Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declared annexation of Crimea today changes the power struggle in Eastern Europe. The United States and its allies, which have been warning against that step, immediately must focus on the wider dangers of Putin’s likely next move. Putin aims to reclaim greater Russian influence – and if possible, control – over the russified former edges of the Russian and Soviet empires. In Ukraine, he seeks, as a minimum, a federalized state that loosens Kyiv’s hold on heavily ethnic-Russian eastern Ukraine enough to let Moscow dominate it, economically and in security terms. (Putin has spoken that ambition in plain Russian, referring to Ukraine as “Little Russia,” and telling President George W. Bush in 2008 that, as recounted by Kommersant, “You don’t understand, George, Ukraine is not even a state!”)
While Putin would rather achieve his goal without militarily invading eastern Ukraine, he has shown that he might – so the West must work to deter that move. And it must discourage Russia’s use of Crimea as a precedent to formally annex the 20 percent of Georgia and the 12 percent of Moldova that its forces occupy. Russia’s renewed drive for its old borderlands is regional, so countering it will require strengthening democracies and states from the Transcaucasus to Poland. But to focus for now on the center of the fight, here are a few steps the West should take – and avoid – in Ukraine.
Strengthen Kyiv’s government for its fight ahead. But carefully.
Supporters of Ukraine suggest broad help from the West, including a critical package of credits from the IMF; technical help to reduce government corruption, revive the economy, and recover billions of dollars stolen from the state under former President Viktor Yanukovych; and help for Ukraine to sustain legally its sovereignty claims in Crimea. All good.
Suggestions have included moving NATO military forces into the Black Sea or close to Ukraine’s borders, providing weapons to Ukraine and pursuing NATO military exercises with Ukrainian troops. But high-profile military moves would neatly strengthen the narrative of Western subversion of Ukraine that Putin depends on at home and in the former Soviet space to justify his aggression. Eventually, Putin may force Ukraine into a war over its existence as a state, in which case the West will be compelled to back the Ukrainians with military action. But NATO should not inadvertently help to ignite that war with military steps now that might help trigger Putin’s next, rash decision.
Extend and expand the temporary presence of OSCE observers.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) right now has 40 unarmed international observers in south and east Ukraine to monitor what it diplomatically calls the “unusual military activities” associated with Russia’s Crimea invasion. These visitors were the ones repulsed by Russian troops or militiamen from entering Crimea last week, and their monitoring role has been extended until Thursday, March 20. A strong, permanent presence of OSCE monitors should be maintained in Ukrainian oblasts such as Kharkiv, Donetsk and Kherson. There, Russians, including state intelligence personnel and Russian nationalist activists (known technically as “thugs”) have provoked often violent protests and attacks on those who support the new Ukrainian government in Kyiv. Russia is trying in the east to build an impression of an ethnic Ukrainian-Russian conflict and of Russians under threat – a campaign that would be complicated by the presence of independent monitors.
Help Ukraine deploy the best of the Maidan.
While international monitoring is essential, the Ukrainians themselves are the most critical first responders to Putin’s efforts. The months of demonstrations against corruption and authoritarianism at Kyiv’s Maidan have been a mix of impulses – tolerant and democratic, nationalist, and even outright vigilantist. Putin has relied on the presence in the Maidan movement of an extreme and nationalist fringe to construct his propaganda narrative. As the Atlantic Council’s Adrian Karatnycky has noted, it is the moderate, pragmatic and tolerant urge that now is energizing Ukrainians. And the Maidan is searching for a role. International NGOs should seek ways to help the Maidan and Ukraine’s government direct this civic energy into countering Moscow’s campaign to divide Ukrainians – and eventually into drawing the blueprints for a Ukrainian nationhood in which ethnic communities thrive together.
Make an offer to Putin and Russia.
Let’s set aside for a moment the (only partly relevant) debate over the sources of Putin’s behavior – his search for political victories to strengthen his own rule, his worldview as a former KGB officer, his conviction that the West has humiliated Russia since the Soviet collapse. Putin has made clear in speech and action that he wants (as Russian rulers have demanded and created for centuries) a buffer zone between his country and those he sees as potential invaders. Should we ignore this – or, as both Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski have counseled, should we consider how much of that security blanket we can offer to help calm a Russia that will not be losing its strength, insecurities (and hence belligerence) any time soon? This call by Republican and Democratic national security elders, for a Ukrainian role similar to Finland’s during the Cold War, is realistic. It also accords with Ukrainians’ views, in polls since independence in 2002 that consistently have found majorities opposed to NATO membership. Gallup polls since 2008 found between 14 percent and 17 percent of Ukrainians inclined to view NATO as potential protector, and 29 percent to 43 percent describing it as a potential threat. Would a clear, public renunciation of any planned NATO membership for Ukraine necessarily compromise the West’s commitment to that country’s right to a democratic future? That renunciation, if included among policies to strengthen Kyiv’s government and to increase the costs to Russia of further aggression, instead could help win for Ukraine a more stable, democratic and free future.
James Rupert is managing editor at the Atlantic Council.