Ambassador John Herbst on Ukraine Crisis

Atlantic Council’s New Eurasia Center Director is Former Envoy to Kyiv

John Herbst, the newly appointed director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, served as the US ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006. Here, he offers an overview of the crisis in Ukraine.

What sparked the crisis in Ukraine?
The Ukraine crisis began as an internal affair, when then-President Yanukovych walked away from a trade agreement with the European Union in November of last year. Mr. Yanukovych stated that he took the decision because of Russian pressure, but that was simply an excuse to hide his real reason. The EU was insisting that Mr. Yanukovych release from jail his chief political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, as part of the trade deal. Yanukovych refused to do that because he believed that she could beat him in the 2015 presidential elections.

In response to Mr. Yanukovych’s decision to nix the trade deal, tens of thousands of people protested in the streets of Kyiv. When Mr. Yanukovych’s government used force to clear the streets, hundreds of thousands of protesters appeared in the streets to protest the authoritarian and corrupt rule of the Yanukovych government. They remained in the streets for months thereafter despite the government’s use of force, including live fire and snipers, until Mr. Yanukovych fled the country.

What led to the fall of the Yanukovych government?
Several factors. First, since independence, Ukraine has had a growing civil society that has nudged the country toward democratic practices. Since the election of Viktor Yushchenko as president during the Orange Revolution, Ukraine was a functioning, but highly imperfect democracy. After winning the presidential elections in 2010, Mr. Yanukovych directed Ukraine in an increasingly authoritarian direction. This was creating unrest.

Second, Mr. Yanukovych’s rule was highly corrupt and the corruption benefited an increasingly small circle around him. Many influential players in President Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions were becoming unhappy with the president. In other words, his base of support was weakening.

Third, when protest against the trade agreement decision started, he used force. His police and secret police were not reliable instruments of repression against peaceful demonstrators. The use of force undermined President Yanukovych’s legitimacy and the use of snipers destroyed it.

Fourth, the use of snipers and the scores of dead prompted the EU to follow the US lead and issue visa and financial sanctions against Mr. Yanukovych’s key supporters. At this point his support collapsed as few in the Party of the Regions were willing to sacrifice their well-being for a president who seemed to put his own narrow interests above all others.

Why and how did this crisis become an international one?
The Kremlin turned a Ukrainian internal crisis into an international one. With its sudden economic boycott of Ukrainian goods in the fall, the Kremlin signaled that it would not accept a Ukraine that looked westward for political and economic inspiration. To ensure that Ukraine looked toward Russia and the Eurasian Union for future trade links, Mr. Putin offered concessions such as lower gas prices to help President Yanukovych solve his political problems once the protests widened in December.

When this failed, Moscow began a massive disinformation campaign to tar the protesters as extremists and counseled the Yanukovych government to use force against them. When that failed and Mr. Yanukovych fled Ukraine, the Kremlin refused to recognize the government that emerged in Kyiv. Within weeks, the Kremlin seized Crimea by military force, conducted a sham election and “annexed” Crimea in violation of numerous agreements and international law.

The crisis has intensified since the “annexation” of Crimea. Russian troops are exercising along Ukraine’s eastern borders. Well-armed, Russian-inspired provocateurs have seized government buildings in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk and even taken hostages in their bid to provoke disorder that might prompt the Kremlin to send in troops. At the same time, Russia’s state-run gas supplier, Gazprom, has jacked up gas prices — in violation of recent agreements — in the bid to destabilize Ukraine. The Kremlin’s aim is either to intimidate the post-Yanukovych leadership of Ukraine to pursue pro-Russian policies or to justify seizing additional territory in the country’s east and south.

In taking Crimea, Mr. Putin laid down the principle that Russia has the right to protect ethnic Russians and even Russian speakers abroad. This principle threatens the many countries with large Russian populations (Kazakhstan, Estonia and Latvia among others). In short, Moscow’s aggression threatens the whole post-Cold War order and sets precedents that could be dangerous for managing territorial or ethnic disputes around the world.

Has the US and European response to this crisis been up to the challenge?
Both the US and the EU did a commendable job managing this crisis as long as it remained a largely domestic, Ukrainian affair. In the second half of January Washington was first to levy visa and financial sanctions against senior Ukrainian officials for their complicity in promoting violence against demonstrators. EU sanctions followed about a month later after the use of snipers by the Yanukovych government led to many deaths. Both the US and the EU tried to facilitate dialogue and negotiations between the government and the opposition to yield a peaceful resolution. As already mentioned, the EU sanctions played a key role in the collapse of Mr. Yanukovych’s support.

The reaction of the US and the EU to Russian aggression has been enough to discomfort Mr. Putin, but it is not clear if it will dissuade him from further aggression. Here too, the US was quicker to respond than the EU and stronger in its approach. The Obama administration announced two rounds of visa and financial sanctions on influential Russians and institutions, first after the seizure of Crimea, then after the “annexation.” The EU also issued two sets of sanctions. But so far it appears that only the US has sanctioned a Russian financial institution — Bank Rossiya. If the EU were to follow this example, it would be even more powerful because it is in Europe that the Russian elite parks most of its money and other assets. President Obama has also announced his authority to sanction entire sectors of the Russian economy — eg, finance or energy. That is a potent threat, but it would be more powerful still if Europe took the same position.

Russian aggression and its principle of “protecting” Russians abroad also requires a military response. While NATO has increased air patrols in the Baltic region and sent a few fighters to Poland, much more is needed. NATO needs to review its defense posture in Eastern Europe in light of latest developments. It should consult with its eastern members and consider stationing additional air assets, anti-air and anti-tank capabilities, and perhaps combat brigades in the east. The point is both to protect alliance members and to show the Russian General Staff that the aggression in Crimea has brought new strategic problems. The United States should provide Ukraine with anti-air and anti-tank equipment, along with trainers. It should share intelligence on Russian military movements and intentions.  This can be done in a way that protects American intelligence assets.

In addition, the US should help Ukraine control its border with Russia to keep out Russian agents who want to stir up unrest.  This help would be in the form of border control equipment meant to keep out weapons, training for border officials and intelligence support.

What are the major challenges facing Ukraine now?
There are four.

The Ukrainian economy is in deep debt and requires major international assistance to avoid default. The IMF is working on a package with Ukraine that requires systemic reform on difficult issues such as corruption and energy subsidies. Interim Prime Minister Yatsenyuk understands what has to be done and has promised to do it; but these changes will be politically difficult. Will he be able to start this process and will politicians competing for the presidency in May elections be willing to support painful reform? Moreover, Moscow will use economic boycotts and gas price hikes to undermine Ukraine’s economy. Can the Ukrainians absorb these blows? Will the West act forcefully to persuade the Kremlin to stop the economic sabotage?

The presidential elections are the second challenge. Will the Ukrainians be able to organize fair and orderly elections and will politicians in the east participate? Chances are not bad that the country’s political class will pull this off. The decision by Vitaliy Klitschko, the opposition leader and former boxing champion, to bow out of the race in favor of oligarch and former central bank chairman Petro Poroshenko was an act of political altruism (and perhaps prudence). Serhiy Tyhypko, a major oligarch and politician from the east, also is running. The alacrity with which eastern oligarchs Serhiy Taruta and Ihor Kolomoisky took up the governorships in Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk provinces demonstrate that the monied interests in the east want the government to prosper. Still, Yulia Tymoshenko is a risk taker and not always principled in the pursuit of power. Will she risk the well being of the country in an effort to come from behind in the polls?

Russian subversion is the highest-profile challenge right now, starting with well-armed gangs of several hundred creating a ruckus in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv. In each city, these hooligans seized buildings; in Luhansk they seized and then released hostages. In Kharkiv, Ukrainian authorities have taken back control of occupied property. In the other two cities, the authorities have surrounded the buildings and demanded the surrender of the gangs.

Following some days of delay, the Ukrainian authorities started to move more decisively to control the situation; but in response, the Kremlin seems to be upping the ante.  Twenty well armed and trained soldiers — in unmarked uniforms looking just like those worn by “Russian looking” soldiers in Crimea — spearheaded the assault there on Ukrainian government buildings.  In the Kremlin’s dream scenario, these relatively small forces — followed by unruly, but armed crowds of a few hundred — may prove too much for the Ukrainian authorities to handle. 

Here is another area where the U.S. and NATO can help.  Moscow’s subversion campaign is now taking a paramilitary cast.  Thanks to our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, both the U.S. and our European allies have a great deal of experience with counter-insurgency.  Here too we can provide advisers, training and equipment to address this problem.     

It’s important to note that the tactics are not helping the Kremlin win the battle for public opinion in Ukraine’s east. A poll taken April 9 in Donetsk showed that 65.7% of the population want to live in a unified Ukraine and 18.2% would like to join Russia. (And the numbers in favor of Ukraine are higher among the young.) No wonder the pro-Russian mobs number only in the hundreds.

The last challenge is the one that gets most of the ink: Will Mr. Putin dispatch the Russian army to seize Ukraine’s east and south? He would prefer not to, because his own elite cares a great deal about their perks in the West. So he would rather use economic pressure and subversion to bend Kyiv to his will. But if that fails, another invasion cannot be ruled out. Indeed, if Ukraine takes strong steps against these “Russian looking” forces, the Kremlin might cite any casualties as “justification” for intervention.  With that in mind, it is important for Europe to join the U.S. in explicitly condemning Russian subversion in Ukraine and note that the steps Kyiv takes against the subversion are defensive in nature.

Mr. Putin will watch both Ukraine and the West carefully before making any decisions on sending in the Russian army.  Washington and Brussels have the means to dissuade Mr. Putin. If he knows that an invasion brings crushing sanctions, or if he knows that Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft equipment are part of Ukraine’s military arsenal, the price of an invasion rises drastically.

Related Experts: John E. Herbst

Image: Armed men stand in front of police headquarters in Slaviansk, April 12, 2014. Pro-Russian militants have seized a second building in the eastern city of Slaviansk, which houses the local headquarters of the state security service, police said on Saturday. At least 20 armed militants took over the city's police headquarters earlier. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich