Bad Neighbors Don’t Abide by Treaties
With Russia’s track record in mind, Kyiv will continue to fight for its survival and plan for a future defined by armed resistance to Russia rather than any agreement with vague promises of security guarantees.
China’s President Xi Jinping is the latest world leader to offer a plan to end Russia’s war on Ukraine. With recent success brokering the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Xi’s efforts are another sign of China’s global ambitions and that its influence is not confined to northeast Asia. Xi’s special relationship with Putin has led to a deepening of ties and a goal of a “no limits” partnership, but Xi’s efforts will be fruitless. Ukraine’s ability to fight more effectively than Russia combined with Russia’s history of violating international norms and disregarding security agreements with Ukraine forestall Xi’s efforts to broker peace.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile was on Ukrainian territory. While Kyiv had physical control of the weapons, Moscow retained operational control and launch capabilities. Through considerable U.S. pressure, Ukraine signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. In exchange for relinquishing physical control of the nuclear weapons, Russia, the United States, the UK, and later France and China agreed to support Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and Russia would refrain from the use of force or economic coercion against Ukraine.
The 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation reaffirmed the post-Cold War status quo. Article 3 clearly states, the countries will maintain “relations with each other on the principles of mutual respect, sovereign equality, territorial integrity, the inviolability of borders, the peaceful settlement of disputes, the non-use of force or threat of force, including economic and other means of pressure, the right of peoples to control their own destiny, non-interference in internal affairs, observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, cooperation among States, and conscientious fulfillment of international obligations and other universally recognized norms of international law.” This was violated in 2014 when Russian military hackers exploited Ukraine’s Central Election Commission and attempted to interfere with Ukraine’s presidential elections. And Russia physically violated Ukrainian territory when it invaded in 2014, which resulted in the illegal occupation of Crimea and fomented fighting in the eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the trilateral contact group composed of Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) signed the Minsk Protocol. With twelve goals to end the fighting and prevent escalation, the agreement was supposed to create an immediate bilateral ceasefire. Unfortunately, Russia never respected this ceasefire. After additional rounds of fighting, as Moscow tried to improve its position the parties met again just six months later when Minsk II was signed in February 2015. The agreement was endorsed this time by leaders of France and Germany. After this agreement, too, Russian-led forces continued to fight. Russia, while an original signatory of the Minsk Agreements and the principal aggressor in the conflict, untruthfully claimed not to be a party to the conflict, and rather only a “facilitator” in it. The deal required not only a ceasefire, but also the withdrawal of foreign military forces, disbanding of illegal armed groups, and returning control of the Ukrainian side of the international border with Russia back to Ukraine, all under the supervision of the OSCE. Russia did not honor the agreement, and between 2014 and early 2022, thousands of people continued to die in eastern Ukraine.
Since 2014, Russia supported its proxies in Eastern Ukraine. Casualties rose on both sides, and outside civilians were killed as well. In July 2014, 298 people died when a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile, which originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Federation and was transported from Russia the day of the crash, shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17, which was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Separately, while Russian delegates approved the mandate of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine from its seat in Vienna for years, Russia would then block the implementation of the mission on the ground along the Line of Contact in Donetsk and Luhansk.
On February 22, 2022, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared the Minsk agreements “no longer existed” and began to escalate his war against Ukraine. With efforts to destroy Ukrainian identity and the Ukrainian state, there is very little confidence in a China-brokered agreement to end the fighting with Russian forces inside of Ukraine’s 1991 borders. Moreover, China will not want to support any precedent which could invalidate its own claims over Taiwan, which suggests that even China’s diplomatic approach will not endorse Russia’s own claims.
When adding the regional context with Russia invading and occupying parts of regional neighbors Georgia and Moldova, Xi’s plan is insufficient to reassure Ukraine. Finally, the plan is a non-starter because of Russia’s other international law and norm violations such as interference in political processes in North America and Europe, use of information operations to undermine media in democratic countries, use of chemical weapons to target political opponents, and violations of arms control agreements with the United States.
With Russia’s track record in mind, Kyiv will continue to fight for its survival and plan for a future defined by armed resistance to Russia rather than any agreement with vague promises of security guarantees. Just as other countries in Europe sought NATO membership as a reaction to Russia’s historic and post-Cold War expansionism, Ukraine will likely do the same when the active fighting ends, seeing the vital need for a security guarantee against future Russian aggression. Just like the Korean conflict ended without a treaty in 1953 but held in check by the U.S. alliance with South Korea, this one may follow a similar path. The deterrent value of alliances remains strong and NATO members’ reactions to improving European defense since 2022 strengthen the importance of collective defense in Europe. There is some irony that no one has done more to increase the relevance (and soon, the size of NATO) than Putin himself.
It is useful to remember that war is about achieving political aims and Putin’s international position is worse off. Most outside Moscow seem to understand this as the war has been very costly for Russia in material and symbolic terms. Russia’s ground forces have been decimated, its arms industry has been tarnished, and its connections to the West are growing more restricted by the day. The ICC indictment of Putin for crimes against humanity effectively ended any prospect for post-war normalized relations, so Putin is unlikely to withdraw its forces from Ukraine. What started as Putin’s dream to become greater than Tsar Peter I may end with Putin being remembered as the last Tsar Nicholas II.
Derek S. Reveron is Professor and Chair of the National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Naval War College, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.