The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine Crisis

The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine Crisis

The war in Ukraine is a multi-dimensional disaster, which is likely to get much worse in the foreseeable future.

 

President Biden, who moved into the White House in January 2021, had long been committed to bringing Ukraine into NATO and was also super-hawkish toward Russia. Unsurprisingly, on June 14, 2021, NATO issued the following communiqué at its annual summit in Brussels:

We reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process; we reaffirm all elements of that decision, as well as subsequent decisions, including that each partner will be judged on its own merits. We stand firm in our support for Ukraine’s right to decide its own future and foreign policy course free from outside interference.

 

On September 1, 2021, Zelensky visited the White House, where Biden made it clear that the United States was “firmly committed” to “Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” Then on November 10, 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, signed an important document—the “US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership.” The aim of both parties, the document stated, is to “underscore … a commitment to Ukraine’s implementation of the deep and comprehensive reforms necessary for full integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.” That document explicitly builds not just on “the commitments made to strengthen the Ukraine-U.S. strategic partnership by Presidents Zelensky and Biden,” but also reaffirms the U.S. commitment to the “2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration.”

In short, there is little doubt that starting in early 2021 Ukraine began moving rapidly toward joining NATO. Even so, some supporters of this policy argue that Moscow should not have been concerned, because “NATO is a defensive alliance and poses no threat to Russia.” But that is not how Putin and other Russian leaders think about NATO and it is what they think that matters. There is no question that Ukraine joining NATO remained the “brightest of red lines” for Moscow.

To deal with this growing threat, Putin stationed ever-increasing numbers of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border between February 2021 and February 2022. His aim was to coerce Biden and Zelensky into altering course and halting their efforts to integrate Ukraine into the West. On December 17, 2021, Moscow sent separate letters to the Biden administration and NATO demanding a written guarantee that: 1) Ukraine would not join NATO, 2) no offensive weapons would be stationed near Russia’s borders, and 3) NATO troops and equipment moved into eastern Europe since 1997 would be moved back to western Europe.

Putin made numerous public statements during this period that left no doubt that he viewed NATO expansion into Ukraine as an existential threat. Speaking to the Defense Ministry Board on December 21, 2021, he stated: “what they are doing, or trying or planning to do in Ukraine, is not happening thousands of kilometers away from our national border. It is on the doorstep of our house. They must understand that we simply have nowhere further to retreat to. Do they really think we do not see these threats? Or do they think that we will just stand idly watching threats to Russia emerge?” Two months later at a press conference on February 22, 2022, just days before the war started, Putin said: “We are categorically opposed to Ukraine joining NATO because this poses a threat to us, and we have arguments to support this. I have repeatedly spoken about it in this hall.” He then made it clear that he recognized that Ukraine was becoming a de facto member of NATO. The United States and its allies, he said, “continue to pump the current Kiev authorities full of modern types of weapons.” He went on to say that if this was not stopped, Moscow “would be left with an ‘anti-Russia’ armed to the teeth. This is totally unacceptable.”

Putin’s logic should make perfect sense to Americans, who have long been committed to the Monroe Doctrine, which stipulates that no distant great power is allowed to place any of its military forces in the Western Hemisphere.

I might note that in all of Putin’s public statements during the months leading up to the war, there is not a scintilla of evidence that he was contemplating conquering Ukraine and making it part of Russia, much less attacking additional countries in eastern Europe. Other Russian leaders—including the defense minister, the foreign minister, the deputy foreign minister, and the Russian ambassador to Washington—also emphasized the centrality of NATO expansion for causing the Ukraine crisis. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made the point succinctly at a press conference on January 14, 2022, when he said, “the key to everything is the guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward.”

Nevertheless, the efforts of Lavrov and Putin to get the United States and its allies to abandon their efforts to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border failed completely. Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to Russia’s mid-December demands by simply saying, “There is no change. There will be no change.” Putin then launched an invasion of Ukraine to eliminate the threat he saw from NATO.

Where Are We Now & Where Are We Going?

The Ukraine war has been raging for almost four months I would like to now offer some observations about what has happened so far and where the war might be headed. I will address three specific issues: 1) the consequences of the war for Ukraine; 2) the prospects for escalation—to include nuclear escalation; and 3) the prospects for ending the war in the foreseeable future.

This war is an unmitigated disaster for Ukraine. As I noted earlier, Putin made it clear in 2008 that Russia would wreck Ukraine to prevent it from joining NATO. He is delivering on that promise. Russian forces have conquered 20 percent of Ukrainian territory and destroyed or badly damaged many Ukrainian cities and towns. More than 6.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country, while more than 8 million have been internally displaced. Many thousands of Ukrainians—including innocent civilians—are dead or badly wounded and the Ukrainian economy is in shambles. The World Bank estimates that Ukraine’s economy will shrink by almost 50 percent over the course of 2022. Estimates are that approximately 100 billion dollars’ worth of damage has been inflicted on Ukraine and that it will take close to a trillion dollars to rebuild the country. In the meantime, Kyiv requires about $5 billion of aid every month just to keep the government running.

Furthermore, there appears to be little hope that Ukraine will be able to regain use of its ports on the Azov and Black Seas anytime soon. Before the war, roughly 70 percent of all Ukrainian exports and imports—and 98 percent of its grain exports—moved through these ports. This is the basic situation after less than 4 months of fighting. It is downright scary to contemplate what Ukraine will look like if this war drags on for a few more years.

So, what are the prospects for negotiating a peace agreement and ending the war in the next few months? I am sorry to say that I see no way this war ends anytime soon, a view shared by prominent policymakers like General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the JCS, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. The main reason for my pessimism is that both Russia and the United States are deeply committed to winning the war and it is impossible to fashion an agreement where both sides win. To be more specific, the key to a settlement from Russia’s perspective is making Ukraine a neutral state, ending the prospect of integrating Kyiv into the West. But that outcome is unacceptable to the Biden administration and a large portion of the American foreign policy establishment, because it would represent a victory for Russia.

Ukrainian leaders have agency of course, and one might hope that they will push for neutralization to spare their country further harm. Indeed, Zelensky briefly mentioned this possibility in the early days of the war, but he never seriously pursued it. There is little chance, however, that Kyiv will push for neutralization, because the ultra-nationalists in Ukraine, who wield significant political power, have zero interest in yielding to any of Russia’s demands, especially one that dictates Ukraine’s political alignment with the outside world. The Biden administration and the countries on NATO’s eastern flank—like Poland and the Baltic states—are likely to support Ukraine’s ultra-nationalists on this issue.

To complicate matters further, how does one deal with the large swaths of Ukrainian territory that Russia has conquered since the war started, as well as Crimea’s fate? It is hard to imagine Moscow voluntarily giving up any of the Ukrainian territory it now occupies, much less all of it, as Putin’s territorial goals today are probably not the same ones he had before the war. At the same time, it is equally hard to imagine any Ukrainian leader accepting a deal that allows Russia to keep any Ukrainian territory, except possibly Crimea. I hope I am wrong, but that is why I see no end in sight to this ruinous war.