I noted that the West seemed unable to do the diplo-political equivalent of “walk and chew gum at the same time.” That is, we batten on the crisis de jour with the frenzy of preteens obsessing of the latest musical performer (immediately forgetting the obsession of the previous year).
Such has it been over the past few months: in the United States, media continue to seek evidence of something (anything) nefarious regarding presidential activity and/or the 2016 presidential campaign regarding Russia. The Super Bowl provided a one-day distraction. Internationally, North Korea nukes and missiles were airbrushed to provide a happy, happy vision of the winter Olympics (a blessed 16-day respite from contemplating nuclear annihilation). In Europe we are watching Turkey flex muscle to pound recalcitrant Kurds into submission. And Germany in a fit of exhaustion is striving to finalize an agreement for an operational government.
But Ukraine is just the odd-man-out. And this is a puzzlement. Ukraine is not a tertiary concern. It lies within Europe’s central core—the largest country totally within Europe with a 44.5 million population (including Crimea), extensive natural resources, and open-ended economic potential. What remains at stake is Ukraine’s continued independence and democratic government.
To Review the Bidding
Ukraine became independent following the USSR’s collapse in 1990. Subsequently, it struggled with an imploding economy and political corruption. Steadily; however, it sought stronger ties with the EU and NATO.
Such apparently disconcerted the Kremlin. In November 2013, then-president Viktor Yanukovych began distancing from an association agreement being negotiated with the EU, instead moving closer to Moscow. Infuriated Ukrainians, in a series of demonstrations or riots (the Euromaidan protests) in February 2014 drove out Yanukovych (who promptly decamped to Moscow). Subsequent elections made Petro Poroshenko president—a position he retains but subject to re-election in March 2019.
Prompted by the defenestration of its lackey, Moscow—in an act of blatant aggression—seized Crimea. It then “legitimized” its criminality with a risible referendum in March 2014. The United Nations bleated but predictably to no avail.
Moscow doubled down with semi-covert, plausibly deniable “little green men” supporting break-away rebel forces in eastern zones of Ukraine. These pro-Russian forces have seized territory and created “governments” independent of Kiev.
A European-led “Minsk agreement” in February 2015 engaging Russia, France, Germany, Ukraine, and pro-Russia separatists hypothesized a ceasefire arrangement in which rebelling areas would re-integrate with Kiev. Nothing, however, was accomplished under these agreements, which served more as reloading breaks in the grinding fight than pathways to peace.
Frustrated by three years with neither peace nor victory, Poroshenko has been moving steadily to strengthen himself politically and militarily.
–In 2016 Ukraine joined the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the EU to modernize and develop Ukraine’s economy, governance, and rule of law to EU standards;
–In May 2016, Poroshenko signed a “Strategic Defense Bulletin” to revamp Ukraine’s military doctrine, training, and operations to NATO standards by 2020. Such is reflected by an agreement to have multilateral military exercises in Ukraine in 2018.
–Politically, Poroshenko is poised to sign a just-passed parliamentary law that would de facto characterize him as a “war president” with subordination of all security forces to him. It ends the charade that the fighting is led by anti-Kiev separatists and that labels the region as “temporarily occupied territories” for which Russia is responsible.
The move effectively scuttles the Minsk agreements, recognition that a road to nowhere—leads nowhere.
During the protracted fighting, Ukraine has revamped its combat forces into what has been described as “”one of Europe’s strongest fighting forces.”
This development is augmented by U.S. decision to send advanced antitank missiles (Javelin) to Kiev, strengthening not only defensive, but prospectively offensive action against Russian-supplied armor.
The next step may well be antiaircraft missiles that would even or reverse the force balance against Russian airstrikes.
The Russian military is not the pre-1989 Soviet Red Army; it has some excellent “special forces” units, but Moscow is adverse to body-bag-intense combat (the war in Afghanistan weighs heavily in its politicomilitary calculus).
But more is necessary:
- Orchestrating continued EU support and persisting with sanctions against Moscow;
- Vigorous pressure on Kiev for economic reform and action against corruption.
Winning a military victory in Ukraine would require bold, decisive action by Ukrainian leadership. Transforming Ukraine’s politics into modern, Western-style democracy would be significantly harder, but even more important.
We need to move beyond stalemate in both arenas.
David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”