Only the short term is clear. Within a few weeks and by Easter at the latest, the Russian army shall try to offer Vladimir Putin the control of the Ukrainian regions whose annexation he had so prematurely announced more than four months ago. For the Kremlin there is an urgency because the European tanks will start to enter the scene from the end of March and the more they arrive of them, the more difficult it will be for General Gerasimov’s troops to make significant advances.
A countdown has begun, but what next?
Either – first hypothesis – the Russian offensive fails and a galvanised Ukrainian army pushes back demoralised Russian troops from all or part of the territories they had conquered since 24 February. Vladimir Putin is then so humiliated on the domestic scene and discredited in the rest of the world that the question of his political survival is raised and the Russian army, under whatever president, has no other option than to invest all its resources in locking down a demarcation line.
Or – second hypothesis – General Gerasimov’s offensive allows Russian troops to advance sufficiently so that, several European countries, Poland first, hasten the delivery of fighter planes to Ukraine. The intensity of the fighting increases. The Ukrainians retreat but the new anti-aircraft protection they will have before the summer prevents the Russians from taking Kiev and from taking much more than the Donbass. Vladimir Putin has extended his conquests. Politically speaking, he saves face but he has, in reality, only moved the front line to the Ukrainians’ detriment without having defeated them. In this second hypothesis, it is Ukraine that locks a demarcation line but, in either case, it is a Korean scenario that is being written.
On the one hand, Ukraine is gradually integrating into the European Union under the protection of the Atlantic Alliance. On the other, the Ukraine annexed by Putin and under control of his troops is fully integrated into Russia, and an economic gap is opening up between these two Ukraines, which are rapidly becoming as dissimilar as the two Koreas.
In the north-west, the dynamism of the young urban middle classes, Western investment and EU budgetary support for the reconstruction of cities and industries are creating the conditions for a boom. In the south-east, money is scarce, the level of education is lower, and the old Soviet industries and agriculture are insufficient to provide for real growth.
The contrast is cruel for Moscow and, over the years, the Ukraine, which will of course be called “Western”, will play for the “Eastern” Ukraine and, beyond it, for the whole of Russia, the same role as a showcase for democracies that West Berlin had played for the countries of communist Central Europe.
A remake of the Cold War follows a high-intensity war but, unlike the secretary-generals of the communist era, Vladimir Putin does not embody a collegial model of leadership within which successions were organised without a break in regime. Biological or political exhaustion, this man is no longer destined to last very long and even admitting that he has survived the failure of the coming offensive or benefited from an advance of his troops, his effacement will place Russia in front of a historic choice.
It will then have to choose between a privileged alliance with China and the search for a modus vivendi with the European Union. In the first case, it becomes purely and simply a vassal of a country with ten times its population. In the second case, it becomes the second pillar of a common continent stabilised by security agreements, the reunification of Ukraine and economic cooperation that is as necessary and beneficial to the European Union as it is to the Russian Federation.
There is no guarantee that the post-Putin Kremlin will be able to make the right choice, but European democracies have two ways to encourage it to do so. One is to help make western Ukraine a success that is indisputable enough to win the choice of the Russians. The other is to put on the table now a proposal for the organisation of the continent that ensures the stability and prosperity of all its countries.