By selling weapons to Ukraine, the United States is risking increased conflict while ignoring diplomatic alternatives.

By Davis Ellison

Support for arming Ukraine with lethal weaponry has come from American national security experts on both sides of the political spectrum. Unfortunately, their confidence in this strategy is based on a misread of both the situation in Ukraine and of the strategic realities of US-Russian relations. The time has come for a new diplomatic settlement.

In December of last year, the US administration approved the sale of lethal arms to Ukraine. This could lead to a serious escalation of violence, particularly as both the Ukrainian military and the eastern oblast rebels continue to violate the terms of the Minsk II ceasefire signed in 2015. Within a “new cold war” era between Russia and the West, we tend to forget that the Ukraine conflict is rather a civil war involving external intervention, than a proxy war between great powers. This decision is clearly based on a flawed concept of “escalate to de-escalate” that likely originated in a Defense Department increasingly spearheading US foreign policy.

Such a theoretical basis for policy is weak at best, especially as it ignores the fundamental facts of the conflict. It underestimates the involvement of the separatists themselves in the conflict, conflating the war into a full scale territorial clash between Russia and Ukraine. While Russia’s direct involvement is undeniable, the conflict has hardly escalated to general war. Who then, is the United States planning to fight against? A separatist movement with a dearth of grassroots support in their own territory? As Robert Work stated in a 2015 Congressional testimony: “escalation is escalation” and sending arms would thus necessitate an escalatory response.

Alternative diplomatic solutions have been lacking as the debate over a Ukrainian solution has raged. Previous experiences in conflict resolution have been largely ignored by analysts, with US policy therefore following a zero-sum path that is slowly eroding possibilities for a negotiated settlement. There are two historical examples that can inform policymakers to prudently approach Ukraine without resorting to arms shipments: Cyprus and Bosnia.

Incentivizing Moscow to attack or escalate

Increased arms sales will likely cause a greater incentive for both side to violate the Minsk II agreement and rather pursue an escalatory course that will only deepen the conflict, further entrench the adversaries and increase casualties. There is no reason to believe such a move would provide a deterrent either, with the military reality on the ground belying any attempt to persuade otherwise. A combination between Russian military prevalence and the complicated nature of US policy in the former Soviet Union has led to a climate where actions are limited.

This offer of arms is particularly dangerous due to NATO’s 2008 pledge to eventually consider a Membership Action Plan for Ukraine. By extending this offer a decade ago, without any security guarantees, NATO left Ukraine vulnerable to Russia giving Moscow an incentive to prevent this future membership. Offering weapons while also continuing to deny any form of security guarantee is only inviting more danger by increasing the likeliness of a Russian military intervention. Additionally, the often-cited 1994 Budapest Memorandum between Ukraine, Russia, the US, and the UK (also Belarus and Kazakhstan) does not obligate the United States to militarily defend Ukraine against a conventional threat without UN Security Council authorization. While acting without UNSC authorization is certainly possible, it would be diplomatically dangerous.  

Moscow has to respond to these promised weapons sales, and its options place both Ukraine and the West in an untenable position. First, it could push for the separatist eastern regions to become unified with Russia itself, leading to yet another forceful border change in violation of all international legal norms. Second, Russia could shut off Ukraine’s power once again, while also blocking the importation of energy by force. Another option would be to increase provocations against eastern NATO members, namely the Baltic states, through actions other than armed conflict such as cyberattacks and kidnappings. These are only a few out of host options Moscow is likely to consider, with other more pernicious options being also possible. Daniel DePetris of Reuters has noted that “there’s no reason to think Putin would respond less violently now if Washington sent defense shipments to Ukraine,” in reference to a Russian armored offensive against Debaltseve in late 2014.

As noted by several authors, including Rajan Menon and Fiona Hill, Russia holds “escalation dominance” in the region, though it has never been fully explained nor has its strategic implications been clarified. First and foremost, escalation dominance means that in almost any conceivable conventional conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Russia will be victorious. Ukraine sits in between both the Western and Southern Military districts, with the entirety of the Russian command-and-control and logistics network within short distances. Furthermore, Russian troops have also begun building permanent bases along the border with Ukraine, including highly mobile and combat experienced units that can quickly bring reinforcement. Simply put, there is no amount of weapons importation by Ukraine that can offset Russian conventional superiority in the near- to medium-term.

Equally important to the military dynamic, Russian dominance in the region forces any Western diplomats to negotiate from a position of weakness, an uncomfortable position for the United States. The primary consequence here is that the United States is hardly in a position to dictate any terms on a settlement, and will require Moscow and Western allies’ cooperation in order to reach any meaningful progress. Sanctions can certainly be seen as a useful coercive measure, but due to rises in commodity prices, the Russian economy has seen a moderate improvement recently despite its isolation. Therefore, a solution will have to be found that makes concessions to Moscow. The simple logistical and military dominance that the Russian military holds in the region makes any pressure extremely unlikely to work.

By providing weapons to Ukraine, the United States is effectively giving up on a negotiated settlement to the conflict. While the Minsk II agreement has been repeatedly violated, this is no solid reasoning for its abandonment. By abandoning the agreement and giving preference to a settlement via arms, the United States is only further internationalizing a civil war and ignoring the root causes. Importantly, the civil war in Ukraine is between irredentist Russian speakers in the eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk and the central government, originating in differing views on regional autonomy. The Russian government militarized these tensions using the momentum of the Crimea annexation to turn a constitutional dispute into an armed conflict.

Diplomatic alternatives

Previous conflicts in Europe that have included an ethnic dimension as well as external influence should be used as a guide for policy options in Ukraine. The first example is that of Cyprus, which bears in some way a striking resemblance to the overall Ukrainian situation. The island is divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, with only Turkey recognizing the northern half of the island as an independent territory. Spurred by ethnic conflict on the island, the ultimate solution was found with the deployment of a United Nations Peacekeeping Force, largely made up of troops from neutral states. The island has remained divided since 1974, though the conflict has largely been dormant since then. What is significant is that all states have been able to continue fairly normalized relations with the Republic of Cyprus (the southern, Greek speaking section of Cyprus) despite the ongoing dispute, granting the country European Union membership in 2004. The lesson to be taken from Cyprus is that a peacekeeping settlement, even without a full resolution to the underlying territorial dispute, can be effective.

Since fall 2017, calls for such a peacekeeping force in Eastern Ukraine have been growing, with fairly widespread support, including from Moscow. To discard this avenue in favor of arms support would be a mistake. As noted above, even if the two policies were taken at the same time, such arms supply to Ukraine would only weaken any peacekeeping force while also failing to strengthen the position of the US as a negotiator. Importantly, the deployment of peacekeepers would have to involve concessions made to Moscow, through the lifting of sanctions and/or the de facto acceptance of the breakaway regions’ autonomy.

A second model for a longer-term diplomatic approach is a federalization policy that bears a resemblance to the Republika Srpska within Bosnia. The federalization of Ukraine has been suggested by Russia for some time, and it is perhaps time to consider the option seriously. Limited devolution would address the desires of the separatists themselves while meeting Russian requests. Such devolution could come with safeguards, such as disarmament within both Donetsk and Luhansk, with Russia providing security guarantees to both regions. In Bosnia, it has allowed ethnic grievances between groups in Bosnia to be handled in a largely non-violent fashion. The establishment of the Republika Srpska was a hard pill for Western states to swallow, however it became necessary for the higher goal of reaching a peaceful settlement. A key lesson for the United States in Bosnia was that the prevention of further bloodshed was more important than the preservation of Yugoslavian sovereignty. Were the US and its allies to take this lesson to heart and eschew a hard line on Ukrainian sovereignty with the goal of ending the conflict, it could begin a slow path towards improving Western relations with Russia.

Finally, any solution will require neutrality for Ukraine. This would mean removing the offer of NATO membership to Ukraine (which arguably placed Ukraine in Moscow’s crosshairs in the first place), and maintaining an economic balance between the European Union and Moscow, while also pushing against formal EU membership. This option has been suggested by Michael O’Hanlon in his new book Beyond NATO, that argues in favor of such proposal for currently unaligned states between Europe and Russia. Removing the NATO offer would be immensely beneficial towards building better future relations with Moscow and ending the Ukrainian conflict. The current predicament the West finds itself in can almost be considered comeuppance for the misguided NATO offer without any security guarantee.

Certainly, these solutions would not be preferential for Western policymakers, but that is the nature of compromise. They would effectively reverse decades of US and NATO defense and diplomatic policy. However, current and recent policies have hardly been adequate. There is no possibility of a diplomatic solution that accords full territorial return of Crimea to Ukraine, nor can there be any peacekeeping force dominated primarily by NATO. A further drawback would be the abandonment of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, though the treaty itself was without the teeth for its own enforcement. Any settlement regarding peacekeepers and/or devolution would provide the opportunity to install stronger safeguards for all parties.

The current US policy of arms supplying rules out any possibilities of constructive diplomatic efforts to resolve the security situation in Ukraine. Both options (along with O’Hanlon’s suggestions of permanent Ukrainian neutrality), do not fully preclude the establishment of harsher measures should Russia continue to make aggressive moves despite these agreements. Harsher economic sanctions against the Kremlin’s inner circle or even extension of a NATO security guarantee despite an ongoing territorial dispute should be kept on the table in case Moscow decides to further endanger Ukraine. However, it is critical that policy be shaped by the realities of the situation in Ukraine, rather than preferred outcomes. Diplomacy should be pursued first, using past instances of conflict resolution as a model.

Cover Picture: anti-terrorist operation in Eastern Ukraine, 2015, © Taras Gren for the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine / flickr