Eastern Europe and the Caucusus are the central theatres of Russian aggression. Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine — all former Soviet Republics — have all either lost territory to or largely ceded government control to Russia during Putin’s reign. Putin’s vision is the renewal of the former Russian empire by coercion if possible and by force if necessary. Among those territories, Ukraine is most critical to the Russian vision. Its loss to the West would be the biggest blow.
Russian activity in Ukraine should be viewed in this context. If Slavic and Orthodox Christian Ukraine becomes a normal successful democratic and western-oriented country, the renewal of the Russian empire is impossible. Further, just as the Soviet empire unraveled quickly from 1989-91, a fully free Ukraine could lead to a fully free Moldova, Belarus, and Georgia, completing the process that began thirty years ago. Should that happen, the Putin regime itself would be in serious jeopardy, just as Tsarist Russia and the USSR collapsed. A student of history, Putin’s conduct suggests he has drawn this conclusion himself.
Given Russia’s worldwide disposition toward U.S. interests, the geopolitical benefits of a free and intact Ukraine are manifest.
In or Out?
In international relations, the behavior of countries nearest the frontlines of conflict is often more instructive than those at safer distances.
Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal, for example, point to the fact that the countries most threatened by Iranian aggression were most notably absent from the agreement. Proximity to Iran, and greater familiarity with its government’s ways, produce heightened alarm.
So too with Russia. The countries nearest Russia understand its dangers more acutely than others. Among NATO countries, the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania are most highly supportive of Ukrainian NATO membership. Such membership, however, presents a host of complicating factors, not least the opposition by some Western European countries. It is instructive though, that while non-NATO Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have been subjected to Russian military attacks, formerly Soviet Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia have not. It is surely not that Russia has less design on its former Baltic territory. It is NATO membership that has stood in its way. That is precisely why Ukraine is eager to join NATO, and why Putin strenuously opposes it.
Should NATO membership not materialize, however, there are several other steps that would also bolster Ukrainian security. Designation as a Major non-NATO Ally, akin to U.S.-friendly countries as disparate as New Zealand, Brazil, and Morocco, would codify a U.S.-Ukrainian strategic relationship and provide Ukraine with significant new military and financial advantages.
Or simply greater military cooperation would provide major benefits. After the recent Russian buildup, British ships entered the Black Sea in a show of support for Ukraine. This was eye-opening for Russia. Expanding U.S. weapons sales to include air defense, anti-drone, and anti-sniper equipment would boost deterrence by raising Russian costs just as the Javelin sale did.
Conversely, inaction is no less a choice than action.
Ukrainian leaders believe Russia wants to control Ukraine at the lowest possible cost to itself. In this view, Russia would return the occupied Donbas if Ukraine accepted a federalized system in which its eastern territory returns on Russian terms and Ukraine stops its moves toward the West. This is essentially the Minsk formulation that Biden appeared to embrace at the summit with Putin.
However, this Russian vision is less likely now than ever. Ukraine is very different today than it was in 2014. It is now stronger and more unified against Russia. Its morale is high. It has a significant measure of international support. It is taking unprecedented steps against the Russian-allied oligarchs who have bred corruption throughout Ukraine’s economy and governance. In short, Russia is quickly losing its ability to influence events politically, culturally, and economically in Ukraine.
That leaves Russia with only a military option to achieve its goals. But Ukrainian and western actions have raised the cost of that decision. In an expanded conflict, Ukraine would fight, and it would fight with a better trained and equipped force. It cannot defeat Russia militarily, but it could cause substantial Russian casualties. A full-scale occupation of a resistant Ukraine would be enormously costly to Russia. At a time when its own public is turbulent, this would be a highly risky move for Putin. But one cannot know for sure what he would do.
What seems clearer is that raising the cost to Russia makes war less likely. The more the West supports Ukraine, the less likely a big war in Europe becomes. However, it also makes it more likely the unsatisfying status quo of Russian occupation in Crimea and Donbas remains in place.
What would come of such a stalemate? Two different models could emerge.
There is the Korean model. South and North Korea fought an inconclusive war. Each developed in its own way, providing the world with a shining contrast between a free country and a totalitarian dictatorship. Yet, the two countries remain at loggerheads seventy years later, armed to the teeth with war an ever-present danger. While Ukraine would take this outcome, allowing it to develop as a free country, it would still leave it under heavy threat.
The German model is more attractive. For forty-four years, West and East Germany were frontline countries in the Cold War. Notwithstanding several dangerous crises, ultimately the Western bloc raised the cost to the Eastern bloc and just waited it out. Eventually, the unfree side collapsed, and German unification happened on the free side’s terms. There is a sense in Ukraine today that as long as additional Russian aggression is deterred, and the West at least partially accepts its outstretched hand, time is on its side.
On a recent visit to Kyiv, I met with an elderly gentleman who is a local civic leader. For several years in the 1980s, he had been an imprisoned Soviet dissident. I noted the long odds of dislodging Russia from Ukrainian territory, given the two sides’ disparity in military capacity. He responded by pointing out that the Soviet dissident movement only had a few thousand people who were up against the massive power of the USSR. In Ukraine today, there are millions who are up against a much weaker Russia. He liked their odds.
Jon Lerner is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and Adjunct Professor of International Politics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service