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NATO’s Rational Goals in Ukraine

On May 11th 2014, the self-proclaimed governments in Donetsk and Luhansk held referendums on the issue of self-rule. Allegedly, almost 90 percent of the voters supported independence from Kyiv. Although the international community will not recognise the voting results, these regions are already lost for Ukraine. The local authorities of Donetsk have requested membership in the Russian Federation, but for now the Russian Foreign Ministry has taken a moderate position, respecting the referendums’ results, and calling for a dialogue with Kyiv.

May 13, 2014 - Alexey Ilin - Articles and Commentary

donetsk 11 may

Photo by Andrew Butko (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

No matter what will be the future status of Donetsk and Luhansk – parts of Russia or Transnistria-modelled client states – it is already clear that eastern Ukraine has fallen under Russian control. As the disintegration of Ukraine continues and the conflict between Russia and the West evolves, there rises a question: what are the goals of NATO and how should it act to achieve them?

The mainstream approach proposes a hard deterrence against Russia. Right before the annexation of Crimea, Charles Krauthammer outlined the American objectives in Ukraine as follows: 1) reassure NATO, 2) deter further Russian incursion into Ukraine, and 3) reverse the annexation of Crimea. Now he would probably add a fourth goal, crack down on the secessionists in the east. To fulfil these goals, Krauthammer proposed to organise joint manoeuvres in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and the Black Sea, resume the construction of the ballistic missile defence (BMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic and supply weapons to Ukraine. This plan perfectly describes a hard-lined deterrence strategy, which has a considerable coercive power, but for several reasons does not guarantee a positive result.

First, NATO members in Central Europe do not need any reassurances. The armed forces of states on the borders with Russia and Ukraine (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Baltic States) plus the American forces in Europe make up approximately 270,000 active personnel; more than one-third of the whole Russian military. In case of a military conflict, this will be enough for a successful defence, although this scenario is very unlikely. Russia will never decide to attack a NATO member primarily because of the Article 5 collective defence commitments as well as the fact that three allies (the United States, the United Kingdom and France) are nuclear powers. An increased military presence in Central Europe, hence, may signal offensive intentions against Russia, and trigger a responsive military build-up on its western borders. Thereby, an over assurance of the allies in Europe could mean entrapment into a deeper and more dangerous confrontation with Moscow.

Second, the annexation of Crimea and secession of the east of Ukraine cannot be reversed by any other means except for military. The Crimean port of Sevastopol has been a strategically important Russian naval base for over two centuries. Russian troops abandoned it twice, in 1855 and in 1942. Both times they defended the city to the end and both times it was returned. Today, the security of Sevastopol remains a strategic priority for President Vladimir Putin and he will aim to hold on to it as much as his predecessors did. Donetsk and Luhansk are less valuable, but Russia will vehemently oppose any major military operations close to its borders, effectively providing indirect support for the secessionists.

Third, the US and NATO should realise the purpose of deterring Russia in Ukraine. By curbing Moscow’s influence, NATO has to be ready to step in and fill the vacuum of power that could emerge. This step requires substantial political interests inside the country. However, all of NATO’s stakes in this conflict lie outside Ukraine and are based on the eastern-most members’ security concerns and the “domino assumption”, which predicts that a successful seizure of Ukraine will incentivise Russia for more risky expansionist endeavours.

Still, the domino theory is almost a synonym for threat exaggeration. Successful expansion needs not only hard military power and willpower of the leaders, but also an absorbing power to incorporate new territories; determined by the country’s economic condition. The stagnating Russian economy provides very little absorbing power, especially with detrimental Crimea and non-competitive impoverished eastern Ukraine. Thereby, if Putin keeps Crimea and annexes the eastern parts of Ukraine, he will not be able to go any further.

As Russian political scientist Fyodor Lukyanov noted, there is a significant difference between Russian conservatism and American liberalism in conducting foreign policy. The first means consistent promotion of one’s national interests, while the second presumes to “stand at the right side of history.” However, there are cases when it is impossible to determine which side is right and where history will go. Thus, the wisest way is to clearly define and protect one’s own geopolitical interests.

Initially, the US and the European Union were determined to win Ukraine for the western world, while Putin saw it as a part of his Eurasian Union. By now, it has become clear that no side will be able to have the “whole pie.” At the same time, both Russia and the US have pieces they are not going to abandon, namely the US influence in Kyiv and Russian control of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. This cleavage is rooted in not only the clash of great powers, but also in the Ukrainian society itself, which is divided according to language, culture, political orientation and the view of national history.

By and large, the post-Soviet Ukraine has been an artificially constructed political actor with its state borders not matching the national ones. That is why the government in Kyiv failed to overcome the divide between the East and the West. Bearing in mind that the tensions have already escalated to an armed civil conflict, a partition of Ukraine according to the political aspirations of its people and the strategic interests of Russia and NATO would be a more effective and less violent option.

No doubt, the partition of Ukraine goes against traditional foreign policy values of NATO and very much resembles the Munich collusion of 1938. Still, in Munich, Germany got the most developed region of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. This time, Russia would get an unprofitable isolated peninsula together with a region of outworn Soviet industry. Russian opposition economist Vladislav Inozemtsev points out that Ukraine would actually win more from losing its eastern regions than Russia from gaining them. By getting rid of the Crimean and Donetsk “dependents,” Ukraine could join the European market as a more competitive economy. Moreover, Ukraine will evolve from a “governed territory” into a homogeneous nation-state, where the population majority will support Euro-integration and NATO membership.

Overall, the main realistic goal for NATO in Ukraine is a tactical retreat to gain a strategic advantage – a unified Ukraine as the 29th member of the Alliance. First, NATO and the US should refrain from turning a local crisis into a global long-lasting confrontation between Russia and the western powers. Second, it is necessary to perform a demarcation of interests in Ukraine, when Crimea and the eastern regions will go to Russia and the United States will be counselling the government of the remaining part of the country.

Finally, it is necessary to provide substantial aid to the government in Kyiv in order to revive the country’s economy, consolidate the society and improve the state institutions to the standards needed for a successful accession to NATO.

Alexey Ilin is a Fulbright scholar from Russia and a graduate student in the Bush School of Government & Public Service, Texas A&M University.

Photo by Andrew Butko (CC) commons.wikimedia.org 

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