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."

- 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