Overcoming the Ukraine Crisis
This commentary originally appeared on Project Syndicate.
Memories of the twentieth century’s great conflicts, from 1930s pacifism to Cold War antagonism, are stirring again, motivating both Russia and the West in one of the gravest threats to global order and European stability in the past 25 years. Indeed, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine involves nuclear-armed powers whose collective military spending accounts for nearly two-thirds of the global total. Yet history need not repeat itself, so long as the West takes steps to avoid being trapped by any sudden escalation.
Russia’s military intervention in eastern Ukraine has placed it in breach of international law and in violation of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, by which Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal in exchange for a guarantee of its borders by Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, later followed by China and France. Ignoring international law, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been sending an unvarnished message that only force matters.
Russia may be winning militarily and tactically in Ukraine, but its short-term success masks its underlying weakness. The combination of low energy prices and Western sanctions will make it difficult for Russia to maintain its high level of military spending over time. Indeed, Russia is even more economically and financially brittle than its Soviet forerunner; with an undiversified economy, and dependent on Western banks and technology, Russia cannot simply ignore what it does not control.
Given this, the United Nations Security Council’s three Western permanent members (France, UK, and the US), along with Germany and the European Union, need to appoint a single senior envoy to engage continuously and quietly with Ukraine, NATO and Putin. The current “Normandy format” (Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France) clearly is not enough.
The agenda for such contacts must start with enforcement of the second Minsk ceasefire agreement concluded in February, including adequate demilitarization and monitoring in eastern Ukraine, as well as agreement on a framework for local elections. Russia’s concerns about Western institutions’ post-Cold War eastward expansion should be considered, even if they are not necessarily accommodated. NATO should state explicitly that Ukraine will not become a member, while the EU should keep open the possibility of membership for Ukraine as an incentive for domestic reform.
Ukraine’s Western partners should also push for informal, direct contacts between Ukraine’s government and the diverse actors in eastern Ukraine currently labeled as “separatist.” This would begin to build trust, facilitating a future decentralized settlement. At the same time, the West should rally stronger economic support for Ukraine and its anti-corruption reforms, while ensuring that aid and trade go to areas controlled by “separatist” forces, too.
The Western alliance’s members, particularly in Europe, must implement their own reforms. In particular, they need to reduce the strategic leverage that dependence on Russian gas supplies gives to Putin. Doing so implies establishing a genuine common energy policy that pools risks, reserves, and infrastructure.
None of this is to say that the West should exclude the provision of military training and supplies; but it must do so prudently and to support a political process. Neither Ukraine nor the West would benefit from escalating the conflict – a point worth emphasizing in view of the debate in US foreign-policy circles (and beyond) in recent months about whether to supply Ukraine’s government with lethal military aid.
What NATO can and should do – in a transparent manner – is scale up defensive military support for its members close to Russia. The West would also do well to reinforce the economies and institutions of states in Russia’s “near abroad” against destabilization.
For now, sanctions against Russia should be maintained until peace gains traction. If Russia does not reverse course, emphasis should be placed on so-called smart sanctions that target individuals and specific entities, not the Russian people.
If the Ukraine situation can finally be demilitarized, and Russia has shown convincing evidence of readiness to address its grievances by political means, the West should offer Russia meaningful re-engagement. This could occur through frameworks like the World Trade Organization, the G-8, and especially the pan-continental Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which should be revitalized.
Russia should not dismiss the opportunity to reach a compromise with the West. The Kremlin claims partnership with China, but China is stronger than Russia and shares few core interests with it. Domestically, Russia’s “success” in Chechnya has been achieved by empowering a warlord who is not fully under Russian control. The Kremlin should view the situation in eastern Ukraine – another unstable, militia-run territory that has already sent a flood of refugees into western Russia – as a similar threat.
Looking past the conflict in Ukraine, the West will need to restore its credibility. Many Russians point to past Western military action – bypassing the UN in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya, for example – as evidence of Western double standards. That issue resonates beyond Russia as well.
China and other powers should be persuaded to support cooperative security arrangements and help Russia and Western countries de-escalate the crisis. The challenge to post-1945 norms now playing out in Ukraine is a threat to them as well, and their engagement is urgently needed to uphold global peace and security.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015