For Ukraine, Weakness Could Be Its Greatest Strength

If Kyiv assumes that Western leaders consider Ukraine too strategically important to let fail, then they will likely be in for an unpleasant surprise. It must clearly make its present difficulties an asset—not a weakness. 

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The United States and the EU have demonstrated significant commitment to Ukraine’s success since the Maidan revolution. However, no Western leader has ever suggested that Ukraine has a blank check—that the Western commitment is without limits. Instead, as evidenced by the measured extent of financial and military assistance to Ukraine, this commitment is both limited and conditional. In particular, if Kyiv’s promises to implement meaningful reforms are not fulfilled soon, then Western support might evaporate.

Russia has also demonstrated significant commitment to achieving its objectives in Ukraine. The Kremlin has shown willingness to incur significant costs—international sanctions, political isolation and economic and human losses from the military conflict—since the crisis broke out a year ago. Thus, in contrast to the West, Russia’s actions demonstrate that its commitment in this conflict is essentially unconditional and unlimited.

Thankfully, Ukraine’s circumstances have not deteriorated to the point of the U.S. big banks in 2008, when the federal bailout demonstrated that they were in fact too big to fail. But the threat of a dramatic deterioration in Ukraine’s security or economic conditions looms large in 2015. Policy makers in Kyiv certainly need to prepare for the worst. After a year of nearly every Western leader proclaiming firm commitments to Ukraine, some of those policy makers might well believe that they can still take certain risks; after all, they might reassure themselves, the West will never allow Ukraine to fail. While we cannot say with certainly that such a reassurance is baseless, there is strong evidence to suggest precisely that.

Take, for example, Washington’s recent passage of the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which observers in both Kyiv and the West have characterized as a major step forward in the U.S. commitment to the security and prosperity of Ukraine. But the way it changed as it evolved from bill to law runs counter to this narrative.

In the initial draft that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ukraine was classified a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA). The term has a largely technical meaning that relates to arms export procedures and security cooperation; it is not the same as a mutual defense treaty. But both in Ukraine and beyond, many, including President Petro Poroshenko, seemed to believe that MNNA implies just that. For Washington, regardless of the technical meaning of the term, granting MNNA status to Ukraine would have represented a much firmer commitment to Ukraine’s security, since violations of it would have undermined the credibility of all U.S. alliances.

But, in the end, the MNNA provision was removed from the final version of the bill. Further, essentially all other measures in the legislation—including both military assistance and sanctions on Russia—grant authorities to the executive branch, but do not compel it to act.

In short, the new law does demonstrate U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s security, but its transformation shows the profound limits of that commitment. It should be a cautionary tale to President Poroshenko and the Ukrainian elite as a whole. They can rely on the United States for support, but the United States will not guarantee Ukraine’s security. In the short term, that means Kyiv will be largely on its own if Moscow decides to break the tenuous ceasefire and push deeper into Ukrainian territory.

Some argue that if the security situation deteriorates dramatically, the United States and its allies will be compelled to intervene, because they could not countenance the permanent dismemberment or occupation of a European state. In fact, they did just that in the case of Cyprus. Since its 1974 invasion of the island, Turkey has illegally occupied the sovereign state of the Republic of Cyprus. Following the north’s 1983 declaration of independence as the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC), Turkey recognized it, and it remains the only state to have done so. To this day, Turkey maintains between 30,000 and 40,000 troops on the one-third of the island controlled by the TRNC despite numerous UN Security Council resolutions since its initial invasion calling for immediate withdrawal.

The UK, as a guarantor of the treaty granting Cyprus its independence, had a legal obligation to “undertake to prohibit . . .any activity aimed at promoting . . . partition of the Island.” Despite the presence of UK servicemen at its two bases on the island, London did not act militarily to stop Turkey’s invasion. The United States had no treaty obligation, but beyond the UNSC, its response was restrained: a three-year embargo on U.S. military grants and arms sales to Turkey was the most severe measure adopted.

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