Double Take: Ukraine

Blog post by: Michael Chacon

Russia is currently in an economic tumble. The country’s stock market declined by 30% in the first 15 days of December 2014 as investors continued to drop their Russian assets like a bad habit. It’s annual inflation rate in November 2014 was at 9.1%. The ruble fell by 17.5% against the dollar in the first two weeks of 2015. Buckwheat prices have increased by 70%. Today, the country’s credit-worthiness is decimated. Lastly, because of the halving of the price of oil Russia’s major export, 20% of the country’s planned revenue will be lost according to Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov. The budget was originally planned at $100 a barrel of oil – that’s $45 billion off Russia’s hands.

So, Western sanctions and plummeting oil prices have created a Russian economic crisis. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to tell which one has played the larger role, though most opinions tilt towards the latter.

In addition, though the United States sacrifices next to nothing by sanctioning Russia, with exports falling only from $11 billion to $10 billion and imports from $27 billion to $23 billion in 2014, European states are more dependent on Putin’s goods. Germany, for example, is Russia’s largest European investor. Russia is Germany’s 11th greatest trade partner, and bilateral trade between the two totaled $104 billion in 2013; the EU’s most powerful economy is hence slightly more reluctant to throw away years of successful relations.

To make the matter worse, the United States cannot hope that economic penalties will halt Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. The tactic’s futility is well documented and studied – sanctions have historically achieved the actors’ desired effect on merely 5% of occasions.

We must understand that Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine is the materialization of its security concerns resulting from the new unilateral order that saw the United States as the only remaining superpower by the end of the Cold War. After remaining intact and present in Germany in 1989, NATO, an alliance unquestionably dominated by the United States, integrated the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1989. It subsequently did the same with Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovenia in 2004, not long after flexing its muscles in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008, the Bush administration supported adding Georgia and Ukraine to the ranks of NATO but was opposed by both France and Germany. Even though the alliance did not integrate them, it refused to rule out the idea and strongly suggested it as a future possibility.

The European Union’s expansion Eastward has also been a crucial catalyst to Russian resurgence. Implemented in 2009, its “Eastern Partnership Initiative,” intends to facilitate discussions of trade and economic strategy between the EU and post-Soviet states, most of which neighbor the Russian Federation. The Eastern Partnership would effectively lead to the integration of these states into the European economy and to their emancipation from much of the Russian economy.

Finally, Ukraine’s violent change in government in February 2014 left Kiev to new pro-Western Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk – a radical change from pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. Putin invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula almost immediately thereafter and proceeded to pressure Kiev to sway away from the West. He then gave support to separatists in Eastern Ukraine, stationed forces along the border, threatened an attack, and increased the price of natural gas exported to the Ukraine.

Why were we shocked? Russia played the same game in Georgia in 2008 after the small Caucasian state tried to join NATO, destabilizing its government and leaving behind separatists. Putin faces a security dilemma as he sees Russia contained and cornered, and its former spheres of influence taken over by an alliance of its former enemies. Also known as the spiral model, the dilemma outlines misunderstandings between powers incapable of judging the intentions of their neighbors or rivals due to a lack of credible information. The Russian leadership cannot be certain that the West has no aspirations to hegemony or to the use of these newly allied territories as platforms for intervention, and will not lend its borders to that kind of vulnerability. After all, Russia has a history of finding itself on the receiving end of Western European invasions.

Ukraine is hence a crucial strategic territory for Russia’s defense and its assertion of military dominance over Eastern Europe. Economic sanctions are absolutely ineffective because Russia will not give more importance to its economic well-being than to its sovereignty or safety from what it perceives as a very serious threat.

The United States’ current “take it or leave it” diplomacy and use of economic sanctions will not end the crisis quickly. What the current strategy does is provide an inexpensive way to contain Russia and deny it influence over most of Ukraine. American strategic access to the Ukraine remains in any case better than it was before the 2014 revolution. The sanctions do put a burden atop the shoulders of the United States’ European allies and will deteriorate relations with the European Union in the long run, especially as the latter strives to escape a harsh economic recession. Alternatively, if the United States, decides to take more serious action, it must be prepared for a severe Russian response. Weapons for Kiev will not be enough, as Ukraine has greater problems than mere armament when facing a state far wealthier and more populous than itself. Weapons supplying would not allow Ukraine a military victory, but it would motivate further Russian escalations, likely leading to disaster. If the ceasefire – the one looking shaky as of February 16 – fails, the United States will need to assess whether its commitment equals that of Russia, or whether it is happy with the current outcome. It will then choose to send arms to the Ukrainian government, appease the Russian leadership, or continue to play the waiting game. The what-ifs, now, are something for another day.

Blog post by: Rebecca Galanti

In the past few weeks, it seemed as if United States policy officials were coming closer to an agreement to send lethal arms to Ukraine in their escalating conflict with pro-Russian separatists, who have been advancing significantly since mid-January. On February 12, news emerged of a ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and the separatists, brokered by German and French leaders after days of talks in Belarus. Though the ceasefire went into effect on February 15, reports of continuing violence have diminished hopes that any peace will hold.

This news is undesirable, but the United States must not use it as justification to send arms to Ukraine. Though Russian actions are morally reprehensible, outrage is neither a valid nor a smart reason to intervene. Before doing anything that might remotely provoke Russia, the United States must have a clear and credible strategy, something it currently does not have. Arming Ukraine will not generate conditions that will bring Putin to the table, as many former policy makers seem to think. It will only lead to further destruction.

Foremost, foreign policy leaders must consider the motivations that have led Putin to pursue this foreign policy agenda. Though some invoke the memory of Germany pre-World War II in advocating for strong action against Russia, the situations could not be more different. Russia is not a rising power comparable to Nazi Germany, and Putin is not attempting to recreate the Soviet Union. Russia’s influence has declined exponentially since the end of the Cold War, and notions of its power and prestige are outdated. Russia’s financial crisis, along with the European Union and NATO’s increasing economic and political influence over former Soviet territories has left the country feeling weak and threatened.

Given these conditions, we should clearly be able to see that Putin is not acting out of ambition for dominance, but out of fear and uncertainty. He is simply trying to maintain the little influence that his declining country still holds. While this is no excuse for the violence in Ukraine, it does offer insight into how the West should react.

The United States arming the Ukrainians will only serve to reinforce the fears that have driven Russia’s course of action. Putin already feels insecure, so to assume that sending weapons as a mode of deterrence will suddenly relieve his fears is a negligent and foolish strategy. Arming Ukraine will, in Putin’s mind, confirm his perception that the West is out to push Russia further away, and would likely lead to heightened aggression.

US assistance will not be enough to combat such increased belligerence. Russia cares much more about Ukraine than the United States does, and will be willing to escalate far beyond Ukraine’s military capacity, regardless of US backing. As we saw over the summer and last month, Putin will always ramp up defense to ensure that the separatists stay in the game. We cannot predict what his reaction will be once Western-provided weapons are in play, but we can assume that it will be more than Ukraine––even with assistance––can handle. He simply has more at stake.

The balance of power heavily favors Russia in this conflict, so US policy leaders must consider how committed they are to this cause before taking any rash actions. Since Russia will inevitably respond to US involvement with more aggression, the United States will have to choose between backing out or escalating beyond what it originally intended. The first option is humiliating, and the second is dangerous given that the United States has no long-term strategy for intervening in this conflict. Ukraine is of no strategic interest to the United States, therefore we have no business engaging an agitated Putin in a drawn-out proxy war that will ultimately leave Ukraine in shambles.

Aside from the practical arguments, the core of the debate remains simple: sending weapons will create more hostility between Russia and the West. It will further complicate future diplomatic efforts, which are crucial if this crisis is to end. Though the current ceasefire did not hold between the combatants, it does indicate that diplomacy can lead to compromise between the leaders of the conflict. We have just witnessed an instance of Putin being brought to the table and participating in a successful negotiation; if the West threatens him with more violence, there may not be another chance to engage with him diplomatically. Now that we know diplomacy can work, the onus will be on the militants’ leaders to ensure that those under their respective authority hold up their ends of the bargain.



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Rebecca Galanti

Author: Rebecca Galanti

Rebecca is a junior from Atlanta, Georgia, double-majoring in History and International Affairs with an International Politics concentration. Passionate about European politics and transatlantic diplomacy, she is particularly interested in the European Union and the development of its Common Foreign and Security Policy. On campus, Rebecca is an active member of the Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Sorority. She is currently studying abroad in England at the University of Cambridge.