Russian tanks in Crimea

Russia has annexed part of a neighboring country and started a war for the first time in Europe in more than half a century. That kind of action precipitated wars in Europe over the centuries, culminating in the destruction of the two world wars of the twentieth century. After those wars, Europe took another path: first the European Coal and Steel Community, to today’s European Union. A continent that shared interests in trade and development would stop fighting wars.

That path has not been smooth, but war between the countries of the European Union is unthinkable today. In that sense, it has been successful.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has declared that Russia’s values differ from Europe’s. He has been specific about that difference only in terms of social policies, like full citizenship for gay people versus their persecution. Even Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin’s closest EU contact, has not been able to extract a statement of his beliefs and ambitions from him.

He has not said that war and revanchism are good, but he has taken actions in that direction. He seems to believe that spheres of influence, in which smaller countries must bow to a larger neighbor’s preferences, are essential to Russia’s security. He has talked about Russia’s grievances after the breakup of the Soviet Union and that it must be recognized as a great power. His rattling of nuclear weapons, echoed by others in his government and reinforced by recent aggressive Russian warplane flights, seem to be designed to reinforce Russia’s claim to being a great power and to threaten Europe.

All of that, along with Putin’s claims to want to negotiate a peace in Ukraine while continuing to supply troops and equipment for war, along with his saying that Ukraine is not a real nation, suggests that what he would like is a conference like Yalta. Seventy years ago this month, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt met in Yalta (in the Crimea) to agree on spheres of interest after the end of World War II. Stalin wound up with much of what he had agreed in the Molotove-Ribbentrop Pact to split Europe with Hitler.

Such a conference could ratify Putin’s view of Russia as a great power. But spheres of influence and subordinating smaller countries to the interests of large countries are no longer part of the EU approach. That approach has benefitted Russia as well by stabilizing its sometime friends, sometime enemies France and Germany and preventing war.

Putin’s vision for the future of Europe seems to be might makes right, with Russia dominating its periphery. The EU’s view is peace through economic and political accommodation.

The EU faces difficult choices in making its view prevail. Russia has grabbed territory by force and is in the process of grabbing more. Ukraine is resisting by force. But simply applying more military force will, to some degree, ratify Russia’s approach and bring more war back into Europe. Allowing Russia to annex territory by force also ratifies Russia’s approach.

The EU and United States have applied sanctions, moved NATO troops to the countries closer to Russia, and attempted to negotiate. The sanctions, along with the drop in oil prices, are seriously damaging Russia’s economy. But more voices are being raised, particularly in the United States, for meeting Russia’s war with more war.

By and large, the United States has taken the same approach to the post-world-war peace that Europe has, championing international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank that promote trade and negotiations in place of war. None of this has been perfectly executed, but the past seventy years have avoided great-power war.

The argument for arming Ukraine is that there must be a response to Russia’s aggression and that without a stronger response, there will be more aggression. Upping the cost for Vladimir Putin in dead Russian soldiers will alter his calculation of the desirability of his actions in Ukraine.

A great many detailed arguments can be made for and against (also here) providing lethal weapons to Ukraine. The overarching point is that this is a clash of worldviews, and one will predominate. The post-world-war peace has extended beyond Europe, with the understanding, written into the United Nations Charter, that boundaries will not be changed by force. Successful Russian aggression breaks this understanding. But meeting Russian aggression with more force breaks the preference for negotiation in place of war.

Although we do not know Putin’s objectives, he is limited by his military capabilities. Invading and holding large parts of Ukraine or opening a second front in Belarus or the Baltic States are not possible without moving troops from eastern Russia, where they guard against Chinese incursion. In the past week or so, propaganda offensives have been opened against Latvia and Lithuania with the intention of developing resistance movements to the governments in those countries. This was the strategy that failed in the Donbas and required the assistance of Russian troops and equipment. The probability of developing significant Russian-leaning resistance in EU countries approaches zero.

Russia is also limited by its collapsing economic system.

Nor do we know Putin’s cost-benefit calculations, what it will take to bring him to negotiations. If supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine does not enable negotiations, what is Plan B? Further, increasing United States or NATO involvement plays into Putin’s goal of a solution negotiated above Ukraine’s head by the great powers. It allows him to more persuasively claim NATO participation.

Steps short of sending lethal aid will support Ukraine and maintain the post-world-war order:

  1. Increase humanitarian aid in the war area.
  2. Continue nonlethal aid for the Ukrainian military, including counterbattery radars, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), electronic counter-measures for use against opposing UAVs, secure communications capabilities, armored Humvees and medical support equipment.
  3. Continue to support OSCE.
  4. Support the Kiev government.
    1. Military intelligence.
    2. Defeat corruption.
    3. Financially, with a Marshall Plan that emphasizes Kiev’s responsibilities.
  5. Increase the information war. This is a good example of what a government broadcasting outlet can do. A number of independent outlets are debunking Russian propaganda. They should be left to continue independent, but EU and the US governments need to do a lot more, including Russian-language broadcasts of real news.
  6. Continue and increase, if necessary, sanctions on Russia.

Further, a way needs to be found to engage Russia in a way that will allow Putin to feel that Russia is being treated like a great power without falling into the Yalta trap. A role might be possible for the NATO-Russia Council in opening up communication with Russia. The United Kingdom’s Des Brown, Russia’s Igor Ivanov, and America’s Sam Nunn have proposed a Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group.

If Russia does not alter its course, military intervention is still possible. Time is not on Russia’s side. Putin’s inner circle is shrinking. The economy continues to decay and families are upset at the return of their dead sons. Military advances in Ukraine mean more land that must be held in the face of a resistant population. Attempts to open new fronts in other “near abroad” countries would stretch the Russian military further.

War is the continuation of politics by other means. The United States has lost sight of that too many times in the last two decades. If our goal is to preserve the post-world-war norms, we must consider whether our means negate those norms. For the more immediate goal of bringing Putin to negotiations, we need a better calculation of probabilities than has been given, and, more importantly, a plan for next steps if providing arms to Ukraine does not achieve that goal.

Update (February 6, 2015): More about the kinds of military equipment Ukraine needs.

Update (February 9, 2015): Anne Applebaum makes a remarkably similar argument.


Photo: Russian personnel carriers in Crimea.

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  1. The Blog Fodder says:

    Putin will not negotiate because he does not have to. His “peace plan” is essentially for Ukraine to surrender to what ever he wants whenever he wants it now and in future. We need all the non-lethal stuff you mentioned but we also need America to come clean with the satellite images of Russian troops and equipment constantly crossing the border for the past 11 months. We must force Russia to acknowledge their culpability for the situation. The proof exists unless American spy satellites are as useless at monitoring military movement as the NSA is at predicting terrorist activity or the CIA at predicting actions of foreign governments. As Lavrov said either they can’t prove it OR THEY DO NOT WANT TO. America has supplied arms to some of the most horrendous murderers and tyrant on earth. They claim to be on the side of God, apple pie and democracy so why not sell Ukraine arms? Escalation to what? We should die the death of a thousand cuts instead?

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