The Agreement That Will Save Ukraine

Here's how the West and Russia might be able to peacefully resolve the crisis in Ukraine.

Despite the Minsk-II ceasefire agreement signed in February, the civil war currently being waged in eastern Ukraine between government forces and separatist rebels is all but frozen. In a pattern akin to the gradual collapse of the earlier Minsk-I Protocol, small-scale skirmishes have been frequent occurrences over the past five months, while more-recent battles foreshadow a return to larger, conventional military confrontations.

For those caught in the crossfire, the costs of the fighting continue to mount. To date, the conflict has claimed over 6,300 lives, wounded over 15,500 and displaced over 1.7 million people. The Ukrainian economy isn’t doing well, industrial production is collapsing and the value of the hryvnia has plummeted.

And yet, the war continues. Subsidized by the largess of foreign powers, the flames of civil war still burn. The United States and the European Union promised billions in aid to Kiev, committed military advisers and “nonlethal” aid to government forces and boosted NATO’s military presence in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Russia arms separatist rebels, mobilizes its forces on the Russia-Ukraine border and deploys Russian “volunteers” in eastern Ukraine.

These foreign investments in Ukraine’s internal war are motivated by larger geopolitical interests. For Moscow, Ukraine is a critical buffer-state separating the Russian homeland from NATO encroachment; the Black Sea Fleet—Russia’s means of projecting power in the Mediterranean—is based in Sevastopol; and control over Ukrainian pipelines is critical for Russian energy exports, on which the Russian economy relies. For Europe and the United States, a pro-Western Ukraine would represent the geopolitical containment of an increasingly assertive Russia. A consolidated Kiev could serve as an instrument for exerting pressure on Moscow. A government victory over Russian-backed separatists, however unlikely, would provide an important ideological victory for liberal democracy.

To be sure, these are important geopolitical interests for both sides. However, they are instrumental rather than intrinsic interests—they are means to ends rather than ends in and of themselves. The outcome of the Ukraine conflict does not pose an existential threat to Russia or the West, and consequently, there are limits to the costs these external actors are willing to pay to see their respective sides through to victory. While the conflict may warrant investment in the form of arms, equipment and financial aid, external interveners have never entertained the prospect of fighting a war against each other in the name of Luhansk or Donetsk.

Nonetheless, mounting tensions have given rise to mounting fears of escalation. In recent comments to the Russian news agency Interfax, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev registered his concern that the conflict in Ukraine might spark a larger “hot war” between the United States and Russia. “Unfortunately I cannot say for sure that a cold war won’t lead to a ‘hot’ one,” Mr. Gorbachev explained. “I fear they could take the risk.”

Gorbachev’s concerns have been echoed by former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Testifying during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Kissinger expressed his uneasiness about the prospect of “a process of military engagement without knowing where it will lead us and what we’ll do to sustain it.”

Both Gorbachev’s and Kissinger’s remarks reflect the strategic dilemma that underlies the West’s and Russia’s “competitive intervention” in Ukraine; the two sides have conflicting interests over the outcome of the civil war, but they have a common interest in the avoidance of direct confrontation. While the West and Russia are compelled to intervene, they are also simultaneously—and paradoxically—compelled to do so with restraint.