While stirring, this appeal to exalted principles amounts to vacuity; it resorts to the operatic register to skirt the truly important practical questions at hand. Norms and the law are, in principle, worth defending, but decisions about whether and how that should be done cannot be made sensibly from an ethereal perch. Important practical questions arise: Who will do the defending? In what ways, and to what extent? What costs and risks might there be, and who will bear them?
In the debate on the Ukraine crisis, these critical issues tend to be treated as trivia that divert attention from the far-more-important moral matters. At a conference in Ukraine that I attended recently, a European academic insisted passionately that Ukraine had already made the normative choice for the West: It had requested arms. Who are we, he asked, to deny its elemental right of self-defense? QED.
Ukraine certainly has the right to self-defense and self-determination, but it has no parallel presumptive right—nor does any other state—to American arms and security guarantees as a matter of course. Recall the widespread, justifiable outrage that followed the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasions that crushed the uprisings in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). No sensible person proposed that the United States had a normative obligation to mount a rescue, the consequences be damned.
Senator John McCain believes that Ukraine deserves American arms because it has not asked for “boots on the ground,” merely the means to defend itself. He finds it shameful that the United States refuses to oblige. Here, again, we have an appeal to values. What we are prepared to do for Ukraine measures our moral worth.
Of course, no sensible Ukrainian leader would ask for American arms and American ground troops. That would guarantee that Ukraine gets neither. McCain avoids the truly important questions. What will Kyiv ask for in the event that American arms don’t do the trick and Ukraine faces a rout at Russian hands? What should the United States do if Kyiv does call for additional help under such circumstances—send more arms? If that doesn’t suffice, and the hazards of going further are deemed prohibitive—even McCain does not favor sending U.S. troops to battle Russia—will the hallowed principles that the case for arming rests on turn out not to be so sacred after all? If so, the normative case would resemble the realism that it condemns.
There has been much talk during the Ukraine crisis about the hallowed principles and treaties underlying global order, and Russia has been castigated for violating them in Ukraine. There’s more than a little amnesia at work here. In the aftermath of 9/11, the West saw fit on national-security grounds to disregard several of these principles by, inter alia, launching a preventive war for no good reason, employing torture and “extraordinary renditions” (delivering terrorism suspects to despotic regimes notorious for brutalizing opponents), and conducting drone attacks (a significant number of them “signature strikes”)—all without providing a reasoned justification based on self-defense and legal principles. Quite apart from its strategic naiveté, then, the norms-based plea for arming Ukraine exudes more than a whiff of hypocrisy. This has not gone unnoticed in other parts of the world, which is one of the reasons Russia hasn’t become the global pariah that one would imagine from reading leading Western newspapers or listening to the orations of American and European leaders.
Meanwhile, things are at an impasse in Ukraine. Sanctions haven’t swayed Russia. The EU will certainly agree to extend the existing penalties next month when they come up for renewal, but there is no appetite in Europe for tightening the screws on Russia. Even maintaining the existing economic pressure is likely to prove harder as time goes by. The next deliberations on extending sanctions will occur in December, and the EU will be less united, provided Putin doesn’t launch another offensive. Arming Ukraine will provoke even more controversy in Europe, and discussions on that option will divide NATO.
The people who will suffer most from renewed war are the civilians trapped in the Donbas conflict zones. Already, some 600,000 have sought refuge abroad, the overwhelming majority in Russia, and another 1 million are “internally displaced.” The rest remain, by choice or for lack of it, in their towns and villages. They live in fear, lack basic necessities and survive by resorting to all manner of maneuvers that are as creative as they are poignant. Kyiv will not pay their pensions and other benefits because it does not wish to subsidize a Russian occupation; Moscow won’t support them because it hopes to increase the economic burden on Poroshenko’s government and to turn Donbas civilians against it. If the war resumes full scale, these unfortunate people will, literally, be caught in the crossfire. More of them will die, and more of their homes and properties will be destroyed.
The Ukraine conflict cannot be solved by military means; this will only make it more dangerous and harder to control. A political solution will require negotiations among Ukraine, Russia, the EU and the United States. Shoring up Minsk II should be the first order of business. That will require agreement on measures to ensure that the agreement’s key provisions—removing heavy weapons and creating demilitarized zones on either side of the line of control—are implemented. That, in turn, will necessitate the deployment of third-party peacekeepers to prevent renewed fighting, stationing monitors to ensure verification and securing the porous Russian-Ukrainian border.
These steps will prove very difficult, given the level of mistrust between Kyiv and Moscow and between Russia and the West. And even if they prove feasible, the parties will have to turn to an even tougher challenge: reaching agreement on terms that will ensure Ukraine’s unity and territorial integrity on the one hand, and Russia’s security on the other. One can quibble with the details, but the resolution, or at minimum the stabilization, of this conflict will result from a political deal along these lines. As things now stand, a solution along these lines may seem impossible, but the available alternatives are worse. If war resumes, Ukraine could lose even more land, its economy (Poroshenko reckons that the war costs his country roughly $8 million a day) could collapse, reforms would be even harder to enact and NATO and Russia could find themselves on a collision course.
Rajan Menon is Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the Colin Powell School of the City College of New York/City University of New York and a Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace at Columbia University. His most recent book (coauthored with Eugene B. Rumer) is Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order (MIT Press, 2015); his next book, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016.
Image: Flickr/Dmitriy Fomin