Russia Isn't Going Away in Ukraine

Members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces prepare a weapon at their position on the front line near the government-held town of Avdiyivka

The developing escalation spiral needs to be halted before it ends in total catastrophe.

The North Korea situation seems to bring U.S. national security “back to the future,” inviting Americans to seriously contemplate the prospect of nuclear war for the first time in decades. That is regrettable, and this writer has spent more than a few late nights and some long transpacific plane rides puzzling for a solution. However, the sad truth is that the unfolding situation in Ukraine is actually no less dangerous. In fact, one could plausibly argue that is even more dangerous for three salient reasons:

1 - Russia has become such a political ‘hot potato’ within U.S. domestic politics now that one hardly sees rational assessments in contemporary American strategic discourse.

2 - People are dying every day in the proxy war in eastern Ukraine and that dynamic dramatically inflames nationalist impulses on both sides.

3 - the Kremlin’s large and well tested arsenal of nuclear weaponry makes “Rocket Man’s” petite cache of weapons look like Tiddlywinks when comparing destructive power.

The point here is not to simply rehash what is well known. Everyone, for instance, knows by now that George Kennan, one of America’s most famous diplomats and foreign policy thinkers of the twentieth century, starkly warned against NATO expansion in the 1990s (and he was hardly alone), but successive U.S. administrations pressed ahead anyways. There is no point, moreover, in reviewing the tragic events of the Maidan, and how European and American diplomats such as then Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland foolishly overplayed the delicate political crisis in Kiev in 2013–14, prompting the Russian countermove against Crimea and igniting the outbreak of a destructive civil war. At least President Barack Obama was subsequently wise enough to admit that the United States had virtually no options to respond when confronting Russia’s “core interests,” as explained in his seminal 2016 foreign policy-focused interview that appeared in The Atlantic.

The simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine is the continuing legacy of these reckless moves, and any glimmers of hope that the Trump administration might bring the region’s suffering to an end with a creative peace plan has all but dissipated. The bizarre, half-cocked debate about Russian influence in the United States over the last year has been almost entirely undertaken by people who know nothing about Russia—with several bright and reasonable exceptions on this valued forum. To help slightly even the score, this new column will take a close look at new and relevant Russian-language writings: in this case a November 2017 survey of the Ukraine situation appearing in the Russian newspaper Military Review [Военное обозрение].

The article describes the late October 2017 bombings of a gas pipeline, a gas distribution station and nearby power lines in Crimea that are said to have cut off gas and electricity to 3,000 residents. An incident along the border in August 2016, in which two Russian officers were killed, and yet another in November 2016 when two Russian Army soldiers were detained, are also discussed. The author asks pointedly: “Is this not military aggression that needs to be answered by force?” [Это ли не военная агрессия, которую необходимо было пресечь силовым путём?] The article notes that Ukrainian saboteurs have been detained carrying bags full with “magnetic and contact mines, fuses, TNT, and grenades.” No mention is made of possible acts of sabotage against Ukraine by Russian agents. Alleging a link to Western intelligence organizations, the author of this Russian analysis suggests that the Ukrainian saboteurs regularly have their knowledge updated by overseas “colleagues.”