Can Diplomacy Save Ukraine?

Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Vladimir Putin, and President Francois Hollande, Feb. 21, 2015Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March 2014, NATO has been wrestling with its new relationship with a belligerent Moscow. Russia is no longer acting like the “strategic partner” NATO labelled it in its Strategic Concept. But key NATO members are reluctant to adapt to Russia’s decision to treat NATO as its No.1 threat rather than its partner.

The most common strategy that has resonated among NATO policy-makers is increased dialogue and communication with the Russians. However, NATO’s post-Crimea dialogue with Russia, which has been described as appeasement, has failed to bring about meaningful change to the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine. Reminiscent of the 1938 Munich Pact, the Minsk agreements have promised peace, but have not stopped Russian aggression against Ukraine. The commander of the US Army in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, recently pointed to “clear and irrefutable evidence” that Russia is still “actively and massively fueling this conflict” despite Minsk II. Not once, but twice the Minsk agreements have been unable to bring peace to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s violations of the Minsk agreements are just the most recent examples of a pattern of reckless disregard for international agreements and stability.

One of the most flagrant examples of Putin’s blatant disrespect for dialogue is his violation of regional and bilateral agreements directly pertinent to Ukraine. These agreements include the Budapest Memorandums on Security Assurances of 1994, the Russia-Ukraine Friendship Treaty of 1997, and the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Putin has broken almost all provisions of these agreements on the grounds of failing to respect territorial integrity and refraining from the threat or use of force against Ukraine. In parallel crises in Moldova and Georgia, Russia has also failed to uphold its promises. In Transnistria, one of the longest ongoing frozen conflicts, Russia committed itself to withdrawing all forces by 2002 at the 1999 OSCE Summit Declaration of Istanbul. Yet Russia still has at least 1,500 troops and numerous ammunition depots in Transnistria. Similarly, Putin has refused to pull Russian troops out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (two locations which he admits contain Russian troops) contrary to the 2008 Russian-Georgian ceasefire. Moscow has already demonstrated itself to be untrustworthy when it comes to following through on agreements made to nations militarily weaker than Russia.

Beyond violating explicit agreements regarding relations with Ukraine, Putin has repeatedly dishonored fundamental international agreements, such as the UN Charter, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and the Helsinki Accords. The West’s lack of astonishment and condemnation to Russia’s violations undermines the credibility of the most essential international agreements. The precedent this sets is undeniably dangerous.

Despite these glaring examples of Putin’s disregard for diplomacy, it is absolutely necessary that the West continues to engage Russia diplomatically at some level, or else risk far greater consequences. However, this continual effort on its own is not enough. Fortunately, this is not the first time the Alliance has had to develop a multi-dimensional response to an aggressive Russia, while balancing internal differences on external threat perception. In 1967, Belgian Foreign Minister Pierre Harmel introduced to the world a historic report that addressed this exact challenge. The Harmel Report set out a two-track strategy that included, “a robust military defense of Alliance territory coupled with diplomatic efforts to resolve underlying political issues.” This influential two-track policy helped shape NATO’s strategy during the Cold War, thereby heavily contributing to its ultimate victory. Today, NATO leaders have forsaken this fundamental strategy, and instead, have attempted to take a shortcut by only pursuing the dialogue track. Dialogue on its own will not be successful in resolving the Ukraine crisis, just as military activity on its own would likewise be insufficient.

The fear of antagonizing Putin by augmenting NATO defenses has limited the Alliance’s responses to Russia to political condemnations, a tepid Readiness Action Plan (RAP), and relatively small NATO exercises. Even NATO’s most recent highly publicized military exercise, Allied Shield, pales in comparison to much larger Russian exercises of up to 160,000 troops. The Transatlantic community’s lethargic efforts to ensure a strong military deterrent is evident as only 5 allies in the 28 member Alliance currently meet the 2014 NATO Wales Summit pledge to spend a minimum of 2% of GDP on defense. This complacency has rendered their diplomatic efforts useless in impacting Putin’s decision making. Furthermore, Putin has taken advantage of this lack of commitment to advance his agenda for Russia, at the expense of Ukraine and international stability.

If the goal of dialogue was to bring peace to Ukraine and change Russia’s behavior, then dialogue has failed, and will continue to fail as long as the current conditions persist. Returning to the same strategy that has continuously failed and expecting a different result is by definition, insanity. To date, negotiations have only given way to the Russian annexation of Crimea and unabated war in eastern Ukraine. Ensuring a strong defense should not prevent dialogue with Russia but should rather encourage and advance it. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pointed out, “there is no contradiction between strong defense and dialogue, actually we need strong defense, collective defense to have the foundation for engaging Russia in a political dialogue.”

Confronted with a Russian regime that, according to Supreme Allied Commander, General Philip Breedlove, “recognizes strength and sees weakness as an opportunity,” NATO leaders must balance their dialogue with Russia, with tangible progress in restoring the Alliance’s military capabilities. This revived dual track approach is the best hope for lasting peace in Ukraine.

Lucas Della Ventura studies international relations at Seton Hall and worked in the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative.

Image: Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Vladimir Putin, and President Francois Hollande, Feb. 21, 2015 (photo: German government)