The crisis in Ukraine presents one of the gravest threats to global order in the past quarter century. Military action by Russia against Ukraine is a breach of international law and a violation of the terms of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. It pits Moscow directly against Western powers at a time of deep instability in other parts of the world, including Europe’s southern neighbourhood and at the borders of several post-Soviet states. The crisis poses serious challenges for bulwarks of regional and wider international peacemaking and cooperative security, including the EU, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the UN. That it involves nations whose collective military spending amounts to nearly two-thirds of the global total and which have enormous nuclear-weapons capability means that it should be of grave concern across the world.
Russian grievances accumulated over 25 years should be acknowledged. But Western powers in Europe and the U.S. and other members of the broader international community cannot ignore that the strategic order of Europe is being dangerously undermined and with it the stability of the continent. They must base their response on humanitarian values and on a realistic assessment of the balance of power and the correlation of forces in Ukraine and the wider theatre. The possibility of a cooperative relationship between Europe, the U.S. and Russia should be preserved, but the first imperative must be to slow the pace of the crisis and halt the fighting in eastern Ukraine – not least in the interests of the conflict’s mounting number of victims – even if that includes an initial risk of extensive, possibly undefined, de facto local autonomy. Over time, Ukrainians should enjoy a democratic, peaceful and stable state, whose security and territorial integrity is guaranteed and whose future orientation they can decide freely.
While disagreement between Russia and the West has punctuated the post-Cold War period, the confrontation over the past year is on a new and more dangerous scale. Russia’s tactics in Ukraine – both the annexation of Crimea and military backing of forces in eastern Ukraine that it denies but does little to conceal – signal a departure from its traditional diplomacy, which has tended to anchor policy in international law. If an emboldened Moscow continues to employ these tactics in Ukraine or resorts to them elsewhere in its near abroad, there would be a high risk of conflict escalation – and its certainty in the case of aggression toward a NATO member.
To recognise Russia’s grievances is not to condone its actions. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has felt excluded from the European collective security system; NATO’s expansion east over the past two and half decades looked very different when viewed from Moscow than from Washington or Warsaw. Bodies like the NATO-Russia Council did little to change the opposing perceptions, while the European organisation in which Russia participated as an equal – the OSCE – has not lived up to its potential. Many Russians also point to military action in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya as evidence of Western double standards – an argument that resonates widely outside Europe and the U.S. and makes many world leaders reluctant to weigh in forcefully on either side. But aggression in Ukraine still is a serious challenge to the rule-based order underpinned by the UN Charter and the founding documents of the OSCE, including the Helsinki Final Act.
Over the long term, Russia’s position is both unsustainable and deleterious to its people. Russia claims a partnership with China, but Beijing shares few core interests with it and is the stronger and rising power. Its economy has not diversified and remains highly dependent on exports of energy and raw materials. Its state businesses rely on and are indebted to European and U.S. banks, and it needs Western technology in spheres as varied as the exploitation of oil fields in the far north and the provision of adequate health care to its citizens. Open societies and markets, notwithstanding current divisions and economic uncertainty, give Europe and the U.S. a significant edge. Their leaders should seek to play a long game, conscious that Russia is an integral part of the European economy, community and culture, and that much deeper cooperation in the future would be to the collective benefit. In the long run, a rules-based order would be in Russia’s interest, as well as that of its neighbours and partners.
For the short term, though, Russia holds a strong hand. Its capacity to absorb suffering, both economic and in terms of casualties, may be unclear, but its readiness to escalate militarily in Ukraine – where multiple Russian interests are engaged -- to a level beyond that to which any prudent Western government should go is not. Its influence in the administration, economy and security sector – whose systemic weaknesses, notwithstanding the reform measures under way, are detailed in Crisis Group’s accompanying briefing and prior reports – provides the means to destabilise the country. At the same time Russia’s own structural weaknesses, combined with resurgent nationalism, make Moscow unpredictable. Any Western political strategy unmoored from these realities would be not only ineffective but also dangerous.
The challenge, therefore, is to chart a strategy that defends a rules-based order, prevents further damage to European security and carries good prospects of a satisfactory ultimate solution, while at the same time avoiding an escalation that could spark a major war.
Ideally, and on an urgent basis, Russia should shift its conflict with Ukraine from one rooted in the logic of military power to the political terrain. This should include fully implementing the Minsk II agreements and in particular:
demilitarising the eastern enclaves of Ukraine, including by ceasing its provision of military assistance, and agreeing to the monitoring of all cross-border traffic;
accepting deployment of OSCE monitors in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) areas in the Donbass region, along with representatives of recognised international authorities like the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in order to offer reassurance and protection to the local population and to facilitate dialogue on the holding of local elections; and
entering into political dialogue with the authorities in Kyiv.
In the absence of such steps on Russia’s part, Western powers should consider a ten-point strategy:
1 . High-level diplomacy
There is an urgent need for quiet, high-level, continuous and consistent engagement with President Putin himself – beyond what has been attempted to date: quiet, because public posturing, when a priority goal of the Kremlin is to challenge the dominant Western narrative with a Russian counter-narrative, risks hardening positions; high-level, because decision-making in Moscow is concentrated in the presidency and requires a direct channel; continuous, because Russia’s tactics have been to use diplomatic action to stall Western action and move fast; consistent, because a division among Europeans and between Europeans and Americans could lead to dangerous miscalculation.
At present, the closest to that is the “Normandy format”, which brings together President Hollande, Chancellor Merkel, President Poroshenko and President Putin. It has political weight but cannot engage continuously and lacks a U.S. dimension.
Engaging one-on-one with President Putin himself probably requires either President Obama or Chancellor Merkel, or at least another European head of state or government. But to complement this direct engagement, one option would be for an action group of the Security Council P3 (France, the UK and U.S.), Germany and the EU, working closely with Ukraine and NATO, to appoint an envoy, at the level of former head of state or foreign minister. This envoy could travel immediately to Moscow to engage the Kremlin; pursue a robust but continuous dialogue with a designated senior representative who enjoys President Putin’s trust; be supported by top diplomats from the action group; and prepare the ground for meetings at head-of-state/government level, while encouraging President Poroshenko to reach out to eastern Ukraine to address the internal dynamics of the crisis. The envoy would be explicitly empowered to be the sole interlocutor with Moscow on the crisis, outside head-of-state/government meetings.
2 . An agenda for talks
The agenda for talks with Russia should include: the implementation and monitoring of the Minsk agreements (ceasefire and control of borders in particular); the status of eastern Ukraine; the status of Crimea; the geostrategic non-alignment of Ukraine; and joint support to Ukrainian reform, including the re-building of war-affected regions and the return of refugees.
On the monitoring, one option would be to strengthen the OSCE mission with more monitors, improved movement and access and sophisticated technology such as drones. Alternatively, the Security Council could deploy a UN monitoring mission.
On the status of eastern Ukraine, priorities should be the organisation of local security, constitutional reform, local elections and a mutually acceptable model of decentralisation.
On the status of Crimea, for the moment talks would probably not go beyond an agreement to disagree, and possibly practical measures to maintain contacts between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine. In a best-case scenario, an agreement with Russia allowing for some cooperation on Crimea might be considered.
On Ukraine’s geostrategic position, NATO could state explicitly that Ukraine would not become a member; meanwhile, the prospect of joining the EU remains the most powerful incentive for Ukraine to conduct necessary internal reforms and should remain open, though under any circumstances a lengthy period would be needed for Ukraine to carry out the reforms needed to qualify for membership.
On aspects of reform, a long-term plan for the support of Ukraine, as well as help for border regions of Russia, could be discussed with the participation of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
3 . Encourage direct contacts
Direct, informal and if necessary discreet contacts between Kyiv and the leadership in eastern Ukraine should be encouraged. These contacts can help build the trust that will be necessary to discuss mutually acceptable arrangements for the future. They should be flexible enough in format to allow for interaction with the variety of political and social forces currently labelled as “separatists” and should seek ways to address the many serious humanitarian problems in the region.
4 . Strong economic support to Ukraine
Ukraine’s future is as likely to be determined by its administrative and financial ability to withstand this crisis as by its military capacity to resist. Considerably higher levels of financial support should be provided, along with political backing for urgent governance reform, particularly anti-corruption measures. Although some positive steps have been taken, strong engagement with Ukrainian authorities will continue to be needed to weaken the grip of oligarchs on the country and ensure the speedy implementation of reforms. Economic support should involve the combined efforts of the World Bank, IMF, EBRD, EU (including the European Commission’s Support Group for Ukraine) and the U.S.; in time Russia should be invited to join as well. Innovative funding mechanisms, such as exploring the largely unused borrowing capacity of the EU, pursuing long-term funding from the World Bank and EBRD and restructuring Ukraine’s sovereign debt have been suggested. If not pursued, alternative measures should be implemented. The Donbass should not be cut off from either government funding or aid.
5 . Bolster European energy independence
Plans to strengthen European energy independence, through adaptation of pipeline infrastructure and development of liquefied natural gas terminals, as well as a European energy policy that pools risks and reserves, should be accelerated. The U.S. should consider a commitment to use its strategic oil reserves in the event that Russia takes further action to cut energy exports to Europe. At the same time, Europeans should quietly convey to Russia their willingness to develop, subject to normal EU rules, trade and investments in energy if it changes its present course.
6 . Prudent use of military aid to back a political process
In principle, military aid to Ukraine cannot be formally excluded: it is inconsistent to deny a country that has renounced nuclear weapons the right to conventional defence against intervention. But prudence is called for. It is not probable that military aid would shift the balance of force meaningfully, except in limited tactical situations, given the weakness of the Ukrainian army and the resources upon which Russia can draw. Consequently, while Western military aid would increase the cost of military action for Russia, it would be unlikely to be decisive. Moreover, given Russia’s strategic interest in Ukraine, it might eventually lead to mutual escalation with high risks for all concerned. It should therefore be conceived primarily as a forceful prop to diplomacy.
7 . Consider additional “smart” sanctions
As EU leaders have recently affirmed, existing economic sanctions should be maintained until implementation of the Minsk agreements has been completed, which is foreseen for December 2015. At the same time, further economic sanctions and sanctions targeting individuals and public and private entities should be considered in the event of the agreements’ serious violation. Every sanction should be easily reversible, with clear benchmarks for its lifting. Sanctions that punish the Russian people would likely reinforce nationalist sentiment and be counter-productive. If additional more severe, even radical measures have to be considered, the risks that such regimes entail should not be ignored: the most serious possible economic and financial sanctions could dangerously weaken the structures of the Russian state and lead to the implosion of the Russian economy, with unpredictable consequences (including for the European banking system). Russia, unlike less powerful states under comprehensive sanctions regimes, has the means to retaliate in a calibrated and dangerous way.
8 . Support for NATO front line and other vulnerable states
Measures to reassure NATO front line states by strengthening their defences, as decided at the last NATO summit, should be accelerated. All should be publicised but calibrated to minimise the risk of miscalculation. NATO-Russia discussions should take place on ways to minimise risk of incidents. All NATO countries should take immediate steps to better meet their pledges on defence spending and commit to a timeline for doing so. Strong support for the territorial integrity and independence of other states bordering or close to Russia – particularly Moldova and those in the Caucasus and Central Asia – should also be expressed, while acknowledging the need of those states for good neighbourly relations with Russia. Some of those states should be reminded that, beyond external aid, the most powerful guarantee of their long-term security would be genuine political and, where necessary, economic reform in order to increase their internal strength and stability.
9 . A framework for cooperation
Once Russia has taken steps to end its military involvement in Ukraine, renewed efforts should be made – through the OSCE, where relevant, or directly by the EU and the U.S. – to develop a framework of cooperation and deepen trade links with Russia. The framework should take existing realities as a starting point and include in particular European security, in the first instance reviving talks on conventional forces in Europe, but also counter-terrorism and international cybercrime policies. Western powers should also seek to re-engage with Russia in the context of the World Trade Organization – through the resolution of outstanding trade disputes – and Group of Eight. The framework should further encompass economic development and partnership, including free economic zones in border areas to boost the Russian economy’s diversification.
10 . Involving other powers
Western leaders should also engage more actively with other world powers, all of whom are impacted by deteriorating Russia-West relations. China in particular appears to have made the strategic calculation that the less it is involved the better. But China and other powers could play a critical role in supporting cooperative security and helping Russia and Western countries de-escalate the crisis. Their lack of engagement serves global peace and security poorly.