A Growing DilemmaPosted: February 6, 2015
In case you lost track, events in Ukraine are increasingly leading towards a chance of significant conflict. Today, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Francois Hollande of France traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin concerning the escalating fighting in Ukraine.
Roughly a year ago, Chancellor Merkel stated that she would no longer deal with President Putin until he became serious about working for a solution to the problem in Ukraine. Nothing has changed regarding Putin’s stance on events there. He continues to claim that there is no Russian involvement there and that, indeed, NATO troops are the bulk of the fighters for the “illegal” Ukrainian government. Yet Merkel felt it necessary, along with the other most influential leader in continental Europe, to go to Moscow. This demonstrates their concern that the situation in Ukraine is becoming increasingly dangerous. Influencing their decision to meet with Putin is a growing sentiment in the United States Congress and with senior advisers to President Obama that the United States should provide the Ukrainian army with increased aid, including heavy weapons. At present, the U.S. supplies only non-lethal aid and diplomatic support to the Ukrainians.
Last September, the Ukrainians and pro-Russia separatists agreed to a ceasefire that held, with some exceptions, until early this year. Since the new year began, the separatists have launched several offensives to expand their territory to the west and south. Fierce fighting in cities and towns left scores of civilians dead, in addition to casualties among those fighting. The situation continues to escalate. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Ukraine this week to renew U.S. pledges of support to the Ukrainian government and to call for renewed sanctions if Russia does not bring the fighting to a halt. Indeed, last week, the European Union voted to consider increased sanctions against Russia.
You will recall that I wrote about this subject last September (“Where Do We Go From Here?”) and stated that over time, the events in Ukraine potentially provide a bigger threat to our long-term strategic goals than does ISIS. I also pointed out that European leaders should review their history as NATO was formed for this exact reason — to protect Europe from Soviet (Russian) invasion. Ukraine of course is not a member of NATO, but the threat is the same and nothing that Putin and the Russians have done since last fall provides any shred of evidence that the Russians intend to stay out of Ukraine. In fact, it is very much the opposite, and in my mind, the situation is even more dangerous. Yet the United States, and indeed all of Europe, walk a tenuous high wire trying to balance our strategic interests elsewhere in the world, while working to inhibit Russian adventurism.
According to most experts, the sanctions have had a real impact on the Russian economy. The exchange rate for the Russian ruble plummeted over the course of 2014 and the Russian economy is suffering. Even Putin admits that the economy is in bad shape but places the blame squarely on the West and claims that western nations are trying to destroy Russia. Exacerbating their economic woes is the plunging price of oil, which until the bottom dropped out of the market, allowed Russian economic policies to continue through oil revenue. No longer.
Given the extent and effectiveness of Russian propaganda within their own population, Putin has been able to build an “us against them” mentality. Historically, what is the track record of nations run by dictators and near dictators when they face economic troubles or domestic unrest? They drum up a problem outside the country’s borders, rally the population around (in this case) the Motherland, and blame all internal problems on external forces. Putin and his cronies are experts at this. The tightening of sanctions only validates his story.
At the same time, when Ukrainian and Western European leaders call on the Russians to withdraw from eastern Ukraine, the Russians claim that there are no Russian troops, equipment or aid to the so-called rebels fighting for their “freedom.” It is difficult to imagine how the West will get Putin to withdraw his forces from Ukraine when he steadfastly argues that none are there.
Other complicating factors to unified western action include:
- the close economic ties of several European nations to Russia
- the requirement for unanimous consent among the European Union’s twenty-eight nations to take action on further sanctions or anything else
- the same requirement for the twenty-eight nations in NATO (not all the same ones as in the EU)
- the need to have Russia at the table to bring Iran to heel
- the many cooperative endeavors between Russia and the U.S. not the least of which is the manning and resupply of the International Space Station
- the many other areas of strategic interest around the world where Russia must either be included, or pacified to keep them from meddling.
In short, given the degree of the response from the West, the large number of areas where western nations want Russian cooperation, and the positive impact on Russian domestic politics of continued adventures in Ukraine, with little to no adverse effects, Putin has no incentive to cease his meddling.
So, what can be done? As I wrote last September, as a minimum the West should:
- Provide the Ukrainian military with the supplies, including heavy weapons, that they require to combat the immediate threat posed by trained Russian “volunteers.” These Russians operate weapons beyond the capability of Ukrainian “farmers” and “factory workers” rebelling against the central Ukrainian government.
- Provide training to Ukrainian military leaders at the tactical and operational levels to instill a long-term ability to combat Russian military adventures.
- Increase the numbers and types of rotational deployments of United States military forces to the Baltic states and eastern Europe. These deployments underline the importance the United States puts on the tenants of the NATO treaty and the independence of nations. Although such deployments are underway, it is at small levels with minimal impact on public or diplomatic perceptions.
- Increase meaningful sanctions on the Russian economy. This will necessarily impose hardships on some sectors of the European economy, but the costs of dealing with Putin will only increase over time.
To be sure, there are dangers in this approach, or any approach that Putin feels threatens Russia. Some caution that arming the Ukrainian military and escalating the conflict only plays into Putin’s hands, providing an opening for invading Ukraine and leading to a much wider conflict, with more casualties, and one that the West does not have the will to stop. Indeed, Russia holds the strategic and tactical advantage in geography, troop levels, and will to win. It is unclear that the EU or NATO will be willing to engage Russia militarily should Putin decide to expand his adventure in Ukraine and annex large parts of the country as he did in Crimea. Putin declared last fall that he could “march into Kiev” at any time — he had only to give the order. Some argue that the West could give him the incentive do so if the situation escalates through increased military support or harsher sanctions.
In my view, Putin is playing the long game and will continue his adventurism until he is stopped. The sooner the West demonstrates its resolve and the sooner that he feels actual consequences to his actions, the sooner he will look for a diplomatic solution. In the end, only diplomatic solutions will provide a long-lasting resolution to this crisis. However, it is clear that increased military resistance is the only thing that is going to make Putin decide to end his shenanigans. And it is the only thing that will keep him from playing similar games to restore other portions of the former Soviet Union. In addition to Crimea, one need only look at Georgia, Chechnya, and Moldova to see that Putin will not hesitate to use his Armed Forces in the interest of “protecting” Russians. A quick survey of the map and a review of nations formerly part of the Soviet Union, or in its sphere of domination, will determine that there are large ethnic Russian populations in many other areas that Putin could decide to “protect.”
Putin will only stop meddling when he determines that the costs outweigh the benefits. To date, he is a long way from that conclusion. It is time for the West to demonstrate true resolve.