A response to Tim Ash’s “The big call on Ukraine” in the Kyiv Post

Standard Bank’s Timothy Ash has an excellent “on the one hand, on the other hand” analysis of Ukraine’s political and economic prospects in The Kyiv Post. He begins by laying out reasons why investors (particularly those considering buying Ukrainian sovereign debt) might have reason to be optimistic about Ukraine’s future, and then lists equally compelling reasons why they should be wary and put their money elsewhere. Continue reading

How the Kremlin is likely to push back against NATO’s eastern flank deployments

In my previous post, I argued that a major offensive by Russian-separatist forces in the Donbas is unlikely because it would further undermine Russia’s geopolitical position and make Russia’s NATO problem worse. I also argued that the window for a successful Russian hybrid war on, or outright invasion of, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania has closed now that non-indigenous NATO troops, including American troops, are on the ground in those three countries.

Nonetheless, I believe Kremlin decision-makers when they tell us that they consider NATO’s eastern flank deployments, and NATO’s growing military cooperation with Ukraine, Georgia, Sweden and Finland, are a threat to Russia’s vital national security interests. (What matters here is not whether those beliefs are warranted, or what Russia did to provoke NATO’s deployments, but what Kremlin decision-makers believe.) I am likewise convinced that the Kremlin believes that its deteriorating security environment is the result of Western, particularly American, actions that are directed at establishing hegemony over Eurasia and at weakening, humiliating, and even destroying Russia.

Finally, it is not just the Russian elite that believes this. The Russian public does as well, which suggests that a change in leadership – which is in any case unlikely – would probably not produce much change in Russia’s strategic culture.

If so, it stands to reason that the Kremlin is going to respond to NATO’s moves, even if that response is not a major offensive in eastern Ukraine or an attack on the Baltic states. Continue reading

Why Russia’s security problems can’t be solved in Ukraine

From the outset of the current crisis in Ukraine, Moscow’s policies have been driven primarily by geopolitical considerations, not by developments inside Ukraine itself. Despite its rhetoric, the Kremlin cares little if at all about the design of Ukrainian federalism, the rights of Russian speakers, or alleged “fascists” in Kyiv, except insofar as they affect Ukraine’s external orientation and Russia’s geopolitical interests. Ukraine was, and doubtless to a certain extent still is, a central element in the Kremlin’s ambitions to establish a Russian-dominated “Eurasian” pole in what it sees as an increasingly multi-polar world. But more importantly, it has been and remains critical to the Kremlin’s goal of keeping the United States, the European Union, and above all NATO from becoming politically, economically, and militarily preeminent in post-Soviet space. Continue reading

Why the West should be pushing for a buffer zone between Russia and NATO

In my view, Western decision makers should be thinking hard about an endgame to the current crisis in Russian-Western relations. What is a realistic, least-worst outcome in, say, five years? Where will NATO’s and the EU’s eastern borders be? Where will NATO’s and Russia’s military assets be deployed? Will there be any arms control agreements still in effect that limit force dispositions and reduce the risks of war? What kind of constraints on economic relations will there be?

In considering the big picture, it strikes me that there are three realistic possibilities: (1) a return to “normalcy,” in the sense that Russia and the West are again cooperating and can reasonably be considered “partners”: (2) an unstable hostile relationship in which the dividing line between Russia and “the West” is contested, rules of engagement are uncertain, arms control measures have little effect on force dispositions and fail to enhance military stability, and where there is a significant and constant risk of war – so essentially more of what we have today; and (3) a stable hostile relationship where the dividing line between Russia and the West and rules of engagement are reasonably clear and accepted, where arms control measures enhance strategic and regional stability, where Russia has little incentive to attack its neighbors, and where the risks of a conflict between Russia and NATO are very low – so more or less where we were with the Soviet Union during the second half of the Cold War. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Six possibilities for the Donbas by year’s end

[Following is an edited version of a talk I gave at a “Frozen Conflicts” conference organized by Chapman University’s Center for Global Education. The conference took place on April 16, 2015 at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]

The topic of this conference is the search for solutions to some of the world’s many “frozen conflicts.” My argument, however, is that in some cases a frozen conflict is precisely what we want, since the alternatives are often worse. If so, the challenge is how to get a frozen conflict, not how to overcome one.

That, I will argue, is precisely where we are in eastern Ukraine, where the West, Kyiv, and indeed Moscow should be pressing hard to turn what has been a hot conflict into a frozen one. Continue reading

Why Wesley Clark is wrong that the OSCE mission in Ukraine is “non-functioning”

On March 30, Gen. Wesley Clark, a retired U.S. four-star general and a former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, gave a talk at the Atlantic Council in which he reported on a recent trip to Ukraine. In the course of his remarks, he stated the following regarding the OSCE mission in Ukraine:

More than half of the make-up of OSCE, we were told, were Russian military, who are free to go up to the Ukrainian positions, look at their disposition. And, you know, they’re on the honor code, not to pass this back to Russian forces, if that – and maybe not even on the honor code. So OSCE is essentially non-functioning there.

Continue reading

The Donbas war: Why a major separatist/Russian offensive is unlikely (Part 1)

In my previous post, I argued that an unstable frozen conflict (continued low-level fighting but no major territorial gains) is still the least unlikely outcome in eastern Ukraine, but that the opportunity for a stable frozen conflict (a lasting ceasefire) to emerge has increased since the fall of Debaltseve on February 20. My reasoning was as follows:

  1. The intensity of fighting has been diminishing.
  2. The line of contact (LOC) has become more coherent and defensible.
  3. Neither side appears capable of taking significant additional territory unless Moscow dramatically increases the scale and nature of its involvement.
  4. The Kremlin appears to have concluded (correctly, I believe) that an escalation of its military involvement in Ukraine would undermine its geopolitical objectives, notably by precipitating an increase, not a decrease, in NATO hard power on its eastern flank.
  5. The most likely way for a stable frozen conflict to emerge is no longer by some kind of Minsk III agreement with a buffer zone patrolled by armed international peacekeepers but by “military facts on the ground.”

What I want to do is this post is elaborate on the first three points. I will take up point 4 in my next post. Continue reading

The Donbas war: Why a stable frozen conflict is becoming more likely (short version)

It has been my view since the Donbas war broke out last year that the least-worst outcome for all parties would be a stable frozen conflict with an agreed upon zone of separation monitored by the OSCE and patrolled by an armed international peacekeeping force – an arrangement that I referred to in earlier posts as the “Transnistria on the Donbas” solution.

More recently, I have been skeptical that the ceasefire and separation of forces provisions in Minsk II would come fully into effect because I didn’t think the Kremlin viewed a stable frozen conflict as in its geopolitical interest. Instead, I expected Moscow to seek to keep the conflict unstable, with at least low level fighting at various points along the line of contact in an effort to maintain pressure on Kyiv, and more importantly to sow divisions within Europe and between Europe and the United States.

I still think this “unstable frozen conflict” scenario is the least unlikely outcome. But I have changed my mind in at least one respect, which is that I think the likelihood of a stable frozen conflict emerging in eastern Ukraine has increased since the fall of Debaltseve.

My reasoning, which I will elaborate on in a longer post later this week, is as follows.

  1. The intensity of fighting has been diminishing.
  2. The line of contact has become more coherent and defensible.
  3. Neither side appears capable of taking considerable additional territory unless Moscow dramatically increases the scale and nature of its military involvement.
  4. The Kremlin appears to have concluded, correctly in my view, that an escalation of the war would do nothing to solve what it sees as its key security problem, which is NATO’s growing military presence near its borders. On the contrary, it would almost certainly make that problem much worse. I also suspect that the Kremlin has concluded, again correctly, that a major escalation of the fighting would lead to increased Western military assistance, including provision of lethal weapons, to Ukraine, and that would in turn risk a full blown war between Russian and Ukraine and even a direct military clash with NATO.  This may have led the Kremlin to conclude in turn that it will be more effective at promoting Western disunity if it allows a lasting ceasefire to take effect while seeking to undermine Ukrainian political stability using more subtle methods.
  5. Finally, the most likely way for a stable frozen conflict to emerge in eastern Ukraine is not some kind of Minsk III agreement establishing a buffer zone patrolled by an international peacekeeping force. Rather, the more likely path is by means of military facts on the ground – that is, by virtue of both sides building up defensive positions along the line of contact, thereby establishing a de facto controlled border. The OSCE would continue to monitor the line and report on ceasefire violations and force dispositions, but there would be no armed peacekeepers and very little separation between the combatants. This, I should note, is more or less what we have had in Nagorno-Karabakh (albeit in very different terrain). With luck, violence would continue to diminish, and at some point a full ceasefire might take effect, but there will always be a risk that the ceasefire will break down (as in Nagorno-Karabakh today) – which is to say, this “Karabakh on the Donbas” outcome will be less stable than a “Transnistria on the Donbas” one.

EWW interview with The New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen

The full text can be found here.

Q: What are your expectations from the EU summit on March 19? Will the EU extend sanctions on Russia, or are the majority of member states inclined to give Russia more time to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine?

Walker: It’s very likely that the EU will decide on the 19th to kick the can down the road and neither increase sanctions or agree to lift any or all of them. The EU is involved in an extremely difficult and complex political game over sanctions, particularly because the sanctions in place now have term limits and renewal requires unanimous approval by all member states. It does not want to undermine whatever chance the Minsk II agreement has of being implemented; members such as Hungary and especially Greece want to use their veto rights over sanctions as leverage on other matters, including of course for Greece over austerity and debt; and other members, notably the Baltic States, Poland, and the United Kingdom, want to maintain maximum pressure on Moscow.

There is another very important dimension to the sanctions question for the EU, which is its relationship with the United States. Most member states do not want to see the Ukraine crisis lead to a division within the Atlantic alliance, and they therefore have to worry about what would happen if the EU went in one direction and the United States another on sanctions. A split on sanctions could be extremely divisive. Moreover, the EU, Germany in particular, is very aware that the Obama administration is under growing domestic pressure to increase military assistance to Ukraine, and they have to worry that if they break with Washington over sanctions, the United States will break with European doves on arming Ukraine and otherwise ramping up its military response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. That, too, might provoke a crisis in European relations with the United States, where there is already growing resentment in policy circles that Europe spends so much less on defense than the United States, and where most NATO members spend less than NATO’s two percent of GDP target. Continue reading

Why the Ukraine crisis is still very dangerous (long version)

[Following is an expanded and updated version of a talk I gave at the 39th Annual Berkeley-Stanford Conference on March 6, 2015. The conference title was “The Collapse after a Quarter Century: What Have We Learned About Communism and Democracy?”]

The title of the talk I was going to give today was “Mishandling Russia.” However, last week a recent Berkeley political science Ph.D., Andrei Krikovic, now an assistant professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, gave what I thought was an excellent talk entitled “The Ukraine Crisis and the New Cold War: The View From Moscow,” in which he made many of the points I was going to make. We also have a talk scheduled for Monday by Masha Lipman, one of Moscow’s most prominent political analysts, entitled “From a Model of Development to Evil Incarnate: How Russia Has Come to Loathe the West.” So rather than repeating their arguments, I thought I would address one answer to the question in the conference title as follows: One thing that we know for sure 25 years later is that Russia’s relations with the West are in crisis. And I don’t see a clear path forward for resolving that crisis in the foreseeable future.

I’m going to focus on the security dimension of the current drama, which I think is the heart of the matter and the reason why it is so dangerous. Continue reading

Why the Ukraine crisis is still very dangerous (short version)

I am about to post a long piece on the Ukraine crisis derived from a talk I gave last week at Berkeley. I have indulged myself, however, and allowed it to grow too long for the average reader. So what follows is an eight-point summary of the argument for those with less patience.

  • The U.S. and its NATO allies have been taking significant steps to build up NATO’s eastern defenses since Russia annexed Crimea early last year, and those measures are going to continue. They have also been providing military assistance to Ukraine, and that assistance is going to increase. If the fighting in eastern Ukraine ramps up again, it is very likely that the U.S. and at least some of its NATO allies will begin providing lethal weapons to Kyiv, which will likely mean an all-out proxy war between the West and Russia in Ukraine. It might also precipitate an open Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • Western governments are increasing military assistance to Georgia, and NATO membership for Georgia (as well as for Ukraine) has not been taken off the table. Indeed, Western officials continue to signal that Georgia is on a path toward eventual NATO accession.
  • Not just the Kremlin but the Russian political elite and public broadly view all this as extremely provocative, as an illegitimate encroachment on Russia’s rightful sphere of influence, and as a threat to Russian national security. While many Westerners find those interpretations implausible and unwarranted given Russia’s behavior towards its neighbors, it does not really matter what they think as far as the risk of war goes – what matters is what Moscow thinks.
  • Although Russian officials have made very clear that Moscow views NATO’s military response to the Ukraine crisis as threatening and illegitimate, the Kremlin’s redlines are not particularly clear. Nor is it clear how it will react if those redlines are crossed, openly or covertly.
  • Nonetheless, the Kremlin will take countermeasures one way or the other, and it will do so in part asymmetrically – that is, it will respond not only in Ukraine but in the Middle East, East Asia, the Arctic, and so on, and it will make moves in arenas where it believes it has a comparative advantage, such as brinksmanship, including nuclear brinksmanship, or cyberwar by proxy. (I outlined some of these possible responses in earlier posts, but see in particular “No own goals at the September NATO summit,” posted on June 16, 2014.) Part of Moscow’s response will be political and economic in nature, but a good part – and the most dangerous part – will be military.
  • Moscow’s response is also going to be guided by a (doubtless correct) assumption that the Russian public has a much higher pain threshold, and a considerably higher tolerance for risk, than either the U.S. or especially West European public.
  • The current confrontation between Russia and the West entails a risk of a military clash between NATO and Russia. I would characterize it as a kind of Black Swan-type risk – not in the sense that it is inherently unpredictable, but in the sense that it is a low probability event with potentially enormous and unforeseeable consequences.
  • The current goings on in and around the Kremlin (notably Putin’s apparent health problems, the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a possible challenge to Kremlin authority from the Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, and signs of serious differences among elite factions in Moscow) only add uncertainty to an already uncertain, and dangerous, relationship between Russia and the West. I believe they should be viewed a wildcard factor that makes risk assessment all the more difficult, not as signs of Putin’s imminent demise or a change of direction in foreign or domestic policy.


The spillover effects in Eurasia of Russia’s economic woes

In earlier posts I suggested that declining trend growth for the global economy is going to make for governance problems, particularly for the world’s democracies. I also argued that pre-existing economic problems for three of the four key players in the Ukraine drama – Ukraine itself, Russia, and the European Union (the exception being the United States) – are being aggravated by, and are constraining choices in, the Ukraine crisis.

What I want to focus on here is how Russia’s economic problems are impacting Russia’s neighbors and unsettling the region politically. I will leave aside Ukraine (whose acute economic problems I’ve covered in earlier posts) and the three Baltic states (which as members of the EU and the Eurozone are less affected by Russia’s downturn). Continue reading

Whither the Donbas war after Debaltseve?

Yesterday, Ukrainian President Poroshenko read a brief statement at the Kyiv airport in which he announced that the Ukrainian forces in and around Debaltseve, whose main line of retreat to the north, the M03, had come under the control of the separatists a week or so earlier, had been ordered to break out and make it back to Ukrainian controlled territory. Continue reading

Ukraine’s hostage crisis

My impression is that the ceasefire called for in last week’s Minsk II agreement is being implemented along most of the line of contact. The principle exception is in the Debaltseve pocket, although there has also been some artillery/rocket exchanges in the south, in and around Donetsk/Horlivka, and near Luhansk. But with the possible exception of a Russian/separatist push to reverse the gains made by Ukraine’s Azov battalion last week in the south, I doubt that either side is pressing, for the immediate future, to make significant territorial gains. Continue reading

What to make of Minsk 2?

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

The Ukraine crisis at a turning point

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

Why Kyiv and the West should be pressing for a stable frozen conflict in the Donbas

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

Eastern Ukraine: Whither the latest Russian/pro-Russian offensive?

It is now clear that a major separatist offensive is underway in eastern Ukraine. (Again, by “separatist” I mean the combination of Ukrainian rebels, irregulars from Russia and elsewhere, and Russian regulars fighting on behalf of the DPR and LPR). It also appears that the Ukrainian military is at risk of suffering another major defeat, particularly but not only in the Debaltseve salient (see map below). Moscow has again surged its regular forces in the conflict; it has introduced sophisticated weapons not seen earlier in the conflict zone; and it has provided the separatists with the huge volume of ordinance to put them in position to conduct major offensive operations. Continue reading