Avoiding a New 'Cuban Missile Crisis' in Ukraine

Unlike in 1962, Russia has geography and national will on its side in Ukraine.

Fourteen months ago, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was run out of office by demonstrations sparked by his shelving of the “Association Agreement” with the EU.  The accord had substantial support in western and central Ukraine, in particular, and Yanukovych’s decision to opt, instead, for a $13 billion loan from Moscow in exchange for joining the Russian-led Customs Union sealed his already-precarious fate. What the Maidan protestors and Western leaders praised as a people’s revolution, the Kremlin condemned as an “extra constitutional coup.” After Yanukovych’s fall came the (unconstitutional) March 16 Crimea referendum in which over 90 percent of the voters chose union with Russia. (Though the results were widely dismissed, over 80 percent of the respondents in a June Gallup poll opined that the outcome reflected popular sentiment in Crimea.) The Russian parliament then ratified a “Treaty on Accession,” the formalization of Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. That deepened the crisis: determined to emulate Crimea’s example, separatists soon took up arms in parts of Ukraine’s Donbass. Moscow proclaimed itself their patron.

The Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic were soon under threat from the advancing Ukrainian army and a gaggle of private militias. They may well have been overrun had Russian troops not opened a new front in Novoazovsk, on the Black Sea coast, in August, drawing Ukrainian forces southward and pummeling them. Simultaneously, Moscow increased arms shipments to its clients, and regular Russian units bearing heavy weapons started playing a far more prominent part in the war. The Kremlin’s denials of direct involvement were comical, but its added military muscle proved transformative.

The Minsk II ceasefire was signed on March 12 of this year, but six days later Ukrainian troops, who had been surrounded on three sides, were forced from Debaltseve. Those two events created the current line of control in eastern Ukraine. The March accord hasn’t ended the fighting and the dying, and it main provisions haven’t been fully implemented.  Still, unlike its predecessor, Minsk I, which became a dead letter within days of being signed on September 5, it has survived.

Minsk II hangs by a thread, though, and the risk of renewed war remains real: it doesn’t take more than a few ugly incidents to shred fragile ceasefires. One place where the shredding could start is Shyrokyne, a small settlement (its population is less than 1,500) in Novoazovsk district, off the E-58 highway and 12 miles east of the Black Sea port city of Mariupol. Shyrokyne has been shelled repeatedly by Russian and separatist forces, and its fall would imperil Mariupol. Were Putin to then throw caution to the wind and order his army to push west with the aim of creating a land connection to Crimea, today’s crisis will seem minor by comparison.

While none of this is foreordained, Minsk II’s death would take all the parties involved in this fracas—Ukraine, Russia, and NATO—to a very dangerous place. The United States is already training Ukraine’s army and has allocated $195 million for non-lethal equipment, and President Obama will face intense pressure to send lethal arms to beef up the Ukrainian army. There should be no illusions about the consequences: Vladimir Putin will pour in more weapons and troops. And NATO’s already-anxious eastern members, Poland and the Baltic trio, will demand that it allies dispatch reinforcements. Moscow will push back if that happens. In short, a classic conflict spiral will commence.

The war in Ukraine has already created the most dangerous confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the Cuban Missile Crisis. If Obama scales up arms supplies to Ukraine in response to Minsk II’s collapse, the United States and Russia will be engaged in a military test of wills—on the latter’s doorstep. In 1962, geography favored Washington; Moscow had to withdraw. In 2015, proximity will permit Russia to bring additional men and materiel to the battlefield far faster than the United States can bolster Ukrainians units, let alone create an effective Ukrainian army.

Besides, Russia simply has far more at stake in Ukraine than the United States and its NATO allies do, and that means that Putin will take risks that the West simply won’t.  It would be morally reprehensible and strategically obtuse, therefore, to encourage Ukrainians to conclude that the West will match Russia move for move. Ukrainians can be forgiven for getting precisely that impression from Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s May 18 press conference in Kyiv.

While the “arm Ukraine” chorus persists, it hasn’t yet explained what the United States should do if Putin escalates rather than desists. If he ups the ante, Washington will face two choices, neither of them good: backing off or doubling down. Taking a momentous step based on hope, and without an effective and feasible countermove at hand in case the opponent fails to do what you expect, amounts to reckless folly—the more so since, during this crisis, Putin hasn’t done what the West has assumed he would.