The calls of arming the Ukrainian government in order to respond to Russia clear support of Ukrainian separatists are misguided. It is neither in the interest of the US, NATO, nor the EU and its 28 Member States to start an arm race with Russia over Ukraine. After one year of military combats in Ukraine, leading to the Russian annexation of Crimea, and violent fights in Eastern Ukraine, four-nations peace talks – composed of President of France, German Chancellor, Ukrainian President and Russian President – will be meeting in Minsk, Belarus’ capital (which is the bastion of the last true European dictator) on February 11th. The Minsk Summit, known as the last chance summit, will be trying to solve the Ukrainian conflict and lay the foundation for an eventual future peace in Ukraine.
The peace talks are a continuation of the four-way phone conference held on Sunday between the four leaders in order to implement the Minsk agreements signed on September 4th, 2014. Wednesday talks are supposed to seek for a cease-fire and a settlement for ending the conflict (even though very little has transpired about sunday’s long talks and the approach to Wednesday’s talks). As argued by the Elysée, France’s executive power, there are several points of contention prior tomorrow’s meeting:
- reaching out a global agreement;
- the degree of autonomy of territories held by separatists;
- control of borders wherein Russian military equipments have gone through;
- removal of heavy weaponry (which could be clearly undermined if the US decides to go on with providing heavy weaponry to the Ukrainian government);
- about the future of territories conquered by the separatists.
Despite the very localized combat zone, the situation in Eastern Ukraine is worrisome for the overall regional stability of Europe. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a recent UN Report (from BBC News), the war in Ukraine has had serious consequences as illustrated below (see here portraits of the war):
- 5,358 people killed and 12,235 wounded in eastern Ukraine;
- Fatalities include 298 people on board flight MH17 shot down on 17 July;
- 224 civilians killed in three-week period leading up to 1 February;
- 5.2 million people estimated to be living in conflict areas;
- 921,640 internally displaced people within Ukraine, including 136,216 children;
- 600,000 fled to neighboring countries of whom more than 400,000 have gone to Russia.
Lack of Unity in the West
The numbers posted above illustrate the reality of war on the European continent. The strategy to solving the crisis is far from being a demonstration of unity between the members of the Euro-Atlantic community. The 2015 Munich Security conference illustrated the clear divergence of strategic approach to Ukraine between the two sides of the pond. During the 2015
Munich Security Conference, the US and Germany clearly went apart. US Secretary Kerry expressed the US support to arming Ukraine, while Chancellor Merkel expressed her opposition to such strategy and advocated instead for ‘strategic patience.’ Strategic patience is defined as the “capacity to stay united behind a coherent set of principles and, at the same time, back its policies with plenty of diplomatic activism and economic incentives.” Chancellor Merkel said during the Munich conference that “The progress that Ukraine needs cannot be achieved by more weapons.” US Senator McCain, a foreign policy hawk, was caught responding to her comments by saying “Foolishness.” His view represents the vision on the Capitol in Washington D.C. wherein a majority of republican senators as well as the democratic establishment are willing and apparently ready to arm the Ukrainian government. The White House expressed its support to providing Ukraine “lethal defensive weapons” in case of diplomatic failures. Such announcement by the White House may have put the President in the corner once again after the infamous ‘redline’ crossed by Bashar Al-Assad of Syria.
Russia, Russia, Russia
The Ukrainian dilemma is obviously a serious problem in terms of geopolitical stability, but as well Western unity. For instance as demonstrated by John Lough of the Chattam House:
On the one hand, Ukraine is a victim of aggression and deserves the right to defend itself against separatist forces that Russia is clearly supplying and supporting. On the other hand, the supply of defensive weaponry to Ukraine has the potential to split the West and precipitate a wider war.
Many seem confused behind Putin’s rationale – and called him an irrational actor – to continue pushing the Russian offensive in Ukraine. Why would Putin ‘gamble’ its legitimacy, legacy and even Russian economic prosperity for eastern Ukraine? The response is simple: sphere of influence. As expressed in an excellent op-ed by John J. Mearsheimer in the New York Times:
Great powers react harshly when distant rivals project military power into their neighborhood, much less attempt to make a country on their border an ally. This is why the United States has the Monroe Doctrine, and today no American leader would ever tolerate Canada or Mexico joining a military alliance headed by another great power.
What would Ukraine bring to the EU and/or NATO? Is it an acceptable risk for the euro-atlantic community to bring Ukraine within its institutional, legal, political, economic and military networks? It does not appear that neither Georgia nor Ukraine are strategic benefit for NATO and the EU at this point of time. The Euro-Atlantic community is deeply divided on opening the doors of NATO and the EU to Ukraine and Georgia. Thus, Russia has clearly demonstrated that it cares much more about keeping Ukraine at all cost than the West about loosing it. Powerful member states like France have expressed their opposition to the eventuality to incorporating these states within NATO. For instance, “France is not favorable to Ukraine’s entering the Atlantic alliance,” said President François Hollande. “Let this be absolutely clear.” President Hollande wants to end the violence and war and normalize relations with Putin (the two mistral ships are still waiting in French harbors).
Seeking for Western Strategic Soundness and Patience
If the West is so concerned about creating a clear demarcation between them and Russia, why not using Ukraine as a buffer zone? After all Ukraine has been very divided on picking a side, either the EU or Russia. This was one of the reasons behind the Orange revolution in 2004 and last year manifestations in Kiev snowballing into the current war. For the EU it will be more a matter of developing/strengthening either a bilateral partnership or a loosen commercial agreement with Ukraine than incorporating Ukraine as its 29th Member States. The EU has too many internal tensions, problems and distractions to even consider bringing Ukraine in.
But the real concern from a Western point of view is the degree of confusion and division
within the Euro-Atlantic community. The fact that the US has been relentless in its call to arm Ukraine without forging clear unity between NATO members speaks about the lack of common strategic vision. From a European standpoint, the neighborhoods are so unstable (read previous analyses here, here and here) that it slowly undermined its influence and security. The EU and the EU-28 cannot agree on a common strategy, so let alone the idea of forging one, for each crisis such as the ones raging in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq (Islamic State (IS)), and Nigeria (Boko Haram). This lack of European soundeness demonstrates several aspects: first, some Member States are completely out of foreign policy due to domestic troubles and do not realize the long-term consequences of their lack of interests and engagement (the United Kingdom is considerably silent on this important regional issue); second, some Member States are cheery-picking which issue to tackle without an overall vision; third, other Member States are simply seeking for going alone at the expense of the unity.
Several options are on the table: a possible Franco-German led cease-fire through diplomatic talks (or ‘strategic patience’); sending or not weapons to support Ukraine despite Germany’s opposition; or continuing the deepening of economic sanctions against Russia. But the talks about arming Ukraine and the eventuality that it could escalate the war with Russia is a reality.
It may seem that the West is miss-reading the Cold War. Yes, nuclear weapons and proxy wars locked the two superpowers in check. No, American hard power was not the only tool in the toolbox. Soft power, and its power of attraction, played an important role. Certainly hard power offers a quick solution; while soft power is much loosen, less precise, and slow. At this point of time, the best bet for the West is serious diplomatic talks in ending the conflict. Tomorrow’s Minsk peace talk between the Franco-German engine, Ukraine and Russia could arrive to possible agreements and redlines. The US should instead seek to work them instead of threatening Russia.