A strategic response to Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis

Much the most worrisome aspect of the current crisis in Russia’s relations with the West is the unstable and dangerous security situation. Accordingly, I believe Washington and its allies should prioritize the military dimension in responding to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in the Donbas war. The primary goal should be to reduce the risk of war while living up to NATO’s Article 5 commitments to its eastern member-states.

The second most important strategic goal should be to assist countries on Russia’s periphery in preserving their sovereignty without precipitating a military response by Moscow.

Finally, and importantly, the West should begin positioning itself to enter into negotiations with Moscow over a new security arrangement for Europe, including conventional and nuclear force postures, that minimizes the risks of new proxy wars on Russia’s periphery and a direct military conflict between NATO and Russia.

Accordingly, improved political and economic relations with Moscow should be treated as a consequence of military stabilization or as a tool for promoting stability, not as ends in themselves. The fact is that avoiding war with Russia is far more important to the West than improved political or economic relations with Russia.

Very low on the list of priorities should be democracy promotion in Russia or other post-Soviet states. This is not to say that human rights abuses and illiberalism should be ignored by Western governments. They should be treated, however, as low level priorities under current circumstances. The fact is that the geopolitical, and especially the military, aspects of the current crisis are severe enough that the West cannot afford to prioritize democracy and human rights in the short to medium run. Moreover, the West is going to have to do business with, to one degree or another, authoritarian governments in the region with poor – and in some cases extremely poor – human rights records, including not only Russia but others such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan.

Most importantly, deescalating military tensions at the macro level is going to require security compromises by the West. At a minimum, any general settlement will have to entail formal military neutrality for Ukraine and Georgia, and perhaps for Azerbaijan and Belarus as well. It will also require direct negotiations between Washington and Moscow, because Washington and Moscow control the great bulk of hard power in the European theater.

Having the European Union, particularly Germany and France, take the lead on diplomatic efforts to deescalate the Ukraine crisis while Washington takes the lead on the military by enhancing deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank has been wise. But at some point – preferably before the U.S. presidential elections take place next year – Washington and Moscow are going to have to talk directly about force dispositions and military confidence building measures. European leaders are also going to have to defer to Washington on security negotiations because the alternative – a relentlessly hostile Russia on NATO’s eastern borders – is worse than taking a back seat to Washington (assuming Obama is not replaced by a recklessly hawkish successor).

An agreement on military neutrality for some of the states on Russia’s periphery, one that precludes the presence of foreign troops in Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, and Azerbaijan, is arguably a necessary condition for military stability in Europe. I do not believe that the alternative – a greatly strengthened NATO hard power presence in the eastern flank countries, possible NATO accession for Ukraine and Georgia, uncertainty about regime stability and external orientation for Belarus, and more military assistance to Ukraine and Georgia – will work because Russia will resist it and can ratchet up tensions all along its European borders as it sees fit for the foreseeable future.

In contrast, an agreement on neutrality and new conventional and nuclear force disposition treaties could, if well designed, greatly ameliorate the security concerns of Russia, its neighbors, and the West. Given its ability to project power on its periphery and beyond, to make life difficult for the West in the Middle East and elsewhere, and to undermine European and Transatlantic unity, an insecure Russia will mean an insecure Europe generally and an insecure Russian periphery particularly.

If these should be the West’s strategic goals, how might those goals be realized? A path forward might look something like this.

  1. Continue – slowly and carefully, with minimum fanfare – to build up NATO’s eastern defenses, particularly in the Baltic states. The fundamental problem is that NATO expansion was perceived as a vital security threat by Russia despite the fact that NATO failed to provide its eastern flank states, particularly the Baltic states, with a clear deterrent capacity. The goal in the Baltic states should be a trip wire type of deterrent force, with permanent American and European “rotational” forces there that are far below the threshold that poses an objective military threat to Russia. The goal elsewhere, notably in Poland, should be a more robust defense that makes a Russian attack using conventional weapons even more unlikely to succeed than it already is.
  2. Do everything possible to bring about a stable frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, ideally one with a full separation of forces (not just heavy weapons) and an armed peacekeeping force patrolling a buffer zone. Short of that, support Ukraine’s efforts to defend the territory it currently controls, but at the same time make very clear to Kyiv that an offensive to retake significant territory would be very unwise and would mean less Western military and economic support. Signal to Moscow that the West is willing to consider a joint NATO-CSTO peacekeeping force, or an EU-Eurasian Union one, or even one with Ukrainian, separatist, and Russian troops, as in Transnistria. (Russian peacekeepers would be very hard for Kyiv to swallow, but the Transnistria peacekeeping model might be the most practicable.)
  3. Assist Ukraine in building up its defensive capabilities, but do so as efficiently and as non-provocatively as possible. Signal quietly to Moscow that a major separatist offensive is going to mean a significant increase in military assistance to Kyiv, including provision of U.S. lethal weapons, particularly anti-tank weapons. (American-made wire-guided missiles are apparently having a significant impact on the battlefield in Syria.) Also signal to Moscow that the West will discourage Kyiv from making any efforts in the future to retake the Donbas by force, and that a stable frozen conflict is acceptable and the least-worst option for all parties.
  4. Finally, signal Moscow that Washington is ready, if a stable ceasefire takes hold in eastern Ukraine, to negotiate a new security arrangement for Russia’s periphery that can enhance security for all parties and make a very dangerous and very costly arms race with the West much less dangerous and less costly. Washington should also indicate that it is willing to consider accommodating some of Moscow’s key security concerns, including abandoning, de facto if not openly, the position that NATO expansion is in principle unlimited, and that any state that meets NATO’s criteria (basically, democracy and the capability to enhance alliance security) is eligible for membership.

The end-goal of all this should be a return to where we were with the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, with arms control agreements on conventional force dispositions (CFE), intermediate nuclear forces (INF), strategic nuclear forces (START), and ballistic missile defense (ABM). Notably, Washington should signal that, while it is committed to a robust but objectively non-threatening conventional deterrent for the Baltic states, Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania, it is willing to forgo a ballistic missile defense system for Europe and to accept institutionalized military neutrality for Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. It should also indicate that it will not insist on the withdrawal of Russian forces from Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Crimea, and the DPR and LPR in eastern Ukraine. This of course does not mean accepting the legitimacy of the presence of those forces, let along the annexation of Crimea or recognition of the independent of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, any more than negotiating security measures with the Soviet Union meant accepting the legitimacy of its incorporation of the Baltic states or hegemony over Eastern Europe.

I believe the principal obstacle to negotiating a broad security arrangement along these lines is the political situation in Washington, with Republicans in control of Congress and presidential elections next year. I suspect that Moscow would welcome being treated the way it was in the late Soviet era (and as during the Soviet period, it would certainly bargain hard on security matters). I am even more confident that European governments and publics would welcome the effort, and that, coupled with improved ability to defend NATO’s eastern flank, it would enhance Washington’s leadership of the Atlantic Alliance, as it did during the second half of the Cold War.

Selling the project in Washington, however, would be extremely challenging. The effort would in any case take years to effect, and indeed as with the East-West détente before it, would be an ongoing project. Accordingly, the Obama administration should view its principle strategic objective with Russia in its remaining years in office as setting the stage for these kinds of agreements rather than finalizing them.

I’ll address how I think Obama – and his successor – should sell the effort domestically in my next post.

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