How to Resolve the War in Ukraine

September 16, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: UkraineDefenseRussia

How to Resolve the War in Ukraine

"A different approach is needed, one that goes to the heart of the problem by creating a new security architecture for central Europe that all can accept."

As the fall of 2015 unfolds, the Russia-Ukraine crisis is not generating nearly as much news attention as it created throughout most of 2014.  But in fact, it is still very serious—which is why the incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, told Congress in his recent confirmation hearings in July of this year that no issue concerned him more. The hope that the so-called Minsk II agreement, negotiated last winter, will produce a durable solution seems very unlikely. That plan called for greater autonomy for eastern Ukrainian provinces in return for a verifiable ceasefire, with the lifting of western sanctions on Russia to follow. But Kiev is showing little interest in granting such autonomy and Moscow is showing little interest in reducing its inflammatory behavior towards the conflict. The fighting continues at a relatively steady pace.  Meanwhile, the underlying issues that helped provoke the crisis in the first place in late 2013 and early 2014—fundamental disagreement over Ukraine’s future strategic orientation—are no closer to resolution.

The western world’s response to the crisis in Ukraine has been measured so far, relying primarily on targeted economic sanctions against Russia, modest military reinforcement for the easternmost members of NATO, modest economic help for Ukraine, and support for the Minsk process noted above. Assistance to Ukraine’s military has been quite limited.  However welcome such restraint has been, it seems unlikely to endure once Barack Obama is out of the White House—especially if the Minsk II accord has demonstrably failed by then. I foresee a distinct possibility that come early 2017, some NATO countries will seek to arm the Ukrainian military with lethal equipment. However justifiable such a course of action might seem, it would be strategically perilous and probably counterproductive, since the most likely result would be Russian military escalation in eastern Ukraine and perhaps beyond.

A different approach is needed, one that goes to the heart of the problem by creating a new security architecture for central Europe that all can accept. It would envision permanent neutrality for those former Soviet republics not now in NATO—a concession to Moscow—but would demand in return that Russia commit to help uphold and guarantee the security of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other states in the region, and allow them freedom to associate economically and diplomatically with whomever they chose.  The Crimea issue could be finessed separately in various ways.  Once such a plan was verifiably implemented, sanctions on Russia could be lifted. Such a basic strategy might or might not work, to be sure. But it attempts to wrestle with the fundamental challenges before us in a way that current policy does not—and to do so while a window of diplomacy before the 2016 U.S. presidential elections is still open.

This proposal will strike some in the West as distasteful or worse. It would allow Vladimir Putin—who has squelched Russian political and civil society and escalated unnecessary conflicts near his own borders—to claim that he was the Russian leader who had stopped NATO in its tracks, preventing any further expansion.  But we need to keep our eye on the ball.  NATO membership for Ukraine and other nearby countries is not a viable means of settling the current crisis in any event; not even the most hawkish voices within NATO are calling for near-term alliance membership for Kiev or any other central European state. Moreover, NATO expansion never was designed as a way to pressure or punish Russia.

A negotiated settlement would reduce the risks of direct NATO-Russia conflict—which, while still small, have grown significantly over the last two years.  Efforts to assign blame for how we got to this point must not be allowed to stand in the way of addressing problems that could impose enormous costs and risks if left unresolved.  For example, a recent report by the European Leadership Network details how the intensity and gravity of incidents involving Russian and Western military forces have increased, raising the risk of an accident or military escalation between nuclear superpowers.


A deal could also substantially improve the prospects that Ukraine can find peace and begin to refocus on economic recovery.  Our present collective indignation at the recent actions of President Putin should not blind us from seeking a deal that would, if achievable, be good for all.

Historical Perspective:


It is not necessary to validate or vindicate Vladimir Putin’s view of the world to understand how many Russians came to view NATO as a malevolent force. Whether most truly consider it militarily threatening, a large number do consider it psychologically offensive and insulting. That attitude may not justify recent Russian behavior.  But it behooves western policymakers to understand these predictable Russian reactions and actions if they are to reduce the chances of conflict—not only in the current crisis but in the years ahead.

At the end of the Cold War, the prevailing view in Washington was that the United States was strong, and Russia was weak. We disregarded Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion, arguing that the alliance’s gradual eastward movement was designed to help new members consolidate their democracies and form a community of peaceful nations. We meant it sincerely, but Russia did not see it that way, even at the time.  Then came the U.S.-led military intervention in Serbia for the independence of Kosovo.  Then we withdrew from the ABM Treaty.  Then the Iraq war.  Next, we even suggested for a time that Ukraine and Georgia join NATO. We went back on our assurances to Russia that the air war on Libya was limited to saving civilian lives and did not envision regime change. Whether or not some of the above policies were justifiable, they all sat badly in Moscow—and some were interpreted as direct deceptions by the western world at Russia’s expense.

With each rejection, Russia’s resentment grew. Confronted by the West’s support for the pro-Europe protests in Independence Square in 2013 (Euromaidan) and the deposition of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Russia’s accumulated uneasiness over the West’s intentions increased, and its military intervention in Eastern Ukraine soon began.

There are no easy mechanisms to resolve these problems diplomatically at present. Sometimes Russia and the West cooperate on problems, as with the Iranian nuclear crisis and Afghanistan, but sometimes their dealings outside of Europe only intensify animosities, as with the Syrian war to date.  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been deeply engaged in Ukraine, but it lacks the political mandate to address, let alone resolve, core issues. The NATO-Russia Council, set up to create a more equal and effective partnership, has been recently suspended—just when it is needed most.

How Europe Sees the Crisis Today:

The current context of the situation was well summarized in a recent poll, released June 10, 2015, that the Pew Research Center conducted over the previous several months. It underscored that the West has a number of strengths in dealing with Putin—but also a number of serious vulnerabilities that will not get better just by ignoring them. The survey, led by Bruce Stokes and Katie Simmons, found that majorities of citizens in a number of key NATO states would not favor the use of force to protect another alliance member in the event of Russian aggression against them. That would seem, on its face, to ignore Article V of the NATO alliance’s founding charter, the Washington Treaty of 1949, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all, and should be treated accordingly.

This may appear to some as tantamount to an invitation to renewed Russian aggression. It seems to raise the scenario of Vladimir Putin again employing his patriotic cyber attackers and “little green men,” not just in Crimea but perhaps in Latvia or Estonia—former republics in the Soviet Union turned independent nations and, since 2004, members of NATO.  Each also has significant populations of Russian speakers that Putin can claim want to be reunited with the motherland; each is too far east for NATO easily to mount a military defense in any case. Are such parts of the Western alliance, and perhaps other countries like Poland, now vulnerable to Russian aggression?

In fact, it would be a mistake to reach this conclusion based on the Pew survey or any other recent polling. While there are indeed some troubling findings in the Pew results, on balance what emerges is the picture of an alliance that still provides the West with considerable cohesion, and considerable leverage, in addressing the problem of Putin—but also underscores that western publics wisely see this crisis as one that fundamentally should not be solved by military means.

Before trying to chart a path for the future, it is important to summarize not just the headline-dominating findings noted above, but several other key results from Pew:

- The NATO publics have negative views of Russia and Putin. They seem to have little doubt of who is primarily responsible for the crisis in relations of the last two years, dating to the immediate aftermath of the Sochi Olympics when protests in Ukraine forced out the country’s previous leader, President Yanukovich.

- Five of eight NATO countries surveyed (the UK, France, Spain, Italy and Germany) oppose sending weapons to Ukraine to defend itself in the current crisis.

- NATO countries remain more than willing to employ sanctions against Russia over its behavior. This was true in every alliance member-state that was polled, including Germany, the most pro-Russia NATO state that was included in the polling.

- Indeed, although just 38 percent of Germans favored a military response in the event of a hypothetical Russian attack against another NATO member, they remained in favor of sanctions against Russia. Only 29 percent favored a loosening of the current sanctions, unless Russia’s behavior were to change. This helps explain why the EU reauthorized sanctions against Russia earlier this summer, with even Greece in support.

- Putin remains extremely popular in Russia, with favorability ratings approaching 90 percent; Russians currently blame the West, and falling oil prices, for their current economic woes, and not their own government or its policies.

- Forebodingly, most Russians believe that eastern Ukraine, where the current fighting rages, should not remain part of Ukraine but should either become independent or join their country.

Two more key points are crucial to remember.  First, the type of hypothetical Russian attack against a NATO country that formed the premise for the Pew question about Article V was not clearly specified. Perhaps respondents were in some sense wondering if a takedown of several Latvian or Estonian computer networks really needed to be met with NATO tanks?  For most western publics, the advisability of a major military response might well, understandably enough, depend in detail on the nature of the perceived Russian attack as well as the other options available to the alliance.

Second, and relatedly, it is important to remember that Article V does NOT demand an automatic, unconditional military response by each alliance member. It says, rather, that an attack on one should lead to a response by all—involving whatever means the individual states determine. This ambiguity may risk complicating deterrence, to be sure—but it worked during the Cold War and, if NATO leaders are sufficiently clear in their dealings with Putin, it can and should work now. Yet at the same time, military deterrence per se is not an adequate policy for handling the current crisis in NATO-Russian relations.

A New Plan for Europe:


In light of the causes and circumstances of the Ukraine crisis, a bigger idea is needed than simply arming the Ukrainian military, slapping additional sanctions on Russia, or hoping against hope that the current Minsk II diplomatic process will succeed. I propose the following plan:

As a complement to the Minsk concept, with its focus on autonomy for eastern Ukrainian provinces, NATO should offer Moscow a proposal for a new central European security architecture for non-NATO states. The central idea would be to have Ukraine and other former Soviet republics that are not now part of NATO remain neutral permanently. 

Under this plan, Russia would be expected to co-guarantee the sovereignty of the neutral states along with NATO. This idea would not weaken Ukraine’s formal sovereignty; no long-term “Hong Kong handover” solution is needed. But all would understand that Ukraine would not formally join the West in geostrategic terms, though it certainly could accept western help out of its current economic malaise once the right policy foundation was established.

Several additional stipulations would need to be added to this basic construct, since Russia’s good faith in not only negotiating but then implementing the plan cannot be assumed. First, the basic concept would be a package deal—if one part of it failed or were violated, and redress could not be achieved, the entire deal would dissolve. In other words, if for example Russia again invaded Ukraine, the United States and NATO more broadly would retain the rights to reimpose economic sanctions, to provide lethal arms to Ukraine’s military, and also even to consider NATO membership for Ukraine. This is not necessarily an outcome that we would advocate. But other Americans and NATO leaders might advocate it. Moscow would need to understand that they would have the prerogative to do so should Russia violate its obligations.

Second, a neutral organization like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would need to have the capacity and the formal responsibility to monitor compliance with the agreement, to handle any future disputes about security challenges faced by any of the central European countries covered by the accord, and to investigate and adjudicate complaints.

While negotiations are ongoing, most aspects of current western policy should not change. Notably, sanctions should be sustained but, unless Russia escalates its military activities further, they should not be expanded.

The proposed approach implies that the United States and other NATO countries should not send weapons to Ukraine’s military at this juncture. Such shipments may be morally justifiable in some sense, but the most likely consequence would be a Russian counter reaction, including additional buildups of arms in eastern Ukraine, followed by even more deadly fighting for all sides there. Minimal training and providing of some defensive arms to Ukraine can continue, but should not be expanded while a broader peace deal is pursued.

The United States and other NATO member states could continue to adopt the Pentagon’s recent proposal to station modest amounts of equipment in the easternmost NATO countries—a proposal that is harder to oppose at this juncture given Putin’s continued stirring up of the conflict. Ideally, equipment from not only America but also other NATO countries would be part of the initiative. However, efforts should be taken to clarify that the only intention here is to signal resolve and create in effect a tripwire force; the military positioning should be modest in scale and avoid weaponry with significant offensive potential.

But again, the essence of the proposal would be to move away from a military-first solution to the Ukraine crisis. If a deal could be reached, NATO’s new deployments of equipment in its eastern member states could be gradually reversed.

In conclusion, even if things seem relatively quiet on the Ukraine-Russia front at present, we should not be lulled into complacency. Current American and NATO policies are far from adequate to the task at hand. They need to be improved now, with a bold and creative approach to a new security plan for central Europe that would protect Ukraine and other regional states—but without bringing them into any existing military alliance. It is important to get moving on such a plan before the situation escalates further, and before the 2016 U.S. presidential race reduces Washington’s room for maneuver politically as well. There is little time to waste.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at Brookings, member of the Africa Security Initiative there, and author of the new book, The Future of Land Warfare.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Michael