I do not believe there is any chance that yesterday’s Minsk agreement will be implemented in full. I am almost, but not quite, as skeptical that it will lead to a stable ceasefire and separation of forces.
In what follows I will make four general points about the agreement and then focus on its two key provisions: Provision 1 on a ceasefire and Provision 2 on a separation of forces. Continue reading
I believe that the odds of a full-blown proxy war in Ukraine between the United States and Russia are now better than even and getting higher. Moscow believes it is already in a proxy war with the West, but it is wrong, at least in the following sense. Whereas Russian has been deeply involved in the violence in eastern Ukraine from its inception, Western military assistance to Kyiv has so far been minimal. That is likely to change if a stable ceasefire is not arranged in the next several weeks. Continue reading
When the Minsk Protocol and its follow-on Memorandum were signed last September, I believed there was almost no chance that they would be fully implemented. Full implementation is even less likely now. There is, however, at least some chance that a ceasefire could take hold that would allow for a genuine “freezing” of the conflict.
However, for reasons I outlined in earlier posts (see, for example, “Why a frozen conflict in the Donbas is unlikely”), I believe that a lasting ceasefire will require at least the following: (1) Ukrainian withdrawal from beyond artillery range of Donetsk and Horlivka and northward from the Debaltseve salient; (2) agreement on a new line of demarcation; (3) agreement on the withdrawal of all forces, including but not only heavy weapons, from a buffer zone (presumably 30km wide, as per the September 19 agreement); and (4) the establishment of a peacekeeping force – for example, a joint Ukrainian/Russian/OSCE force – to patrol and monitor the buffer zone. Continue reading
It remains very difficult to assess what is happening on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine amidst a great often deal of contradictory information. What is clear is that the intensity of fighting has escalated and that it is spreading and getting worse rather than abating. Of particular concern are offensive operations by the separatists along the Bakhmutka highway to the northwest of Luhansk and indeed an escalation of fighting at many points along the northern front. Continue reading
Twenty-four hours ago, it appeared that the Donbas separatists were about to take full control of the Donetsk airport after months of often intense fighting. There was also increasing separatist pressure on Ukrainian forces all along the line of contact, particularly in the northern part of the conflict zone, as shown below on yesterday’s map from the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council’s press center. I have not been following military developments in the conflict zone very carefully recently, but my guess was that the separatists, with material and intelligence support from Moscow, were setting up to launch a major offensive against Ukrainian forces in the Debaltseve salient after taking the airport. I also thought there was a chance that Ukrainian forces would again be trapped in the salient, just as they had been in August in Ilovai’sk, and that they would again suffer heavy losses.
While information from the conflict zone is confused, it seems clear that the Ukrainian military launched a surprise counteroffensive yesterday and that it has managed to retake at least part of the airport. Continue reading
The Ukraine crisis is a complex drama with multiple dimensions, theaters and actors, which makes tracking, explaining, and predicting where it is headed particularly difficult. Its various parts are, however, interrelated, so while each dimension is important in its own right, it also impacts, and is impacted by, the others.
In what follows, I disaggregate the crisis to five dimensions and offer my take on what is likely to happen in each in 2015. In doing so, I will try to take into account the crisis’ “systemic” properties – that is, how the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone. Continue reading
I’ve been working on a paper on NATO enlargement that is supposed to appear in February, and when it does I’ll post a link to it. Meanwhile, I want to emphasize a few broad points about the policy.
First, while there has been a good deal of discussion recently about what Western officials “promised” Gorbachev about NATO during negotiations over German reunification, the key decisions about enlargement were made after the Soviet dissolution by the Clinton administration, not the George H.W. Bush administration. What is true is that a commitment to preserve NATO as the foundation of Western security was made under Bush I, and as far as I know that commitment was supported by all NATO member-states at the time (see the 1990 London NATO Summit Declaration). The decision to enlarge NATO to take in new members other than a united Germany was made gradually, and without a lot of fanfare, by the Clinton administration over the course of 1993 and 1994. Continue reading
It would be foolish for Western governments to count on changes in Russia’s position on NATO enlargement and force disposition in the foreseeable future, regardless of whether Putin remains in office. It would likewise be foolish for Moscow to count on brinkmanship and intimidation to keep NATO from reinforcing its eastern flank under current circumstance. Nonetheless, it is incumbent upon Western and Russian leaders to make what is now a dangerous and unstable military standoff less unstable and less dangerous. Doing so is in the interest of both sides, and it is also the most likely path toward a gradual improvement in political relations. Continue reading
The ruble closed today at just under 70 to the dollar, down 13% after falling some 10% yesterday. At one point it fell below 80 to the dollar, down almost 20%. It has now overtaken the hryvnia as the world’s worst performing currency this year. Continue reading
[Expanded and updated version of a talk given at UC Berkeley, December 2, 2014.]
I have long been an alarmist about US-Russia relations. While the relationship has seen its ups and downs, I believe the trend has been decidedly negative since the mid-1990s. I’ve also long worried about a possible clash with Russia over NATO expansion, and particularly so after the Bush Administration decided to press – albeit unsuccessfully – America’s NATO allies to offer Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans at the March 2008 Bucharest NATO summit. Continue reading
My impression is that the effect of Russia’s annexation on material conditions in Crimea (by which I mean Crimea proper as well as Sevastopol) has been negative but not dire, at least to date. Subsides from Moscow have increased pensions and wages for government workers, but this reportedly is benefiting only about 40% of the peninsula’s two million people. Moscow is also funding some 75% of the region’s government budget (to the tune of at least $1.5 billion per year), an even higher percentage than the roughly 66% Kyiv covered before annexation. (I should note that all of the dollar estimates in what follows were made before the full extent of the ruble’s decline, which means that in dollar terms costs will be higher.)
This year, Russian officials have indicated that Moscow will provide some $4.5 billion to Crimea. They have also announced that some $7.2 billion will be taken out of the Russian pension fund to help cover the costs of annexation. These commitments are obviously yet one more burden on an already burdened federal budget, but they have helped ameliorate, albeit not negate, financial hardships for much of the region’s population. Continue reading
As the crisis in Ukraine intensified late last year, analysts pointed to an asymmetry in the struggle between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s external orientation. The Kremlin, the argument went, cares a great deal more about keeping Ukraine in its orbit than does either the European Union or the United States. That was certainly true then, and although it is rather less true now that Western governments feel fundamental principles and security are at stake, it is still mostly true. Continue reading
It is safe to say that I have been an alarmist about the conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s external orientation (my wife tells me I should call this the “Doom and Gloom” blog). I have been worried for years that NATO and EU expansion was going to lead eventually to a security crisis. I was worried about the consequences of Georgia and Ukraine trying to join NATO well before the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, and even more worried thereafter. And I was worried about the political fallout from the decision to offer Ukraine an EU Association Agreement in Vilnius at the end of last year and Russia’s reaction should the Yanukovich regime fall. Continue reading
[The following is an expanded version of a talk I gave at the Kyiv School of Economics on October 22, 2014.]
I started a blog earlier this year, the intent of which is to try to predict major developments in post-Soviet space, including of course in Ukraine – so the emphasis is on what I think will happen, not what I want to happen. That’s the spirit of my talk today as well: I’m going to tell you what I think U.S. policy will be toward Ukraine in the remaining years of the Obama presidency, not what I think it should be. I will focus first on domestic development in the U.S., because domestic political factors inevitably influence a president’s foreign policy. I will then turn to U.S. policy toward Ukraine, beginning with some general points and then addressing the particular issues shown in Slide 1. Continue reading
The strategic situation in eastern Ukraine is little changed from where it was on September 5 when the “ceasefire” was announced. A line of control has yet to be agreed to, and while the level of violence is much lower than it was over the summer, fighting continues, particularly in Schastiya (north of Luhansk), Debaltseve (a strategic crossroads between Luhansk and Donetsk), and in and around the international airport in Donetsk. Continue reading
I am not an economic determinist, at least in the sense that I don’t assume that people are motivated by lucre alone. I do not believe, for example, that economic factors, deeply rooted or otherwise, are always the “real” cause of war. And economic factors only sometimes account for the outcome of wars, as Americans were reminded in Vietnam.
I do believe, however, that what the Soviets used to call the “correlation of forces” – that is, the dynamics of the global balance of power – is driven primarily by economic factors. Size matters, geography matters, culture matters, institutions matter, but economic performance matters most (even if economic performance is partially or largely a product of any or all of the former).
Last week’s ceasefire has held up better than I expected, but it is still very precarious. The good news, especially for civilians in the conflict zone, is that the level of violence is down considerably for where it was two weeks ago. Continue reading
We are closer than we were a week ago to a military balance in eastern Ukraine that could allow for a ceasefire to take hold, assuming that a ceasefire is what Kyiv and Moscow want, but I do not believe we are there yet. The problem is that the current disposition of forces is not conducive to an end to the fighting. Continue reading
My view is that Ukraine has lost sovereignty over at least part of the Donbas for the foreseeable future. Its forces are retreating from multiple battlegrounds, including the Luhansk airport, and they appear to be on the verge of losing control of the Donetsk airport. It is still possible that Russia will decide to launch a full-scale assault on the Ukrainian military in an effort to destroy its war fighting capabilities (the shock and awe option), but I think that is unlikely. It is also possible that the Russians/pro-Russians will press forward in the south, along the Sea of Azov, in an effort to establish a land corridor to Crimea. But at the least it is clear that the offensive is directed at driving the Ukrainians back from the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk roughly to the defensive line suggested by the Ukraine@War blog discussed earlier, and perhaps beyond.
I suspect that yesterday will go down as the day that a war to suppress separatists in eastern Ukraine became the first “Russo-Ukrainian War.” It is now clear that regular Russian military units are fighting alongside Ukrainian separatists and Russian irregulars (“military tourists,” many of whom have received training at a base near Rostov). Over the past several weeks, it appears the Russian irregulars have begun to outnumber Ukrainian separatists among the combatants. They have now been joined by growing numbers of Russian regulars, including elite special-forces (Spetsnaz) units – the “Polite Little Green Men” who were so effective in taking control of Crimea in February and early March. US intelligence sources claimed today that at least 1,000 Russian soldiers are now in Ukraine, and informally American officials are telling reporters that figure is probably more like 2,000 or more. Continue reading