The Ukraine-Russia Conflict: A Way Forward

The Ukraine-Russia Conflict: A Way Forward

Washington cannot afford to miss this window of opportunity.

It is with these concerns in mind that the United States has expended more than $5 billion over the past quarter century to support Ukraine’s democratic development, market reforms and denuclearization. However, as the experience of other post-Soviet states amply demonstrates, no amount of outside support can substitute for a strong and consistent commitment to good governance by a country’s own political leaders. In Moldova, for example, decades of de facto acceptance of Transnistria as a semi-lawless gray space has arguably contributed to a reckless view of Moldova’s own state sovereignty. Leading Moldovan politicians have viewed state coffers as their own personal piggy bank, even stealing some $1 billion from the national bank and unleashing a political crisis that resulted in the election of an oligarch-backed former Communist as president.

Although often presented in zero-sum terms by the parties themselves, management and resolution of the Ukraine-Russia conflict serves U.S. interests in relations with both Ukraine and Russia. The longer the conflict persists—whether as a low-intensity war or a quieter de facto separation—the more it will empower populist and far-right forces on both sides, and the more it will become a breeding ground for trafficking, offshoring and other illegal activity. Since Washington has adopted a leading role in the coordinated international response to Russia’s military intervention, peaceful conflict resolution is also a sine qua non for restoration of productive U.S.-Russia engagement across a broad range of mutual interests, from counterterrorism to trade.

Framework for Conflict Resolution

The United States can and should play a central role in future management of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and in negotiations and strategic investments aimed at creating the conditions for sustainable resolution of the conflict. As a first step, Washington should seek agreement from the parties to the Normandy format to become a formal participant in this ongoing process.

The United States held back from direct stewardship of international negotiations during the immediate aftermath of the Russian seizure of Crimea and outbreak of hostilities in Donbass, seeking instead to emphasize the European-led negotiation process. Up to now, that has produced an awkward and occasionally destabilizing dynamic in which Europe ostensibly represents the collective Western position in negotiations with Russia, yet the United States still holds many of the important cards, in terms of incentivizing Russia to cooperate, as well as deterring further Russian aggression in Ukraine and the region.

Washington clearly has an inescapable role to play in this process, and becoming a formal party to the only comprehensive international format for conflict management can help increase the consistency and focus of U.S. policy toward both Russia and Ukraine. Given Ukraine’s longstanding desire for greater U.S. leadership on conflict resolution efforts, Russia’s new hopes for dramatic improvement in ties with the incoming U.S. administration, and the enormous domestic political pressures now facing both France and Germany, it is likely that all sides would consent to such a proposal.

Washington’s formal entry into the Normandy process would do little by itself to address the deep deficit of trust between the sides. Indeed, it is lack of trust, combined with uncertain political will, that has delayed any decision on a new “road map” for implementing Minsk II. Here, Washington can make a significant contribution to mitigating distrust and supplementing political will by proposing that each step of a new road map be assigned to capable third parties for verification. The third parties should not include any of the current Normandy format participants, or the United States, but should include European and Eurasian states that enjoy a high degree of trust and productive relations with both Moscow and Kiev—for example, Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Belarus, Kazakhstan and others. Since each is also an OSCE participating state, it would make sense to formalize their verification roles through a single blanket decision of the OSCE Permanent Council endorsing the road map.

Given the viciousness of the conflict and surrounding political rhetoric over the past two years, OSCE verification and the best efforts of third parties to smooth over difficulties will not alone suffice to reassure the conflicting sides. A major concern will be how to structure the disengagement of armed forces to minimize the chance of backsliding. One option would be to allow the parties to designate discrete reservations for their forces in key sectors that will allow them to “hedge” against the possibility of a resumption of hostilities. The idea could be based on past successful phased disengagements in the Middle East and Balkan conflicts. Security reservations—which should be limited to only a handful of positions and should be time-limited—will be extremely difficult for both sides to agree upon and accept. However, they could make the difference between a modest success, and an overambitious blanket withdrawal agreement that fails before the ink is dry.

The United States can help substantially increase Russia’s incentives to support a road map for Minsk II implementation by linking each step to specific sanctions relief. For example, following verified withdrawal of heavy weapons by the Russian-backed separatists, Washington should provide appreciable and immediate relief from sanctions barring U.S. financial institutions from medium- or even long-term lending to Russian entities. Following handover of the Ukrainian side of the border to Ukrainian forces, Washington could suspend prohibitions on U.S. companies cooperating with Russian companies to exploit nonconventional energy resources. With further steps to advance a political settlement, the United States could remove individual Russian companies and officials from its asset-freeze and travel-ban lists.

Of course, a complete cessation of violence in the region is a necessary precondition for a political solution. While sanctions relief and permitted security reservations should be used to incentivize Russian compliance and begin to restore working trust on all sides, the major political steps cannot be implemented until the shooting is stopped, and the total safety of the civilian population is assured. Such an improved security environment is also a necessary precondition for Ukraine to fully implement a new law enshrining the special status of the Donbass region, in advance of free and fair elections.

The special status law is needed not only as a guarantee to Russian-backed forces that they will not be forcibly brought to heel in the future, but also so that the local population understands exactly what powers their representatives will have when an election is held. At the same time, without complete safety for civilians, displaced persons will be unable to return to cast their ballots, and the local population will not view elections as a credible step toward improving their lives. Here as well, third-party stewardship and OSCE verification of both the special status law and local elections can help contain and mitigate attempts to derail the process by self-interested spoilers on either side.

Successful disengagement of military forces, followed by full implementation of the special status law and local elections, will lay the foundation for the most costly and most important phase of conflict resolution: an internationally supported initiative to rebuild infrastructure and economic life in the region, bring displaced persons home and facilitate their resettlement, and reintegrate Donbass into the regional and global economies. Clearly, none of these efforts will be possible without a substantial financial commitment from the international community, in which the United States and Europe must take the lead. Russia should also be expected to make a contribution, in particular by providing free or substantially discounted energy to Ukraine to offset the energy costs of rebuilding Donbass industry.

The economy of the Donbass region has always been uniquely dependent on mining and energy-intensive heavy industry, and this component will remain important in the future. However, the opportunity of post-conflict reconstruction can be used to reduce the dependence of the local economy on artificially vast Soviet-era plants, which have traditionally been owned by the state or by oligarchs, and are nearly impossible to operate according to modern standards of efficiency and environmental cleanliness. New international lending should therefore focus on supporting small and medium-sized enterprises and entrepreneurial activity—creating a magnet for reversing the region’s “brain drain” of talented and highly educated citizens. Meanwhile, internationally financed major infrastructure restoration should be designed and overseen by international experts, with actual construction jobs favoring lower-skilled local laborers.

Unraveling the influence of oligarchs on the local economy will be a difficult long-term challenge. The immediate post-conflict goal should be to avoid “blame” narratives and focus on shovel-ready projects to rebuild opportunities with real economic promise, including in partnership with the region’s longstanding industrial kingpins. However, Ukraine’s new transparency requirements for public office holders should be applied to local elected and appointed officials, with enforcement by the new anticorruption task force and the reformed national police.

Perhaps the most important contributions to sustaining conflict resolution over the long term can come from a joint effort by Russia and the West to overcome what has become a “zero sum” narrative in and around Ukraine. The events leading up to the Maidan protests of 2013–14 and the ensuing conflict amply demonstrate that Ukrainians cannot be forced into one or another geopolitical box. Thus, Russia and Europe should finally commit to negotiate an agreement for extending to Ukraine as a whole the benefits of free trade and travel with both East and West. If this ambition proves too difficult, then Brussels and Moscow should at least agree to extend special joint free-trade benefits to enterprises in the Donbass region during a specified reconstruction and transition period.