Let’s Call the Ukrainian Cease-Fire What It Is

It’s time for much harsher measures on Moscow.


One need only look to the forced retreat of Ukrainian forces Feb. 18 in the strategic city of Debaltseve to see that the cease-fire that emerged last week from the meeting of French, German, Ukrainian, and Russian leaders in Minsk is less than meets the eye. Even if a shaky truce begins to hold after the Ukrainian retreat, the cease-fire agreement is laden with future problems that will emerge in the coming weeks and months. This half-measure cannot be allowed to stand as the final commitment to Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity.

While welcoming an immediate end to violence — should that really occur — the United States should press full steam ahead on a wider strategy for supporting Ukraine financially, strengthening Kiev’s armed forces, seeking the withdrawal of all Russian forces, and restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over its own territory.

The problems with the cease-fire as negotiated are many. First and fundamentally, it does not constitute a peace agreement that restores Ukrainian sovereignty. In other words, the Russian-supported rebels have not relinquished any claim to control part of Ukraine. Moreover, there is no requirement that Russian heavy weapons be withdrawn fully from Ukrainian territory. The notion that this might happen by the end of 2015 is scarcely credible at this point.

Further, the cease-fire establishes an international presence inside Ukraine, monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to police a line of control and separation of forces. This is tantamount to the institutionalization of a frozen conflict inside Ukraine — along the lines of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Transnistria in Moldova. This is exactly what the Kremlin wants. A year ago, there was no conflict in Ukraine; now Russia has manufactured a war that has allowed it to gain leverage over Kiev and Europe.

Any future progress toward a settlement now also depends on Kiev giving significant new powers to the breakaway regions. Yet even this concession is no guarantee of a lasting deal: All that the Russian-supported rebels need to do is simply state that what Kiev offers is not sufficient, thus legitimizing a pretext for continuing the conflict long into the future. It adds up to near-permanent leverage for Russia.

If indeed the cease-fire begins to take hold, it also may give a false sense of achievement to Europe’s leaders. It is unlikely the European Union would proceed with any tougher sanctions against Moscow. But Ukraine’s economy and finances remain in ruins, and pressure that had been mounting for international support to Kiev will again begin to dissipate. German businesses are itching to get back to business with Russia. Rumors are now circulating that France may decide soon on resuming the sale of Mistral warships to Russia. Should that be true, we would find ourselves in a situation where, just days ago, the United States was mulling arms sales to Ukraine and, today, France is mulling arms sales to Russia.

Finally, as with the Minsk agreement in September 2014, there is little reason to think this cease-fire will last more than the few weeks it will take for Europe to again lose interest in Ukraine. Indeed, given events in Debaltseve, it may never have really taken effect at all. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Russia is using the time to reinforce the rebels militarily and plan for the next land grab when the cease-fire inevitably breaks down for good.

The United States, Europe, and Ukraine need to use the time as well. They must proceed full-bore with plans to strengthen Ukraine economically, politically, and militarily. This is important not only for saving Kiev, but for Europe more broadly; the viability of the post-Cold War settlement of borders and independent states may well rest on whether the international community can stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advances in Ukraine now.

For starters, we must be absolutely clear about the goal: It is the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over its own territory. U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel should state this explicitly. The cease-fire is not a goal in itself — it is, at best, a step along the way. Neither Europe nor the United States can accept the creation of a new frozen conflict. To this end, they must adopt a formal nonrecognition policy concerning Russia’s annexation of Crimea, just as was the case for the Baltic states when they were occupied by the Soviet Union.

Given the dire status of Ukraine’s public finances and economy, the West should proceed with a robust financial-assistance package for Ukraine, including IMF commitments, but adding direct U.S. and EU support as well. Such funds would be tied to Kiev’s implementation of economic and political reforms to fight corruption, introduce transparency, and improve the business climate. It is essential that the part of Ukraine that is still free be inclusive, prosperous, and sustainable.

When it comes to military aid, the time for half-measures is over. We need to undertake a full-scale effort to train, equip, and advise the Ukrainian defense forces. This should include the delivery of sophisticated anti-tank, counter-artillery, and anti-aircraft systems; intelligence-sharing; and military advisors embedded in the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. Some will continue to argue — as did Merkel on Feb. 7 in Munich — that there is no amount of arms the West could send to Ukraine sufficient to defeat Russia, and thus no arms should be provided at all.

That is the wrong measure. The goal of having a better trained and equipped Ukrainian military is not to attempt to march on Moscow, but to increase the costs of further Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and thus give time for sanctions, declining oil prices, and other pressure to mount. To the extent that Russia bears heavier costs, it will give the Kremlin an incentive to seek a negotiated solution and make it think twice about sending its men into harm’s way.

The West should also provide equipment and advisors to help Ukraine re-establish control of its international border with Russia. Ukraine cannot even access the entire border today. But we should be planning for the time when it can, so that it can be protected as strongly as possible.

The European Union and the United States should also continue to raise the sanctions stakes on Russia. Travel and financial sanctions on Putin and his family would be appropriate at this point, as would taking further steps to attempt to restrict Russian access to global financial transactions. It is time to urge the banks making up the SWIFT network to suspend Russian bank participation in financial data transactions.

Finally, we should put in place preventive NATO-nation deployments to the Baltic states, Georgia, Moldova, Romania, and western Ukraine near Transnistria. We must not make the mistake, as we did in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, of waiting for Russia to launch subversive military action and then deciding that any direct response would be escalatory. Deterrent forces must be put in place now to prevent Russia from opening a new front in the conflict.

That said, in pursuing these measures, Western leaders should be prepared for Russia to escalate further. Moscow may seek to open new fronts through ethnic demonstrations in the Baltic states or energy shut-offs. These should not deter efforts. The fact is that Russia has used past Western passivity to keep moving the goal posts on its ambitions in Europe’s east. It will continue to do so — unless preventive actions to support Ukraine and deter Russia go into effect now. The West is far wealthier and far stronger and has far more staying power than Russia. But only through steadfast resolve, even under escalation, can we convince Putin that the costs to him personally, and to Russia, are unbearable. And only then can Ukraine have any chance at re-establishing a sustainable peace.


Kurt Volker served as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations from July 2017 to September 2019. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2008 to 2009.