From the desk of Allen C. Lynch: Ukraine, Russia, and the West

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Allen C. Lynch is a Professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and author of Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft (Potomac Books, 2011).

What Might Success Look Like? 

The debate over arming Ukraine in its struggle with Russia for control over its eastern territories has focused attention as never before on the deteriorating situation in that country. In tones reminiscent of the Cold War, John McCain openly challenged German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refusal to embrace arms transfers to Kiev. At a major international security conference in Munich in February, McCain cited US containment of the Soviet Union as a model for the NATO nations to embrace. Vice President Joe Biden at the same conference affirmed Ukraine’s right to defend itself, clearly implying the legitimacy of future U.S. arms shipments to Kiev. So far, President Obama has only authorized transfers of non-lethal military equipment to Ukraine. For his part, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cited Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last March as a shining example of Russia’s respect for international law, even while embracing the principle of respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, eliciting ridicule from the mainly European audience.

Missing, at least from the public discussion, is a consideration of what the purpose of arms shipments to Ukraine might be. Even advocates of this measure concede that, given Russia’s greater stake in Ukraine’s fate than the West and its superior regional power resources, Ukraine cannot defeat Russian-backed forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of far-eastern Ukraine. While arming Ukraine might enhance the country’s ability to deter a direct, large-scale Russian invasion beyond existing occupied territories (it might also provoke Russian counter-measures), there is little evidence that Putin intends to occupy Ukraine, as distinct from destabilizing it. So what then?

More pointedly, just how far are Europe and the United States prepared to go in helping Ukraine? If the long-term goal is containment of Russia, then the West must be prepared to assume financial obligations equivalent to bail-out packages for four to five new Greeces, given the size and state of Ukraine’s economy and its massive indebtedness (mainly to Russia). Does anyone seriously believe that there is a constituency for such a subsidy in either Europe or North America?

Every one of Vladimir Putin’s actions on Ukraine since the summer of 2013—from embargoing Ukrainian exports to Russia to sustaining the insurgencies in the east—have been taken to send the message to Kiev, Brussels, and Washington that the future of Ukraine cannot be decided without Moscow’s agreement. Russia, with or without Putin, is one enormous fact, one that neither Ukraine nor the outside world can ignore. (Think of the Mexican proverb, “Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the USA.”) Western leaders may prefer to deal with a Russia without Putin but he is not leaving power anytime soon: his backing from the military, police, and intelligence services remains strong and his own control over televised political news ensures that the Russian “silent majority” supports him (86 percent in the most recent polls).

True, the Russian economy, which is heavily dependent on high oil prices, is in a tailspin, one that U.S. and European Union sanctions have been aggravating. But economic sanctions are unlikely to force a change in Putin’s Ukraine policy: Ukraine’s economic and security orientation, as well as its symbolic cultural importance for most Russians, transcend a simple economic calculus. Putin has been resisting calls for a large-scale invasion of Ukraine: he knows that this would represent a potentially fatal overextension of Russia’s army, triggering unpredictable consequences for his regime. As long as Russia’s commitment to destabilizing Ukraine remains limited, his government can absorb the associated costs.

In this light, what might a solution, or at least a sustainable de-escalation, in Ukraine look like? Any resolution must reflect several key, interrelated principles: first, that Ukraine is a sovereign state whose territorial integrity must be respected; second, that Russia has an interest in important economic and security aspects of Ukraine’s future; and third, that it is a mistake to encourage Ukraine to choose between Russia and the West: Ukraine can only be whole and stable if it can develop relations with each without thereby undermining ties with the other.

The Minsk cease-fire agreement of September 5, 2014, reaffirmed in its basic elements during all-night talks in Minsk, Belarus among Putin, Ukrainian President Poroshenko, French President Hollande and German Chancellor Merkel, remains the most promising framework for progress. Key terms of the accord include:

—an immediate-cease fire;

—withdrawal of heavy weaponry to a distance beyond their firing ranges;

—monitoring of these steps as well as the Ukrainian-Russian border by observers from the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); as well as:

—a significant decentralization of authority from Kiev to the eastern regions, with formal guarantees for Russian language rights in the region.

At time of writing (mid-March 2015), a tenuous cease-fire was holding and heavy artillery was being withdrawn from the front lines by both sides. Hundreds of OSCE observers on site have confirmed these promising developments. More problematic, Russia has continued to resist substantial OSCE monitoring of key sectors of the Russian-Ukrainian border while rebel leaders in the Donetsk and Luhansk sub-regions have rejected Kiev’s offers of greater autonomy. At best, then, we can speak of a suspension in large-scale fighting rather than the beginning of a genuine peace process.

At the same time, one should not underestimate the importance of the measures already being implemented. The value of a substantial force of OSCE monitors, which may soon double to nearly 1,000, is that it would at the same time underscore that Ukraine’s security is not exclusively a matter for Russia while addressing Moscow’s concern that European security cannot be defined exclusively in terms of NATO. (Russia is a member of the OSCE but not of NATO.) Such a force, which must be substantial in presence to police an enormous land frontier, could buy time for Ukraine, Russia, the European Union, and the United States to begin serious discussions about how best to help the Ukrainian economy and defuse a conflict whose primary victim is Ukraine itself.

Absent some such initiative, Russia will have acquired Crimea and de facto influence in parts of several devastated Ukrainian provinces representing some 5 percent of Kiev’s territory. Along the way, Russia will have succeeded in turning the rest of Ukraine into a giant Cuba along its western borderlands, reinforcing a virulently anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalism that has only gained strength since Putin’s annexation of Crimea. For its part, a Western world that seeks to shape Ukraine’s fate as if Moscow’s concerns do not count, will also find itself—at best—with a giant Cuba to subsidize for the indefinite future. After fifty five years, the United States has wisely decided to change course on the Cuba ninety miles off Key West. Let us hope that we do not have to wait that long on Ukraine.

-Allen C. Lynch