use violence are oftentimes their own worst enemies. Containing them in their own space, where the war would no longer give them an excuse for their governance incompetence, would increase chances for internal infighting and eventually alienating local people they claim to represent. Instead, the Ukrainian government maintained its forces on the faultlines in the Donbas at an estimated cost of 6-7 million dollars per day with no viable strategy for ending or at least containing the conflict.

The military campaign in the Donbas has not only failed to reach its objectives of recapturing the territory or weakening the rebels but it also undermined reforms in Kyiv. More money that is being shifted to the military not only takes urgently needed funds away from schools, hospitals, public services and infrastructure but it fuels pervasive corruption. The officials from the Ukraine's ministry of defense have, for example, been named in massive frauds in the military procurements, further undermining public trust in the government to lead an effective military campaign in the Donbas. This is also the reason why Ukrainians at home and abroad tend to send their voluntary contributions for war efforts directly to civic organizations or volunteer battalions rather than their own government.

Many in Ukraine have defended armed campaign in Donbas using the same logic that many Westerners adopted in the fight against the Islamic terrorism -- 'we need to fight and kill them there so we are safer here.' However, terrorism around Ukraine, particularly bombs and bomb threats in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, Zaporizhye, Khersun and Lviv, to name just a few cities, have seen a significant uptick after ATO began last year. Arguably, contrary to a popular view, costly military campaign in Donbas failed to keep Ukraine and the Ukrainian population safer.

Not only have the armed means Ukraine chose to conduct its fight been hardly effective or strategic it had increased the chances of serious divisions among Ukraine's western allies. This lack of unity would eventually play into Russia's hands and ultimately weaken Ukraine's position.

West is now officially split on arming Kyiv. U.S. Congress backed by a number of well known U.S. policy experts press for expanding assistance to Ukraine to include lethal, military, aid. German and French governments oppose it. The first group argues that arms will help Ukrainian military drive up costs of the Russian aggression. In other words, arms for Ukraine would help kill more Russians that according to the Kremlin's propaganda are not in Donbas. Europeans want to press ahead with diplomacy fearing that Putin would use the pretext of a direct military aid from the West to convince Russians that this is no longer a mere fight against "Ukrainian puchists and banderovcy" but against evil NATO itself, raising in essence the confrontation to the existential level for Russians, equivalent to a 'great patriotic war' (term used by Russians to describe their wars against Napoleon and Nazis). These two bipolar choices - either more war or more diplomacy - occludes other potential strategies that should be directed at the Russian society than anyone or anything else.

Putin is afraid of none but Russians themselves. This is the reason why he deploys a massive propaganda machinery directed less at the international audience and more at its own population and Russians abroad. War is giving his propaganda what it needs to keep Russians obedient- fear and nationalistic pride. Western arms are unlikely to change that. If anything they might only help Putin stay in power as Russians coalesce around him in the struggle against NATO on the Ukrainian soil.

Ukrainians are best positioned to help themselves by reaching out to the Russian society. This cannot be done with guns. It is difficult to convince someone to join your cause if he sees you ready to shoot at him. Mass-based strategies that would aim to build solidarity among both nations are needed. From that solidarity the understanding that Ukrainians and Russians have similar grievances and face the same enemy is likely to emerge. Both societies speak similar languages, have similar cultures and family and collegial ties across both borders. These commonalities have not been explored thus far to a sufficient degree, being quickly overshadowed by war in Donbas and Russian propaganda that feasts on it. If, instead of giving Putin what he wants - the war - Ukrainians reevaluated their ineffective military options, tactically withdrew from the Donbas faultlines and behind a fortified and monitored buffer zone declared a total resistance through nonviolent strategies this would turn the dynamics of the conflict upside down. It would finally create a window of opportunity for Ukrainians to reach out to Russians, help what is still a relatively small anti-war camp in Russia grow bigger, and increase popular dissent in the country on the eve of the deteriorating economic situation.

A strategic struggle that a nation undertakes must aim at minimizing costs for the attacked nation (both domestically - by reducing civilian deaths and internationally - by keeping external allies united), while increasing chances for loyalty shifts among important constituencies of the adversary, including its own population. Historically, armed strategies have been relatively poor at achieving these objectives. The success in the current warfare for Ukraine could come if the country presented an entirely different image of a Ukrainian fighting society - resembling closely those of Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel's nonviolent nations. Their resilience, nonviolent discipline and powerful resistance through collective actions, not arms, proved to be an ultimate weapon to defeat aggression and authoritarianism while keeping their societies strong, their enemies divided and international allies united. The choice of methods that favored strategic nonviolent resistance in confronting brutal adversaries ultimately increased the chances of these nations to prevail and usher them into successful democratic transition.