Has Russia's War Against Ukraine Reached a Point of No Return?

Alexander, 35, looks through a broken window of his flat, hit by Ukrainian Army Artillery, in the Voroshilovsky area, center
Alexander, 35, looks through a broken window of his flat, hit by Ukrainian Army Artillery, in the Voroshilovsky area, center of Donetsk, Ukraine. Sunday, Jan. 18, 2015. The separatist stronghold, Donetsk, was shaken by intense outgoing and incoming artillery fire as a bitter battle raged for control over the city's airport. Streets in the city, which was home to 1 million people before unrest erupted in spring, were completely deserted and the windows of apartments in the center rattled from incessant rocket and mortar fire. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

Russia's ongoing escalation of the war in eastern Ukraine may have crossed the point of no return. The world's attention has been focused on the savage fighting at Donetsk Airport, but the real cause for concern lies elsewhere.

The head of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic has officially stated that he intends to capture all of Donetsk province and that he rejects all forms of a ceasefire. Since, at present, his fighters control over a third of the region, his combined statements amount to a declaration of war on Ukraine and a determination to pursue the fight to the finish.

At the same time, Russia's proxies continue to shell key Ukrainian economic installations. A huge coke production facility in Avdiivka, near Donetsk, is one such target. If it's destroyed, Ukraine's steel-production will come to a halt. And on Jan. 23, proxy shells knocked out an electric power station in Shchastya, near Luhansk. As a result, the Ukrainian-controlled parts of the province have suffered a complete power blackout.

Western hopes of a negotiated settlement of the conflict are thus effectively dead. Although there is photographic proof of a Russian military presence in eastern Ukraine (over 9,000 regular troops) and of continued Russian military equipment being brought into the region, the Kremlin continues to deny that it is present in or in any way connected to the fighting. In effect, that's another way of saying that it has no interest in anything but a proxy victory.

There will, however, be no proxy victory for the simple reason that the Ukrainian armed forces, while not strong enough to roll them back, are strong enough to prevent their further advance. Moreover, now that Putin's proxies have targeted Ukraine's economic assets, Kyiv will have no choice but to defend itself by cutting off all electricity and gas supplies to the territories the proxies control.

The rationale for maintaining such supplies centered on the need to continue protecting the civilian population from the war. Faced with the choice of serving Ukrainian citizens in the Ukrainian-controlled territories of the Donbass or of serving their compatriots in the proxy-controlled parts, Kyiv will have to favor the former over the latter.

If, as the Donetsk rebel leader promises, his armies will continue to advance, Kyiv is highly likely to cut off all trade relations with the proxy-controlled territories as well. The result would be a complete blockade of the region. In effect, if not in intent, Kyiv would be separating Ukraine from the terrorist-controlled region.

No Ukrainian policymaker would admit to this, as popular opinion is overwhelmingly supportive of retaining the proxy-controlled parts of the Donbass within Ukraine, but a blockade would, over time, push these parts away from Ukraine and toward Russia.

Distancing itself from the proxy-controlled parts of the Donbass would have two positive consequences for Ukraine. On the one hand, this territory has always been the major drag on Ukraine's pro-European aspirations. Bereft of this burden, Ukraine could move westward more rapidly and determinedly. On the other hand, a full blockade would greatly enhance the economic and social difficulties of this territory.

Since Putin's proxies want no peace and are indifferent to the loss of human life, the only thing that might actually bring them to their senses is economic collapse in the territories they control. If nothing else, collapse would undermine their capacity to wage war. In circumstances such as these, it is high time for the West to realize that Putin and his proxies have no interest in peace. They are determined to damage, if not destroy, Ukraine as much as possible.

Inasmuch as Ukraine is a Western strategic interest, the West's strategy should focus on stabilizing the Ukrainian economy and enhancing Ukraine's ability to defend itself -- and the West. Arming Ukraine cannot possibly provoke Russian aggression, as Russian aggression has escalated even as Ukraine has sought peace and received no lethal weapons. But arming Ukraine just might enable it to resist Russian aggression long enough for the proxy assault on the Donbass to collapse.

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