If Machiavelli were advising the Ukrainian government, he would share what he wrote in The Prince. In that oft-read but less-often-followed 16th century manual for effective government he observed, “… the Romans, seeing inconveniences from afar, always found remedies for them and never allowed them to continue so as to escape a war, because they knew that war may not be avoided but is deferred to the advantage of others.”
Russia has 45,000 troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern border. It has already annexed Crimea, partly by clever-though-transparent ruse. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the break-up of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century and that Ukraine is not even a country. Add two and two together and you get a Russian agenda for annexing Ukraine.
Kiev faces this crisis from a position of pitiful weakness. This results from 23 years of mismanagement, pillage by a corrupt ruling class, and manipulation by Russia. Foreign Affairs reports that Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s second president since its independence in 1991, “sat at the head of a vast criminal system.” The 1994 Orange Revolution prevented Kuchma’s chosen successor, Viktor Yanukovych, from stealing the election, but this Russian-backed leader with strong support in the Russian-speaking east eventually took power in 2010 and governed as you would expect a looting Russian puppet to govern.
So the country is economically and politically a shambles. Its military is a small fraction of the Russian forces. The eastern regions of the country are being occupied one city after another by pro-Russian insurgents, some of whom are actually Russian agents and special forces in black ski masks.
So the question for Kiev is not, “Do we want a fight?” But, “When do we fight?” If Ukraine confronts the lightly armed but highly trained Russian agents forcefully occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine, it should be able to win. Then either Russian waves of steel will pour over the border and drive the Ukrainian troops back to Kiev on roads slick with blood or not. Circumstances may somehow turn in Ukraine’s favor and preclude further combat.
But if Ukraine avoids confrontation for fear the Russians will seize the moral façade of coming to the rescue of the supposedly oppressed Ukrainian Russian speakers, Ukraine will not have saved its country. It would lose the eastern regions in the same way it lost Crimea. And then Putin would find a pretext for taking the entire country. It would be sport for him. He would do it shirtless.
This week, the Ukrainian government started to act like a government, taking forceful steps to assert its authority within the territory under its sovereign care. But as in chess, a game understood in the Russian orbit, there comes a point when you have made so many bad moves that defeat is unavoidable. There are no good moves left to you. Perhaps at this point Ukraine does not deserve its independence. But Putin’s Russia certainly does not deserve its reabsorption or vassalage.