What Russia's been doing in Ukraine since you stopped paying attention
It didn't take long for western media to lose focus. After Russia began its military campaign to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the world largely stopped paying attention to Ukraine. It shouldn't have.
Over the last few months, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been busy trying to deepen the quagmire he created in Eastern Europe. A United Nations' report released in November detailed the degree to which his proxy war in Ukraine has turned the country into Russia's killing field. More than 9,000 people have died since the spring of 2014 after Russia-backed rebels began fighting Kiev for independence, with some 20,000 people wounded. Between Aug. 16 and Nov. 15 alone, 47 civilians were killed and 131 were injured. At 9,000, the death toll in Ukraine is approaching the 13,000 killed during the war in Kosovo.
Though Putin has long claimed Russian ground troops are not supporting rebels, the UN and other organizations have proven otherwise. And Russian fighters, ammunition, and weaponry continue to flow into Donetsk and Luhansk, the UN report shows. Even after two Minsk Agreements that were supposed to end fighting between the rebels and Ukrainian forces, Russia has failed to convince its side to end violence in the territories it controls.
That's because with strong political support at home that seems impervious to sanctions levied by the West, Putin has no incentive to see tensions ease in eastern Ukraine. What he wants is to keep the conflict frozen so that Ukraine becomes economically weak and politically unstable.
With the eastern part of the country still in tatters, Ukraine teeters on the brink of bankruptcy — and Russia is more than willing to nudge it over the edge. This fall, Putin ordered his finance minister to sue Kiev in court over a $3 billion bond loan the government has failed to repay. Referring to Kiev as "swindlers," Russian Prime Dmitry Medvedev accused Ukraine's government of stealing from his country. "We'll got to court. We'll seek default on the debt and we will seek default on all of Ukraine's obligations." Of course, Putin and Medvedev won't admit that prolonged war in Ukraine caused the country's GDP to contract nearly 5 percent nor did they mention that Russia refused to back a $17 billion IMF restructuring deal that would have given Ukraine much-needed relief.
Ukraine is enduring political turmoil, too. As U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made clear earlier this month on a trip to Kiev, corruption is eating at the country "like a cancer." Its Washington-backed government is failing miserably to fight corruption, and many critics wonder if President Petro Poroschenko has the will to enact the tough measures needed to fight it. According to an August poll, only 3 percent of Ukrainians were satisfied that their country was headed in the right direction; incredibly, more than half the respondents said the former government of Viktor Yanukovych did a better job of fighting corruption than the current one.
Simply put: Ukrainian politics are a mess. But this not the time to abandon Ukraine, either. If the Kremlin succeeds in destabilizing Ukraine, it could very well create a security threat for Poland, the NATO partner and U.S. ally, and the rest of Europe that Putin will later claim only he can solve.
That's why Washington and Brussels cannot stand by and allow Russia to distract the West in the Middle East while he wreaks havoc in Eastern Europe. The West has so far extended sanctions against Russia at every opportunity, most recently by the E.U. in mid-December, but cracks are starting to show among the allies. Some have even suggested drawing down sanctions if Russia behaves itself in Syria — an idea that Putin no doubt would embrace.
The West must not let the quagmire in Syria cloud its judgment. It must remember Ukraine.