Ukraine envoy says Putin will not give up

The very idea of a free and independent Ukraine is such a major irritant for Russian leader Vladimir Putin that it will remain in his sights for years.

And even if Russia doesn’t use the massive armoured force it has assembled on Ukraine’s border to invade its neighbour, it may maintain what is effectively a blockade for months, or for years.

‘Two, three or five months of such pressure will be devastating for our economy,’ the head of Ukraine’s diplomatic mission in Australia, Volodymyr Shalkivskyi, tells The Strategist.

Shalkivskyi says the large number of Russian troops on the border means the possibility of an attack must be taken seriously. Russia has continued to reinforce these forces, and with troops in Belarus and extensive naval drills in the Black Sea, it has very nearly surrounded Ukraine.

An attack is possible this week, it’s possible after the Beijing Olympics and it’s possible after the Brisbane Olympics (in 2032), Shalkivskyi says.

Even if Russia decides not to attack now, it will pursue a goal of destabilising Ukraine to try to take it under control. This will include not only the blunt military threat, but also hybrid warfare such as disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks. ‘It’s my personal opinion that Mr Putin has enough resources to wait for months, for years, keeping pressure on Ukraine and waiting for the perfect timing.’

Given the scale of the threat, should Ukraine push ahead with its plan to join NATO?

Yes, says Shalkivskyi. ‘We understand the Kremlin’s level of irritation at such a desire. But Ukraine’s long experience with Russia proves that almost any agreement between us can easily be torn up by Russia simply because its leaders have changed their minds. Or agreements can be manipulated so that Crimea [annexed by Russia in 2014] can have self-determination as long as there are Russian troops on the ground.’

If Ukraine agrees not to join NATO, that will be seen by Russia as weakness. It won’t bring stability to Ukraine in the long run because any Western-oriented government in Kyiv will alarm Moscow, even without NATO status. It makes no sense for Ukraine to take NATO membership off the table because that won’t change the Kremlin’s attitude, says, Shalkivskyi. And most Ukrainians support joining NATO.

Moscow has cut communication with Kyiv and Ukraine is relying on friendly nations to help calm the situation. Ukraine needs to explore every possibility to avoid a worst-case scenario, says Shalkivskyi. ‘We are willing to talk to everyone.’

Many countries have given at least political support, Australia applied pressure with sanctions and the United States and Britain provided military assistance.

Shalkivskyi says countries including Australia pulling their diplomats out of Kyiv sent the wrong message. ‘We respect this decision by the United States and other countries that followed suit. And we facilitated this decision for a relocation to be as smooth as possible, but we don’t believe it was necessary.’

He assesses that Putin has assembled enough military weight to attack Ukraine but not to occupy it. Russia has an estimated 135,000 troops on the border and that could reach 150,000 within days.

‘It’s not enough to control 40-plus million people in a country the size of New South Wales.’

Shalkivskyi says that rather than invading now, Putin is more likely to wait until Ukraine can be weakened and is lacking in international support. His efforts to destabilise Ukraine are likely to continue, with parliamentary and presidential elections in two years’ time likely targets for Russian interference. For Putin, manipulating the system to install a pro-Russian government would be a better option than a military invasion.

Second-guessing Putin’s intentions is not easy and there’s always the possibility of irrational decisions emerging from the Kremlin, Shalkivskyi says. ‘With Mr Putin you cannot use normal logic. He can act irrationally and order the attack. We cannot exclude it.’

Ukraine is very alert to the possibility of Putin using a ‘false flag’ operation such as an attack on government institutions by pro-Russian elements, and police have been authorised to respond immediately with force should that happen.

Russia has enough resources to keep its military on Ukraine’s borders for months, keeping pressure on the country that could devastate it economically, says Shalkivskyi. Extensive Russian naval exercises in the Black Sea are already making merchant shipping operators afraid to visit Ukraine’s ports and that’s having an impact on exports.

While this is not technically a naval blockade, it’s having that effect. ‘There’s only a slight line of territorial waters for the ships to go through, because all international waters are reserved by Russians for the military exercise,’ Shalkivskyi says.

Insurance companies are fearful of providing cover for the international flights to Ukraine, so the government provided back-up insurance. ‘It’s crucially important for us to have regular commercial flights.’

The Dutch airline KLM has already cancelled services to Ukraine. Shalkivskyi says that’s understandable because most of those killed when pro-Russian separatists shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 were Dutch citizens.

Lufthansa is considering what to do next. Other companies that leased aircraft to Ukrainian operators believed the situation had become too dangerous. ‘They asked for their aircraft to be returned,’ Shalkivskyi says.

‘So, we believe the challenge is not whether we survive today. The challenge is to survive constant pressure that probably will remain from the threat of possible military attack and possible hybrid attacks as well. That can take months or years. For Moscow, Ukraine is just too important to let us live by our own and pursue any policy that we would like. They would like to have at least a friendly government or total control over the territory.’

Would Russia try to conquer all of Ukraine or aim to capture limited areas it was confident of controlling?

Shalkivskyi believes that will depend on the level of resistance and he has no doubt his country will fight.

With their numbers and sophisticated weapons, the Russians might well cut through the Ukrainian front lines, but for Russia to occupy all of Ukraine would require huge resources.

Morale is high and Ukraine’s army is one of Europe’s biggest with 250,000 personnel. Ordinary people are preparing hunting rifles, pistols and Molotov cocktails to defend small towns and villages. ‘They are not going to the border, but they’ll protect the small piece of land where they live.’

That, says Shalkiviskyi, could surprise Russians who’ve been told by the Kremlin that they’re going to liberate Ukraine from a pro-Western, anti-Russian government in Kyiv.

Ukraine’s ground forces are armed with anti-tank weapons manufactured in their country and others provided by allies. Russia’s air force is clearly superior with more modern aircraft.

In terms of casualties, such a conflict could be costly for both sides.

The Russians might seek to capture the oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk and significant land adjoining them. They might also seek to carve out a corridor from the Russian border through to Crimea.

Ukrainians are very aware of the total devastation in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region since the Russians took it over and how sophisticated factories there have been dismantled and moved to Russia.

There are 15 nuclear-power reactors in Ukraine, Shalkivskyi says. What happens if Russia launches missile attacks and one of those reactors is hit because of a miscalculation?

Having staked so much and rattled the world with preparations for a blitzkrieg-style invasion of a neighbour, can Putin back down? And is there something he can take or achieve that will allow him to remove his forces without losing face with his people?

‘There is no easy way out, but nobody wants full-scale war,’ Shalkivskyi says. ‘Putin has to bring some kind of glorious achievement for internal consumption, but he has time. He can wait. And there is no indication so far that he’s pulling back the troops.’

Shalkivskyi notes that there’s a draft law in the Russian parliament asking Russia’s president to recognise the independence of the Donbas region, and to somehow bring it into the Russian Federation.

Ukraine will not consider that, says Shalkivskyi. ‘It’s our territory, it’s our people. Russia annexed Crimea and that’s acknowledged by all of the civilised world. If Russia goes ahead with the same with Donbas, the results will be the same. Nobody will recognise it.’