United western front on Ukraine
The fighting between government forces and separatists in eastern Ukraine has flared up again despite attempts to ease the tension through a cease-fire agreement, signed in Minsk on Sept. 5, 2014. After a December lull, the separatists renewed their attacks with not-so-hidden Russian support, pushing the country into a deeper chaos. According to the U.N., at least 5,000 people have been killed and more than half a million have been displaced in Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict.
Although the Minsk Protocol called for an immediate cease-fire, the removal of military formations and equipment, and the establishment of permanent monitoring at the Ukraine-Russia border, both sides have violated it repeatedly. With the latest attacks, using classic Soviet/Russian military tactics, the rebel forces have been able to create a unified base area for their uprising. The main question now is whether they will push toward the west to enlarge the area, or down south to connect with Crimea.
The collapse of the Minsk Protocol and continued Russian support to rebel forces is forcing the U.S. and the EU to reconsider their strategy of relying on economic sanctions to prevent Russian revisionism in its near-abroad. Until recently, the Obama administration in the U.S. has been very cautious on providing direct military aid to Ukraine for fear of further deterioration of relations with Russia. But the latest reports, documenting further Russian involvement, prompted a re-evaluation and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Ukraine on Feb. 6 to show solidarity with Ukraine and assess the situation. The U.S. is now closer to supplying non-offensive defense systems to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande visited Russian President Vladimir Putin with a new peace plan. After intensive diplomatic efforts, the three leaders and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko were to meet in Minsk yesterday to broker a fresh peace deal.
The divergence between the latest German-French move and the U.S. position could be early indications of a transatlantic split over Ukraine and relations with Russia; though Merkel’s visit to the U.S. on Feb. 9 was designed to seek convergence between the U.S. and the EU positions ahead of the Minsk summit.
The generally cautious stance of the West toward Russia over Ukraine is understandable to a certain extent. President Barack Obama has been struggling with a strong presence of the Republicans in Congress in domestic politics, and has been trying to come up with a reliable policy regarding the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Middle East. In the meantime, his wishes to focus on Asia in his second term and possibly leave a positive legacy through historic deals with longtime adversaries of Iran or Cuba have been waylaid. On the other hand, the EU has been struggling with the rising threat of radicalism, anti-EU parties across the board and financial mismanagement. Although neither party wishes to face additional problems, analyses of strategic significance of recent Russian behavior differ.
While diplomacy should be the primary tool to deal with conflicts in international politics, the West also needs an urgent strategy in the case of a failure in diplomatic efforts. In addition to even heavier sanctions on Russia, the realization of NATO’s Readiness Action Plan, which was approved in the Wales Summit five months ago and includes setting up a High Readiness Joint Task Force with 4,000 troops, would be a timely and decisive step for the West, since Russia is clearly testing the limits of western resolve in Ukraine to uphold the principles and rules of the international system. The outcome will have long-term repercussions.