Facing Uncertainty in Ukraine
While most of Europe has been obsessed with the Greek crisis over the past weeks, another crisis is continuing to threaten the continent with dangers that go well beyond the survival of a common currency.
Ukraine is walking a narrow path between survival and failure while its partners are distracted and its opponents are gathering strength. As we recently marked the anniversary of the barbaric destruction of MH17, it is high time that we recognize the fact that Russia under Vladimir Putin requires that Europe—along with the United States—do more than just help Ukrainians defend themselves. It also requires that we confront the efforts in Moscow to rewrite history and undercut international law.
While Chancellor Angela Merkel and her European Union partners are focused on the Greek drama and President Barack Obama is focused on Iran and the nuclear deal he is trying to secure, Russian military moves in eastern Ukraine have been intensifying in direct violation of a cease-fire agreement. Over many months, Moscow has turned the Minsk agreement into mincemeat.
Over 9,000 Russian troops are now operating in eastern Ukraine, despite Moscow’s denial of their existence. The expectation is that the preparation for an assault on the government-held city of Mariupol is advancing.
Moscow is using its gas deliveries to Ukraine to blackmail Kiev by undercutting stockpile supplies for the coming winter. Meanwhile, Ukraine is running out of economic resources as it races to avoid defaulting on its loans. As another demonstration of comparative priorities, the European Union has offered over $222 billion to help Greece, while offering Ukraine $5.5 billion. In a similar comparison, the United States once gave Mexico $20 billion toward preventing its default and gave over $18 billion for reconstruction in Iraq, but has come up with only $3 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine.
All of these challenges converge at once, yet the Western partners continue to delay any serious military assistance to President Petro Poroshenko’s government, which needs it to stabilize itself and to avoid the fate of being, along with Georgia, another permanent frozen conflict in the middle of Europe.
While the Kremlin’s goal is to destabilize all of Ukraine to the point of political collapse, it can continue to exert pressure from its position in the Donbas for the foreseeable future without necessarily marching into Kiev, especially if Europe and the United States remain limited in their responses. Putin has been rewriting history in order to sell the annexation of Crimea to the Russian public as a justified reclamation of Russian territory. But one thing is clear: Putin attacked Ukraine’s efforts to become an independent democracy open to a European future as a preemptive strike in response to the potential of similar democratization waves emerging in Russia.
Washington has continued to deflect requests by the Ukrainian government for defensive weapons that might help deter more military aggression from Russia and its sponsored supplicants. President Obama continues to defer to Chancellor Merkel, who has maintained her position that giving weapons to Kiev will only cause a further escalation of the conflict.
Although the European Union renewed its economic sanctions against Russia at the G7 meeting in June, it has not chosen to respond to Moscow’s continuing military buildup. We know that Russia’s apparent aim is to make sure that a democratic Ukraine fails. But to counter military aggression only with stabilization credits is not going to be enough in the short or long run.
European countries recognize that amid the Kremlin’s continuing saber-rattling in the Baltic and in the Balkans, there is little reason to believe that the Russian threat is limited to Ukraine.
Both President Obama and Chancellor Merkel remain convinced that supplying the Ukrainian army with more effective defense tools will not prevent a Russian attack and could supply Putin’s propaganda machine with grist to escalate his aggression.
Recognizing that hesitation, Moscow is increasing its pressure on the West by publicly questioning not only the legality of the original transfer of Crimea to the Ukraine by Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, but also raising questions about the independence of the three Baltic States. This latter propaganda tactic could be a prelude to another hybrid warfare initiative as demonstrated in Crimea. Since there is a large number of Russian-speaking minorities in the three Baltic States, it is not impossible to imagine Putin planning such intimidation to test the resolve of the NATO alliance. It is in response to that potential that NATO is stationing new forces in the Baltic States and Poland.
While Ukraine is not a member of NATO, steps taken to secure the borders of the eastern European states, members of both NATO and the EU, should be followed by providing the capabilities for Ukraine to secure its lines of defense under the current circumstances. While the settlement of Ukraine’s political future may take many years, the need for sustaining the government in Kiev and its defense of the territory it now controls is of vital importance. And that cannot be done without Western military as well as economic assistance.
Putin’s narrative of returning Crimea to Mother Russia has appealed to Russian nationalist emotions not only because it demonstrates Putin’s challenge to the United States and the European Union, but also because it was relatively easy to accomplish. Nothing succeeds like success. But his long-term support for the eastern Ukrainian separatists is more difficult.
Given the rising burden of that support, Putin cannot sell as easily a potentially substantial increase in casualties in the face of a strengthened Ukrainian defense capacity, despite his popularity. There is already discontent about the loss of Russian soldiers in this war, while Moscow still denies its existence in eastern Ukraine. Although Putin has presented the Russian presence in Ukraine as helping a separatist uprising, he has since admitted that his troops participated in the military annexation of Crimea in a well-prepared military operation including the potential use of nuclear weapons. His presence in celebrating the annexation of Crimea with massive military hardware on display underlined that narrative. But a longer and bloodier path in eastern Ukraine would not be as festive.
The devastation in eastern Ukraine is already horrendous. Hundreds of thousands have fled the area. Many of them have ended up in western Ukraine.
Again, Putin attacked Ukraine’s democratic breakthrough as a preemptive strike against democratization in Russia. Rather than a sign of political strength, this was proof of his political weakness and fear of political contagion.
The people of Ukraine and their European neighbors face a critical turning point. Moscow currently seeks to create a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine and has introduced significant amounts of heavy weapons to maintain it.
In response, Western sanctions are critical but not by themselves sufficient. The West needs to provide Ukraine with the tools to sustain itself. These tools include radar systems, UAVs, communications capabilities, armored Humvees, and medical support equipment. Some of these have been promised but are exceedingly slow to arrive. Other tools include anti-armor missiles to counter the large numbers of armored vehicles that the Russians have introduced.
This cannot and should not be carried out by the United States alone. NATO members should combine their resources to underline their commitment to helping Ukraine, while demonstrating the resolve which Putin questions.
Nor can or should these measures be taken to counter the search for a peaceful, political solution, which all agree is the most viable tool to stop this conflict. But only if Putin recognizes the risks and costs of his aggression will he engage in that effort.
In his recent confirmation hearing in Washington, General Joe Dunford, President Obama’s nominee to become the Pentagon’s top military officer, said that he believes Russia poses the biggest threat to U.S. national security and that Ukraine won’t be able to counter Russian aggression unless it is provided with lethal military assistance.
The West has the capacity and the necessity to stop further Russian threats to both Europe and the transatlantic alliance. It now needs to marshall the political commitment to act.