Ukraine’s Future Hanging in the Balance

Q1: What was the outcome of the Hollande/Merkel peace mission to Moscow?

A1: After five hours of negotiations late into Friday night, no agreement was reached. None of the leaders said much about the content of the negotiations, but it appears that Ukrainian, Russian, French, and German leaders are to meet again this Wednesday in Minsk, site of the ceasefire agreement of September 5th. Reports suggest that one of the key sticking points in the negotiations is the Ukrainian demand that the line of demarcation agreed upon in September remain, while the Russian-supported insurgents want that line moved to include hundreds of square kilometers that the insurgents have seized over the past five months.

Q2: What does the history of the past year of various negotiations over Ukraine tell us?

A2: This history explains why there is virtually no trust on any side about their negotiating partners willingness and/or capacity to fulfill their obligations. For the Russians, the major trust-busting event was the collapse of the February 21 agreement last year signed by Ukrainian, French, German, and Polish representatives which called for then-Ukrainian President Yanukovych to remain in power for another 10 months before early elections. The Russians view the breakdown of this agreement as an illegal coup d’etat supported, if not organized by the United States and its allies. The Russians also accuse the Ukrainians of violating the terms of the Minsk ceasefire, including by not ceding the Donetsk airport to the separatists.

For the Ukrainian government and its Western supporters, the Russian violations of international law started with the military occupation of Crimea in February 2014 and continued with the annexation of Crimea on March 18 and later in the spring Russian support for an insurgency in the Donbas that continues to this day. Russian political leaders, including President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov have consistently lied about supporting the insurgents with Russian military equipment and personnel for months. It was quite extraordinary to see over the weekend how Lavrov was openly laughed at and derided by international dignitaries at the Munich Security Conference.

Q3: What are the pros and cons about supplying lethal defensive military equipment to Ukraine now?

A3: Those who support beginning to provide lethal weaponry to Ukraine, and I must acknowledge I am have been in that camp since February 28th of last year, believe that in combination with the economic sanctions, greater losses for Russian insurgent forces of men and materiel can alter Putin’s calculations of risk and reward and push him towards negotiated resolution of the conflict. Opponents of providing such assistance argue that this will only lead to military escalation of the conflict, and that the Russians have such a superior position that they will always hold escalation dominance. Opponents of providing assistance also rightly argue that provision of weapons risks a broader military conflict in Europe and will give further credence to Putin’s narrative about the entire conflict being driven by U.S. interests rather than those of “real” Ukrainians or Europeans.

The issue of Russian escalation dominance is debatable. It can be argued that Russia faces more of an escalation dilemma. If Moscow decided to increase and more overtly support insurgents in the Donbas, that would solidify Europe not only maintaining but deepening economic sanctions. In this fashion, ironically, provision of lethal military support to Ukraine could result in strengthened Western resolve and unity, something Putin clearly seeks to break down. Certainly in the past week the increased threat of a U.S. decision to provide weapons is useful leverage for European negotiators with Putin.

The capacity of Russians to maintain escalation dominance is a tough question as there is not broad agreement about current losses of Russian soldiers and equipment. My personal view is that Russian losses are higher than widely reported as Moscow has every incentive to hide and obscure this issue from the rest of the world, and even more so their own people, as opinion polling consistently shows that most Russians do not support their soldiers fighting a war in Ukraine.

Q4: Are we likely to see an agreement reached later this week?

A4: Personally I am skeptical that an agreement will be reached, and if one is, that it will hold. Since no agreement has held in now nearly a year, I am not exactly going out on a limb with that prediction. Fundamentally, I do not see the domestic politics in Ukraine or Russia, but especially Russia, ready for a compromise. Putin is so driven by domestic political considerations in this conflict—I have never seen foreign and security interests so closely intertwined with domestic politics in Russia as today, even during the late Cold War period—that for now instability and conflict in Ukraine is a winning hand for him. For now the economic impact of the sanctions, while real, has not had enough time to make the costs of his policy significant enough. As this year goes on, however, that grim reality and the hard policy choices it causes will become much more evident. Perhaps combined with increased social tensions resulting from growing losses of Russian military personnel do shift his calculation, but none of us can know whether and when this would happen; later in 2015 or even into 2016.

Maintaining transatlantic resolve and unity is a core task now, and that is why the meeting between Chancellor Merkel and President Obama later today is so important. Europeans are understandably more cautious on the question of lethal military assistance to Ukraine, although there is a split on this question within Europe also, because a broader conflict in Ukraine and possibly beyond directly affects them. While Merkel and Hollande have opposed providing lethal military assistance, the Polish government has indicated it is ready to do so. The Europeans are also rightfully much more concerned about a further Russian economic meltdown, partially because of lost jobs from lost trade, but we should also not underestimate their concerns about major banks in Europe being badly damaged because of risk exposure to Europe. Unfortunately, the Ukraine crisis and its fallout will be with us for a long time to come.

Andrew Kuchins is the director of the Russia & Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Andrew C. Kuchins