A chalk board reads “Long Live DNR!” at the headquarters of separatist militias of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”(DNR) in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on June 13, 2014, after it was stormed by Ukrainian forces. Ukrainian forces said they had hoisted the national flag over the strategic rebel-held port of Mariupol on June 13 in their biggest advance since Petro Poroshenko’s election as the insurgency-wrecked country’s pro-Western president. AFP PHOTO / DANIEL MIHAILESCU © AFP
There’s an anecdote about a frog in a pot of water that goes like this: If you put a frog in a pot of hot or boiling water, it will immediately jump out (or die). But if you put it in a pot of cold water, and then gradually heat it, the frog won’t notice the change in temperature until it’s cooked.
I’m not sure if that’s actually true or not, but it’s a useful metaphor for the type of warfare Russian President Vladimir Putin has now unleashed on Ukraine. The idea is that people tend not to notice very gradual change, and if the process is carefully managed, people can be taken from one state of affairs to another, quite different one, without them even noticing exactly how or when they got there.
Ukraine is now at war. Part of its territory has already been annexed. Its soldiers are being killed by foreign fighters, armed and equipped from abroad, and sent to the country to seize key administrative buildings, military facilities, and even entire, strategically placed towns. Ukraine has lost control of its eastern border, and foreign tanks and troops are roaming one of its eastern provinces. All this has happened in the last four months.
But so gradual has this change in the state of affairs in Ukraine, that there are some who would not even recognize that Ukraine is, in fact, at war with Russia. It’s even difficult to say when this war broke out: was it with the annexation of Crimea, or with the appearance of the “little green men” in the peninsula? Was it, as some believe, when Russian special forces were allegedly sent to steady the Yanukovych regime as it was rocked by public protests, and activists began to be abducted, tortured and killed by men speaking “chistiy” (or Russian-accented) Russian?
What we can say is that things have definitely been going badly for Ukraine since late February, and things are still going from bad to worse. Few would have thought, in those dreadful days after the ouster of Yanukovych, that Ukraine would soon lose Crimea to Russia – but it did. Then there were the anxious last two weeks of March, when it seemed that mainland Ukraine might be invaded. Then in mid April the “little green men” turned up in the Donbas, and buildings started to be seized, and the hitherto unremarkable town of Sloviansk became the center of a pro-Russian rebellion, and a humiliating thorn in the side of the weak and disorganized Ukrainian armed forces. Abductions and killings, of journalists and activists, became commonplace. We learned the names of some of the Russian mercenaries behind the seizure of parts of the Donbas. Then a battalion of Chechen fighters appeared, and tried to take over Donetsk airport. The bodies of Russian mercenaries began to be sent back to Russia openly. And now tanks, stolen from Ukrainian bases in occupied Crimea, are being openly driven around towns in the east.
This evolution of circumstances, this gradual turning up of the heat, did not happen naturally – every major event, from the theft of Crimea to the deployment of Chechen fighters and tanks in the Donbas, has been carefully, artificially crafted and managed by Russia. Putin, an old KGB colonel, is conducting this war with lies, propaganda and subterfuge, and is very carefully and gradually raising the temperature for Ukraine. Little by little he adds new outrages, or mixes in a new ingredient (“little green men”, Chechens, tanks), to the pot of war in which he is stewing his neighbor. Sometimes he turns one burner down at little – perhaps a small redeployment of troops from the border – while tweaking up another slightly – say by threatening to cut off gas supplies. He calls for peace talks and for Kyiv to stop its anti-terrorist operation in the east, while at the same time letting more and more armed men cross the Russian border into Ukraine. But at all times he is gradually raising the temperature of the conflict.
Putin has proved difficult to predict, but perhaps, given what we have seen of his tactics in the last few months, we can now make a cautious prediction: he will continue to conduct this new type of war, his Frog-in-a-Pot war, until he achieves his aims, or until he is stopped.
Putin has himself alluded to what these aims might be: the dismemberment of Ukraine and the establishment of a new, Kremlin vassal state on the territory of Ukraine’s south and east, which he refers to as Novorossiya. He thinks in terms of maps, and it irks him to see Transdnistria (Moscow’s vassal state in Moldova) and his newly conquered Crimea cut off from Mother Russia. The solution to him is to take a swathe of Ukraine’s south and east, linking all his isolated possessions (and that goes for Kaliningrad as well: Latvia, Belarus, beware!).
So there probably won’t be an all-out attack and invasion of Ukraine by Russia – a swift, decisive sweep into enemy territory of the type we have seen in conflicts past. Instead, the situation in Ukraine will slowly deteriorate, until one day Kyiv will wake up to the realization that it has lost control of half of its territory, perhaps without even a single major battle being fought.
However, that’s assuming everything goes Putin’s way, and the frog doesn’t manage to escape being cooked.
Putin’s plans can be foiled if Ukraine can get his hands off the burners. That means, first of all, securing the border. Although some progress is reported to have been made, Ukraine has yet to prove that it has the strength to establish firm control over its frontier with Russia. But the border must be closed, and kept closed, to stop weapons and men from Russia getting into Ukraine to cause more and worse havoc. The anti-terrorist operation must not be stopped, no matter how Moscow protests. If there is any halt, Russia will simply use the opportunity to consolidate its position in the Donbas before starting to make mischief anew.
Next, Ukraine must continue to press for tough sanctions from the West against Russia – sanctions that don’t just have teeth, but sanctions with six-inch razor-edged fangs that can slice and rip into Russia’s exposed and vulnerable financial system, and its flabby industry, doing them some serious, painful injury. Wars cost money to prosecute, and the less of it available to Russia the better.
At the same time, Ukraine must work to reduce its dependency on Russian gas, and make sure it pays a fair price for the reduced amount it will still have to buy in the near term. For that, it will need firmer backing from the countries that consume 50% of Russia’s gas exports to the EU (50% of which is delivered through Ukrainian transit pipelines) – Italy and Germany.
Russia’s unfair actions in its undeclared trade war with Ukraine, which has already been going on for nearly a year, must be referred to the WTO, and trade sanctions applied and enforced by that organization.
On the diplomatic front, Ukraine must do everything it can to highlight Russia’s international isolation from the civilized world and its disgraceful position as the leader of a motley pack of rogue states. Russia must pay a diplomatic price in the United Nations for its aggression. Little has been achieved on this front since the General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and that was in March.
The black propaganda campaign waged by Russia against Ukraine must be more strenuously opposed. All too often, ridiculous and outrageous lies spewed by the Kremlin-controlled Russian media end up being parroted by “useful idiot” leftist commentators in the Western media, distorting Western perceptions of what is actually happening in Ukraine. Moscow has an army of Internet trolls dedicated to bending Western public opinion in the direction it wants. Ukraine has to counter this with its own army of troll slayers. Public initiatives such as http://www.stopfake.org are doing great work, but more needs to be done at the government level in Ukraine to counter the falsehoods emanating from the Russian media.
All of the above, and more, have to be done to douse Russia’s smoldering aggression, and stop the frog getting cooked. In future, for the frog to escape the pot once and for all (meaning ensuring Russia can never again threaten Ukraine’s very existence as a state), a whole set of other measures will need to be taken, such as rebuilding and reequipping Ukraine’s army, integrating the country’s economy with that of the European Union, and healing the raw wounds Putin has torn in Ukrainian society by artificially fostering divisions and mistrust between east and west.
But before all that, Ukraine first has to recognize that it is indeed a frog in a pot, and that the heat is rising.