Russia’s Ukraine policy: A strategic mistake made worse by tactical blunders

I have been convinced since last fall that Russia’s policies toward Ukraine would ultimately backfire. Assuming that the Kremlin’s goal was to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence, it was a mistake to have been so heavy-handed in pressuring Kyiv to reject the EU association agreement last November.

Had Russia refrained from threatening Kyiv economically and militarily, and instead simply offered relief on gas pricing and financial assistance, the offer might have been accepted without provoking such a sharp reaction from pro-European Ukrainians. If, on the other hand, the offer had been rejected by Kyiv, the EU would have been left with the financial burden of saving Ukraine’s economy, a burden that few European governments were willing to take on. Additionally the Ukrainian public would have eventually blamed the EU, the West, and the IMF for forcing austerity measures on the country and for Ukraine’s overall economic travails. As it is, most of that blame is now going to fall on Moscow’s shoulders.

Donbas Conflict Zone - Aug 5 2014

Donbas conflict zone, 8/5/14

Nor did an association agreement for Ukraine mean imminent EU membership – Turkey has been on Europe’s “doorstep” for decades but there is virtually no prospect that it will join for the foreseeable future. Moscow would accordingly have had time to use its considerable economic levers to reverse Ukraine’s turn to the west. At the least, it could have made the process a prolonged one that did not adversely affect Russia’s economic interests.

Even less did an association agreement mean NATO membership for Ukraine. If nothing else, the 2010 Russian-Ukrainian Black Sea Fleet basing agreement, which leased the port of Sevastopol to Russia until 2042 (with a five year renewal option), effectively took NATO accession for Ukraine off the table. There might have been some hawks in the United States who thought pressing for Ukrainian membership was a good idea, but taking in a country that hosted a major Russian naval base was not going to happen. It was also clear that the Obama Administration had every intention of keeping NATO expansion from further poisoning US-Russian relations, while a future president would have had a very hard time selling Ukrainian membership in a post-Iraq Washington – new members require a treaty modification, which means it needs approval by two-thirds of the Senate (18 senators voted against NATO membership for the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland back in 1997, when the risks of the process were much less clear).

But what made NATO membership for Ukraine politically almost inconceivable by 2013 was the requirement that adding new members receive unanimous support from all existing member-states, as well as treaty ratifications by each. How likely was it that France, Germany, Italy, and so on, would have agreed to, and ratified, NATO membership for Ukraine prior to Russia’s actions during the current crisis?

Moreover, while unlimited NATO expansion was, in my view, an unwise policy from the beginning, the actual hard power threat it posed to Russia was blown way out of proportion by Moscow. No non-host country NATO troops have been permanently deployed in any of the post-1991 accession states (an arrangement loosely codified in the Russia-NATO Council Founding Act). The military budgets of almost all NATO countries are mostly below the two percent of GDP informal target and have been shrinking. The only European NATO member-states that have meaningful militaries capable of projecting power are France and Britain. US troops in Europe have shrunk from over 250,000 in 1985 to some 65,000 today, almost all of whom are stationed in Germany, the UK, and Italy. And as I noted in an earlier post, there is not a single US main battle tank permanently stationed in Europe today.

It is accordingly absurd, in my view, to suggest that any NATO country would ever have attacked Russia given Russia’s overwhelming preponderance of power on its own territory, including a huge arsenal of tactical nuclear weapon and some fifteen thousand tanks. NATO is also a defensive alliance of 28 democratic states, any one of which could veto an out-of-theater operation against Russia. And does anyone really believe that bringing Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into NATO would have emboldened any of those countries to attack Russia given that they have almost no military capacity of their own.

Strategically, then, it would have been much smarter for Russia to be patient with Ukraine in late 2013. In the months leading up to the EU Vilnius summit, Moscow should have conveyed to the Ukrainian people that it wanted above all to maintain good relations with its Slavic brothers, made sure the West picked up the costs and got the blame for Ukraine’s economic hardships, maintained “correct” relations with Kyiv, and charged what it was entitled to charge it for natural gas deliveries without violating the Black Sea basing agreement. Instead, no doubt in part because Putin was so intent on convincing Kyiv to join his Eurasian Union, and in part because Putin and his advisors actually believed the West was determined to encircle and contain it military, Moscow pulled out all the stops and effectively forced Yanukovich to reject the association agreement, which in turn precipitated the Maidan uprising and Yanukovich’s ouster.

If Moscow’s response to the association agreement was misguided, its reaction to the collapse of the Yanukovich administration was even more so. Occupying and annexing Crimea was a terrible strategic mistake, one that will likely poison Russian relations with the West for decades and that will permanently undermine Russia’s efforts to present itself as a champion of “state sovereignty” and a rule-governed international order. It is certainly the case that international law only weakly constrains state behavior, particularly when fundamental interests are at stake, but there has been one principle that really has mattered, one that until Crimea had never been successfully violated since World War II – states are not allowed to invade and annex the legally-recognized territory of another member-state of the United Nations. Other states, particularly but not only Western ones, are now going to find it difficult to enter into agreements with a country that has so brazenly violated its international commitments.

The United States continues to suffer from “blowback” due to its unilateralism and heavy handedness in the Iraq war – the blowback to Russia from the annexation of Crimea is likely to be worse and longer lasting.

Which brings me to Russia’s tactical errors. Until recently, I had believed that the Kremlin, the Russian military, and the Russian security services had been reasonably competent in carrying out ill-advised policies. The problem was the policy, not its implementation. There have been at least two developments in the past month that have led me to change my mind.

The first, and much the most important, was the disastrous decision to provide the separatists with a Buk M1 missile system (or systems). It is hard to see what advantage Buks have over Strela-10s for the separatists. Buks can target aviation at much higher altitudes than Strela-10s, but missiles that can take down military aviation at high elevations also pose a very obvious threat to commercial airliners. The principle fixed-wing problem for the insurgents is the close air-support fighter, the Su-25, which the Strela-10, with its relatively large warhead, is perfectly capable of destroying. Su-25s can also be taken down by MANPADs and by gunfire when flying at low altitudes. Providing the rebels MANPADs and Strela-10s was risky enough for Moscow – both can be used against low flying commercial aircraft, and some of these weapons, especially the MANPADs, might fall into the hands of terrorists, including terrorists in Russia. But giving the separatists a SAM system capable of taking down a commercial airliner at cruising altitude was strikingly irresponsible. It was also extremely stupid. It is difficult to imagine an event that has been more damaging to Moscow’s interests than the downing of MH-17.

The second development was Moscow’s apparent choice of its preferred “explanations” for the downing of MH-17. Moscow’s leading explanation seems to be that MH-17 was brought down deliberately by a Ukrainian SU-25; second best is the possibility that the Ukrainians deliberately shot it down with a Buk missile; and third best is that the Ukrainians shot it down with a Buk by mistake. The former two explanations assume that Ukrainians took the plane down on purpose, and did so with the connivance of Western intelligence agencies in an effort to turn Western public opinion against Russia.

In fact, it was clear from the beginning that it was almost certainly going to turn out that the disaster resulted from a targeting error. No one serious is suggesting, for example, that the separatists shot the plane down deliberately.

The Su-25 explanation is a particularly bizarre one. An Su-25 is almost certainly incapable of targeting a plane at that altitude. Moreover, why would the Ukrainians use an Su-25 and not one of their Mig-29s or Su-27s, which are entirely capable of attacking at 33,000 feet, for the mission? And why use aviation rather than a missile?

The Russian emphasis on an alleged deviation of the plane from its flight path by Ukrainian air traffic controllers is also intended to imply that the Ukrainians rerouted the plane so it would fly into range of Buks deployed in the conflict zone, as is the claim that Russian radar picked up some kind of Ukrainian aircraft, presumably a helicopter, over the crash site shortly after that plane came down. The notion that Ukraine would shoot down a commercial airliner in some complex plot to discredit Russia was totally implausible to begin, even before the considerable and growing evidence implicating the separatists. Moscow’s apparent assumption that the claim would be treated as plausible outside of Russia is testimony to how cynical – and now credulous – the Russian political elite and public are (cynics of course deny this, but cynicism and naiveté often go hand-in-hand).

What Moscow should have done is emphasize that it is unclear who and what brought down MH-17, but also state that if it turned out that it was brought down by the separatists, it was the product of a mistake like those made when the Soviet Union shot down a Korean commercial jet in 1983, the United States shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988, and Ukraine shot down a Russian commercial airliner in 2001. It should also have stated that if the separatists shot down the plane with a Buk, then they had to have obtained the weapon from the Ukrainian military and not from Russia (a claim, I should make clear, that is almost certainly untrue). That, at least, is much less implausible than the assertion that the Ukrainians shot the plane down on purpose.

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