National Post

Putin banks on West’s distractio­n

Syria takes focus off Ukraine

- Mat t Gurney National Post mgurney@nationalpo­st.com Twitter.com/MattGurney Matt Gurney is a member of the National Post editorial board. He hosts National Post Radio every weekday morning from six to nine Eastern on SiriusXM’s Canada Talks, channel 167

While the West remains preoccupie­d with climate change and I-SIL, on the front lines in east ern Ukraine, the fighting has never really stopped. It’s slowed.

Both sides have pulled most of the heavy weapons back, and that means fewer civilian settlement­s being chewed over by artillery and mortar fire. But Russian f-orces — let’s dis pense with the “pro- ussian” fiction — continue to launch small raids across the lines to harass Ukrainian outposts and lay mines on roads used by the troops. Random sniper attacks remain a constant danger.

This was t he message brought to Toronto this week by Yevhen Marchuk, a former Ukrainian prime minister and current Ukrainian member of the Minsk w- orking group at tempting to hold together a ceasefire. Marchuk was with retired U. S. army Gen. Wes- ley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander, Europe, who’s spent the last year travelling back and forth between the U.S. and Ukraine, trying to convince Western government­s to take Russia’s invasion of Central Europe seriously. The two men were here for an award gala hosted by the Internatio­nal Council in Support of Ukraine. De-spite re cent de-escalation, they did not m-ince words about the situa tion that still prevails in Central Europe. “In reality, it is a war,” Marchuk told me grimly. “The military people know it, even if the politician­s won’t name it.”

Neither side in the conflict is in a particular­ly good position. Russia’s attack bogged down in the face of Ukrainian r- esistance and the spotty ef fectivenes­s of the proxy forces it first tried to use to fight the war. “Thugs and rapists,” as Clark described these early proxy forces; the Russians were f-orced to “brutally” assert dir ect control over the units, and provide massive technical and leadership assistance. That made the forces more effective and also more discipline­d, but also drew Russia in so deep its involvemen­t could no longer be plausibly denied. “This is not a local issue,” Clark said. “This is Russia.” Why else, he asked with a smile, are the “pro- ussian rebels” being represente­d at the Minsk talks by a Russian army general?

Russia, he said, is deeply unhappy with the status quo. The hoped- for rapid collapse of Ukraine, Marchuk suggested, hadn’t materializ­ed. Clark a-greed, noting local gov ernment officials were able to maintain local control and prevent subversion by the little green men Russian President Vladimir Putin would have preferred to use as his primary weapon. That’s forced Russia to s-ettle for various efforts to de stabilize the government and d- isrupt the efforts of observ ers to monitor the ceasefire — particular­ly those attempting to access the border crossings between Ukraine and Russia, which Uk-raine insists must re turn to its sovereign control.

Now that the Russian military is focused on Syria, the entire Ukrainian situation is something Moscow would now prefer to address through other means. How? Marchuk wouldn’t elaborate much on this point, insisting that he c-ouldn’t speak for the govern ment in any official capacity, but said Ukraine knew Russia could, through political action o-r terror attacks, seek to embar rass the government in Kyiv.

There is also, of course, the issue of Uk- raine’s vulnerabil ity to Russian economic pressure. Russia controls much of Ukraine’s energy supply. As well, it holds considerab­le Ukrainian debt, Clark noted. Bonds, too, can be a weapon of sorts. So what is Putin’s aim, I asked the general.

“He wanted Ukraine east of the Dnieper (river),” he replied. “Now, he’ll have to settle for a dysfunctio­nal country he can keep in his pocket.”

Putin’s other goals, Clark s-ays, include relief from West ern sanctions, a recognized role for Russia a-s a great power, in cluding in the Middle Ea-st, a re duced American role in Europe (- and a weaker NATO accord ingly), and, of course, higher oil prices.

He can’t get all those things in Ukraine, of course. But Russia’s presence in the Middle East, and its overtures of cooperatio­n in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, are, Clark said, Putin’s way of getting the West to back off in Ukraine. Russia has violated all Eu-ropean stan dards about the rule of law and not changing borders by force, and Europe can’t allow that. Bu-t it can perhaps be distract ed by events elsewhere, and then coerced into some kind of deal that leaves Russia effectivel­y in control of Ukraine. That can’t happen, Clark said. “Ukraine is the front line of freedom and democracy,” he said. “They are asking for our help, as equals, to join the Western world.

“Strengthen Uk- raine, eco nomically, politicall­y. Arm t-hem so they can defend them selves. Putin has killed any chance of Ukraine willingly aligning with Moscow when he started killing their children on the battlefiel­d.”

And the rest of NATO is watching.

For that reason, and to show Russia that the West is serious, NATO should reinforce its positions in Eastern Europe. “- We’re a lowest- common de nominator alliance,” he said. “It’s hard to get everyone to agree. But NATO takes one thing seriously: NATO. It won’t be shown to be weak. Once it grips, it grips with a ratchet.”

The general would l i ke NATO to grip. So would the Ukrainians. Putin knows this. If help against ISIL isn’t enough to dissuade us, the West must watch closely to see what he tries next.

 ?? Petehor J. T mpson / National ostP ?? Yevhen Marchuk, former prime minister of Ukraine, told the National Post’s Matt Gurney that Vladimir Putin hoped to gain control of Ukraine east of the Dnieper River, but “now
he’ll have to settle for a dysfunctio­nal country he can keep in his pocket.”
Petehor J. T mpson / National ostP Yevhen Marchuk, former prime minister of Ukraine, told the National Post’s Matt Gurney that Vladimir Putin hoped to gain control of Ukraine east of the Dnieper River, but “now he’ll have to settle for a dysfunctio­nal country he can keep in his pocket.”

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