January 28, 2015

Arming Ukraine Would Be Folly

Ivo Daalder’s Financial Times op-ed yesterday (Arm Ukraine to show Russia conflict has a cost) constitutes one of the most ill-advised foreign policy recommendations I can recall in many years, and this during an era which has seen many. With European unity already at a delicate juncture given Syriza’s victory in Greece—and material cohesion risks looming across both the EU’s economic and foreign policies--now is not the time to throw more kindling on the fire. Mr. Daalder couches arming Ukraine—as good-hearted, liberal interventionists are wont to do--as only “enhancing Ukraine’s defensive capabilities.” Yet provision of anti-armour missiles to Kiev (or, eventually, collaborative paramilitaries) would be viewed as a virtual act of war towards Russian-affiliated proxies in the Donbass. This will be sure to earn the ire of The Kremlin precipitating not de-escalation, but precisely the opposite.

How did we get here? A Hitler-like madman on the loose, in the ribald telling of too many in the West, fueling a revanchist Russia that may show up at the gates of Prague before too long? Or through Russia’s steady humiliation (real or perceived) after the Cold War, whether via the relentless drum-beat of NATO expansion, EU enlargement or, relatedly, myriad ‘civil society promotion’ initiatives? Sentient, historically-cognizant voices would better recognize the latter as major contributory cause(s). When these forces coalesced in Ukraine--as they did in Georgia before it--they conspired so that the Russian side concluded red-lines had been crossed and essentially declared: ‘no more’. Or, as Putin memorably put in a major address last year after the Crimean incursion: “(if) you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this.”

The most casual perusal of Russian history explains why Ukraine is of such immense import to Moscow. Historic Kievan Rus is the spiritual fountainhead of Russia’s very origins. As Georgy Fedotov once commented: “Kievan Christianity has the same value for the Russian religious mind as Pushkin for the artistic sense: that of a standard, a golden measure, a royal way.” Later, her wide plains led direct to the soft underbelly of the Russian heartland and saw Napoleon and Hitler’s (the real one) armies hold perilous, probing sway. Ukraine is thus something of a cordon sanitaire in the Russian worldview. More recently, there are also the legitimate grievances of Eastern Ukrainians whom felt deeply disenfranchised amidst the sturm und drang of Maidan, many of whom feel genuine ties of kinship to Mother Russia.

There is a conceit in some capitals like Washington DC that an age of unfettered, rules-based liberal internationalism is nigh, and that such interests are relics of a more primitive age of our remote ancestors. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commented after the Crimean events (without a trace of self-knowing irony given the Iraq misadventure): “(y)ou just don’t in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped –up pretext.” But states retain key geopolitical strategic interests and are still quite galvanized to protect core ones. While Vladimir Putin is not desirous of a long war and costly occupation, he is a formidable strategist infrequently disposed to buckling under. Pressured more, he will call the West’s bluff, in the process causing more havoc for Ukraine.

What to do? The outlines of a deal are clear. First, most critically, Putin must be given face and room for a climb-down. A summit should be held with not only Chancellor Angela Merkel, but also President Barack Obama. Ukraine must agree to never join NATO. Federalization schemes and Russian-minority language rights must be brokered for Ukraine’s East. Sanctions must be reversed. In return, Putin must withdraw all military support from the Donbass, and exert robust political pressure on the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics to accept Kiev’s broad writ. While EU Membership need not be wholly taken off the table as like NATO, it is high time for the airy proselytization and cookie dispensations reminiscent of the ‘color revolutions’ to cease. (Crimea may contemplate an internationally-supervised referendum on its status a decade or so hence, but must be wholly ‘separate-tracked.’ In any event, and to the vast majority of Russians--including many resident in Crimea itself--Khrushchev’s gifting of it to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine smacks more of historical accident, with the recent re-incorporation of Crimea akin more to a ‘de-annexation’ in this view).

We may not like such realpolitik-style deal-making, with the hard-headed trade-offs it entails. Many in Kiev will grumble, but major economic aid from all the key protagonists should figure in any peace deal and help mollify sentiment. Regardless, such a resolution ultimately is preferable to a Novorossiya linked up to Trans-Dniester, say, with a land-bridge to Crimea and Odessa en passant in Russian hands. Beyond the risks of such greater Ukrainian dismemberment—or simply the pains of a long, drawn-out ‘partisan’ war--the alternative is likely a new Cold War II, and with it an increasingly fractured Europe. Mr. Daalder’s prescriptions badly fail on any serious measure tethered to the realities of the situation. Arming Ukraine would be a dangerous folly that none of us can afford. As a wise former American diplomat George Ball once commented about Vietnam: “(o)nce on the tiger’s back, we cannot be sure of picking the place to dismount.”

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Posted by Gregory at January 28, 2015 06:43 PM | TrackBack (0)

I think the word you are thinking of is "risible," not "ribald." As in: the idea of dropping all sanctions and agreeing that the Ukraine will never join Nato is risible.

I agree that Daalder's proposal is also folly. What about not seeking a deal, period? Sanctions are taking their toll, the drop in oil is compounding Putin's problems, time appears to be on our side. Don't add to existing provocations, but don't give in to Putin's aggression either.

Or, as often stated, "don't just do something, stand there!"

Posted by: retr2327 at January 29, 2015 12:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

retr2327: certainly agree "risible" could feature in various portions of this text. alas, a word I likely use too often (given serial policy foibles). best, gd

Posted by: greg djerejian at January 29, 2015 06:45 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If braver people were in charge in Kiev, they would, at this point, simply let the Donbass leave the country and do what it will. The region will be a fiscal sinkhole for decades for whoever winds up running it, and this was so even before the war. The region's economy is largely built on subsidized heavy industry that the West isn't going to support. And with the war, the region's infrastructure and housing stock is in desperate need of repair, if not outright reconstruction, which the West might pledge to provide aid for, but, when it comes time to pay, will not pony up nearly enough money to do the job well.

A federal Ukraine will not alleviate these problems, and will probably exacerbate the already bleak west-east relations in Ukraine by permitting strongly anti-Kiev individuals to gain power in the Donbass. These individuals will no doubt rail against the "fascists" in Kiev every chance they get while taking huge amounts of subsidies from Kiev to keep the region's economy from sinking like a stone. And Ukrainians in the central and western parts of the country will no doubt see this railing as an affront.

If Kiev were to use the brief reprieve that an end to the conflict would present to them to implement real economic and political reform, then maybe it would be worthwhile trying it, but I strongly doubt that Kiev will avail itself of that opportunity. And in any case, Ukraine's economy is going to require decades of shaking out even after reforms are implemented because it is in such a decrepit condition (it's essentially Russia without the natural resource wealth). And if there is anything that Ukraine doesn't have in large supply, it's time.

Posted by: Brett Champion at January 31, 2015 11:21 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Brett: Would never happen volitionally (especially if the gross, rhetorical over-drive on tap from Kiev these days is any indication), but found your counter-intuitive comment interesting and worthy of note (tweeted it also). Tks for sharing. Best, GD

Posted by: greg djerejian at January 31, 2015 10:55 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I agree that the West or the US arming Ukraine would be folly with no discernible end-goal that could be achieved. Yet, your prescription for a compromise is naive and fails to consider Putin's strategic goal.

You state, "[r]egardless, such a resolution [a Russian withdrawal, with concessions] ultimately is preferable to a Novorossiya linked up to Trans-Dniester, say, with a land-bridge to Crimea and Odessa en passant in Russian hands." Putin acquired the Crimea in response to Western meddling that led to a coup against Ukraine's democratically-elected, pro-Russian government. At this point, I believe that Putin grew tired of the democratic machinations that led to one government or another with no predictability, and chose to make his move to secure a vital, Russian strategic interest.

This interest was the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, hosted in the Crimea. In addition, the Crimea has historically been part of Russia going back hundreds of years. Having made the decision to reacquire the Crimea, Putin knew that this strategic interest would be vulnerable if accessible only by sea. Hence, the need for a land-bridge between Russia and the Crimea. Consequently, I believe that Putin has always intended to secure land access to the Crimea from Russia, and therefore will not be interested in any deal that requires him to relinquish such territory.

Posted by: Rob Brantley at February 4, 2015 09:45 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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