- By Michael CarpenterMichael Carpenter is senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. He is a former a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia and foreign policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.
As Americans wrap their minds around the significance of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the possibility that the Donald Trump campaign entered into a quid pro quo with the Russian government, Russian soldiers continue to kill Ukrainians in Donbass. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has raged for three years and claimed 10,000 lives, attracts scant U.S. media attention these days unless it is connected to Trump. However, even if the killings in Donbass seem routine and Americans remain (rightly) focused on Russia’s interference in their own country, the United States cannot afford to lose sight of the Kremlin’s ongoing political-military campaign to destabilize Ukraine and install a pro-Russian government in Kiev. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin undoubtedly briefed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week on the latest aspects of this campaign.
There is in fact a direct connection between Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its interference in the U.S. election. Russia’s efforts to install a more pliable figure in the White House were aimed in part to get the new U.S. administration to back off from its support for Ukraine. In my professional interactions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, he was singularly focused on criticizing U.S. support for the democratic government in Kiev. Kislyak and other Russian government officials often argued that Moscow’s core interests were threatened by the fall of Ukraine’s previous kleptocratic government led by Viktor Yanukovych, and that the United States should steer clear of Ukraine.
The reason why Ukraine matters to the United States is not because it has important economic or military interests there. Rather, it is because Russia’s invasion of its neighbor and attempted annexation of part of its territory contravene the most basic principles of the international order: respect for other countries’ sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the inviolability of borders. When these principles are violated by brute force and the act goes unchallenged, not only does it fan the flames of Russia’s territorial ambitions on its periphery but also invites countries around the world to use force to achieve similar revanchist aims.
It is precisely for these reasons that the national security professionals in the current administration must develop a coherent strategy for supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This requires a cognitive leap of faith: setting aside for the moment the possibility that the Trump campaign reached a deal to throw Ukraine under the bus (even given the fact that former campaign chairman Paul Manafort had previously worked for the kleptocratic Yanukovych regime). An independent special prosecutor must look into that possibility. The professional national security officials in the White House, State Department, and Pentagon cannot, however, afford to become distracted by this issue and should begin putting in place the policies to ensure Russia’s objectives in Ukraine are blocked. They should start by focusing on the following six issues.
1. The new administration should continue to strengthen Ukraine’s defenses against Russian aggression. The $335-million program launched by the Obama administration in 2016 providing training and equipment to the Ukrainian armed forces is a good baseline from which to work. Military training by British, Canadian, Lithuanian, and U.S. forces has dramatically increased Ukraine’s capabilities and provided the skills and equipment to repel attacks like the deadly assault in Avdiivka at the end of January. Despite suffering several dozen casualties, Ukrainian forces stood firm in Avdiivka and successfully repulsed a combined Russian and separatist offensive. The Ukrainian troops on the front lines at the time were trained by U.S. instructors.
In addition to extending and expanding the training program to eventually include combined arms training (a qualitative step up from current training efforts), the new administration should also provide Ukraine with defensive weapons and equipment. This includes anti-tank missiles and counter-battery radars with fire control systems to allow Ukrainian forces to target the sources of incoming artillery shells. Most Ukrainian casualties result from Russian multiple rocket launchers, mortars, and mobile artillery. The United States and other NATO nations should therefore give Ukraine the means to defend itself against these highly lethal weapons, many of which indiscriminately target civilians as well as soldiers.
While some have claimed that arming Ukraine would invite Russia to escalate the conflict, defensive weapons will not tip the balance on the battlefield in Ukraine’s favor, given Russia’s overwhelming advantage in firepower. They will however make it costlier and more difficult for the combined Russian and separatist forces to go on the offense and take additional territory, as they attempted to do in Avdiivka. For the Russian General Staff, NATO’s refusal to arm Ukraine is in fact far more provocative than the provision of defensive weapons.
2. The United States needs to get directly involved in the diplomacy to resolve the conflict. In the early stages of the crisis, the United States and European Union played a direct role in convening discussions with Russian and Ukrainian officials. However, the U.S. was sidelined in the diplomatic process when French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel excluded President Barack Obama from a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Poroshenko in Normandy in June 2014, giving rise to the so-called “Normandy group” (France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia). With the United States absent, the Normandy leaders subsequently agreed on the poorly crafted Minsk protocol of February 2015, which elevated the role of Russian proxies in the negotiations and gave Moscow a pretext for blocking implementation.
By giving the proxies a seat at the table to discuss the modalities of implementing the Minsk protocol — including provisions for Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) access to the entire territory of Donbass and removal of heavy weapons — the February 2015 agreement implicitly passed the buck from the Kremlin to Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine. Predictably, the result has been a lack of progress in the two years since the Minsk protocol was agreed upon. Moscow perfected this game after its invasion of Georgia in 2008 with the Geneva International Discussions. The Kremlin understands perfectly well that the pretense of negotiations perpetuates the status quo, while the involvement of local proxies deflects blame. The United States must get directly involved in the negotiations to change this dynamic.
3. No resolution to the conflict is possible without increasing leverage over Russia. This is admittedly not an easy task. Russia wants control of the government in Kiev, and is willing to play the long game and invest significant resources to achieve this objective. While sanctions have certainly hurt Russia’s economy, Moscow is probably betting that over time it can pick off a European (or American) leader by using the right sweeteners and get them to defect from the existing consensus. To maximize its leverage, the United States therefore needs to be able to dial sanctions up or down, depending on Russian behavior. This is quite difficult for sanctions that require close U.S.-EU collaboration, because EU decision-making is slow and cumbersome. Furthermore, unilateral U.S. sanctions targeting upstream energy development or defense-industrial production would be ineffective without EU buy-in, because European companies could simply “backfill” the contracts vacated by their U.S. competitors. Financial sanctions, however, can be more easily regulated and are less dependent on matching EU measures. Furthermore, there is significant scope to go further with existing financial sanctions. To date, the United States has imposed “blocking sanctions” — i.e. sanctions that block all of a company’s financial transactions — on only one Russian bank, and that bank is not even among the top 20 largest financial institutions in Russia. Unilateral U.S. financial sanctions should thus be considered as a tool to incentivize compliance with the Minsk protocol.
4. The time horizons must change. Right now Russia is playing the long game, determined to keep its military options open while it experiments with political subversion using corruption and oligarchs as tools. Sanctions and low oil prices have hurt the Russian economy, but the impact has been gradual and cumulative, enough to weigh on decision-making about Russia’s next steps but not enough to call the mission into question. The administration should therefore work with France and Germany to craft a detailed roadmap for implementing the Minsk protocol, spelling out very concretely what steps need to be taken and their sequencing.
Although the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015 are far from perfect, their key conditions do offer a path towards restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty over Donbass. The key to successful implementation, however, lies in linking the Minsk roadmap to an explicit timeline. So, for example, Western leaders should insist that Russia withdraw its forces from the line of contact by a specific date. Right now this requirement is open-ended, so combined Russian/separatist and Ukrainian forces remain entrenched, in some places with less than 100 yards of separation. Once forces withdraw from the line of contact, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission must be given a 24/7 mandate to certify the withdrawal of heavy weapons from proscribed zones, also by a specific date. Currently, there is no timeframe specified for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and OSCE monitors perform their job during daylight hours only — hardly a recipe for sustainable demilitarization. Under a strict timeline for Minsk implementation there would be consequences for Russia’s missed deadlines, consisting primarily of increased sanctions. To date, the absence of any deadlines or consequences for failing to meet them has perpetuated a deadly status quo and encouraged Moscow to try to outlast the West. After all, Putin has been in power for 17 years and has seen his share of Western leaders come and go. He may think that if he can just hang on a little longer, the Western consensus on sanctions will eventually be broken.
5. The new administration must continue to invest in Ukraine’s success. The Obama administration devoted exceptional high-level attention to Ukraine, with Vice President Joe Biden regularly interacting with Ukraine’s top leadership. The Obama administration also applied conditionality to its assistance in order to force Ukrainian leaders to make necessary but difficult reforms. One of the worst things the new administration could do to Ukraine (aside from an explicit sellout to Russian interests) would be to adopt a laissez-faire approach. Although Ukraine has a vibrant civil society and a strong cadre of reforms in government and in the parliament, it also has its share of holdovers from the “old system” that continue to profit from entrenched corruption. At U.S. urging, powerful institutions have been set up to fight this endemic corruption, including the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption. But a weak judiciary and networks of cronies inside the bureaucracy have fought a vicious war against these new institutions, correctly understanding their power to change the entire system. Only concerted Western pressure and vigilance can ensure that Ukraine’s rule of law institutions gradually fulfil this mandate.
6. The new administration must enlist greater European support for Ukraine’s democratic development. European countries simply do not exert the sort of leverage and conditionality on reforms as the United States or the International Monetary Fund. Europe arguably has the most to win or lose from Ukraine’s success and so its curiously passive role cannot be allowed to stand. European ambassadors in Kiev should go beyond the comfort zone of sending cables back to their capitals and speaking out more about what needs to be done to advance reforms. To be sure, Ukraine has made enormous strides in the last few years. But continued progress requires coordinated, proactive involvement by U.S. and European leaders to ensure that Ukraine keeps reforming, strengthening its democratic institutions, and developing the capabilities to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
For the future of European security and the liberal international order, the international community needs to ensure that when Kremlin leaders reflect a decade from now on Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, they see it as a strategic blunder that set Ukraine irrevocably on a path towards Western integration and liberal democracy.
Photo credit: Tillerson (right) meets with Klimkin at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2017. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images