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Ukraine: Last Moves, First Moves


Executive Summary

  • The crisis in Ukraine is far from over. Crimea was an opportunistic move on the part of Vladimir Putin, but is representative of his larger ambition of rolling back the verdict of history at the end of the Cold War.
  • Russia will continue to pursue the destabilization of Ukraine. In part, this will be to prevent any government in Kiev from pursuing the economic, political and military reforms that will be required by the West to join NATO and the EU. It will also allow Russia to keep the intervention option in play, allowing a repeat of the “distressed nationals” crisis that was the casus belli for Crimea;
  • Russia will not stop. It is a mistake to think that this policy is a product of Mr. Putin’s ambition and that his departure would “bring Russia back to its senses.” Russia’s long-term strategic aims remain consistent: to ensure the security of the Russian “heartland” by absorbing or neutralizing all neighboring states. This involves either their acceptance of absolute Russian hegemony – as in Belarus – or else their reincorporation into the Russian Federation itself, as in Crimea. Short of a democratic revolution in Russia, no middle ground will be tolerated.
  • Europe has a vest interest in keeping Russia weak and the former states of the Soviet Union disunited. Funding European social democracy requires minimizing military spending, which in turn requires potential adversaries to be kept as far from Europe’s heartland as possible, and as weak as possible. Only then can Europe focus on her supra-national integration and wealth creation projects.
  • The United States also has a fundamental national interest in preventing the rise of a new Russian Empire. Not only would such an entity threaten Europe, the second pillar of world democracy, it would pose an existential military and ideological challenge to the US-led global order. Russian success would inspire autocrats everywhere at the expense of democracies, especially where institutions remain fragile.
  • Europe and America should react in a deliberate and proportional manner to the Russian challenge of the Treaty of Paris order. This includes financial and economic support for Ukraine, support for the modernization of Ukraine’s military, establishment of a common defense fund for Europe, and a repositioning of US Army and Air Force assets in Eastern Europe.
  • The primary objective of all these actions is to preserve the integrity of the rule of international law and institutions. Russia should be offered every opportunity to pursue legitimate security and economic interests within the established rules. These measures would be maintained unless and until the development of Russian democracy fundamentally shifted Moscow’s view of the global order and her own national interests.

This article may be out of date even as it is being written. Events continue to move quickly in the region. As this goes to print, the US, Europe and Japan have dissolved the G-8 and excluded Russia from a new G-7 summit in Brussels. This move will certainly provoke a counter, despite Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s nonchalant reaction.


The Crimean crisis is practically over: Moscow has annexed the strategic peninsula and Kiev has tacitly acquiesced through the withdrawal of her military forces to the mainland. These were the last significant moves of the current crisis. A round of tit-for-tat minor sanctions remains to be played out, but these will not amount to much[1].

But the business is not ended. Mr. Putin has already laid the groundwork for a subsequent move into Eastern Ukraine, should he so desire it. This is mere prudence on his part: even if he has no intention of invading his neighbor at this time, he wishes to keep that door open as a blunt instrument of pressure on Kiev. With the annexation of Crimea and the removal of around 1 million pro-Russian voters, Ukraine’s politics will shift towards the pro-Western block, perhaps decisively. Since Moscow’s basic aim of keeping Ukraine out of NATO and the EU remains unchanged, and the previous measures of relying mostly on economic pressure to keep Kiev in line proved insufficient, Mr. Putin feels that the velvet glove must come off permanently.

The question now is how the West will react over the mid- to long-term. Will Europe and America stop at a slap on the wrist for Mr. Putin’s government? Or will more drastic measures be taken to forestall any repeat of the Crimean adventure? The harder Mr. Putin pushes now, the more likely is the latter scenario to develop. Given Europe’s multitudinous other distractions[2], as well as the inertia of 20 years of peace, it shouldn’t be too hard for Moscow to prevent the Europeans from acting decisively, especially those nations with important trading ties to Russia, like Germany, Italy and France.

Yet decisive action is called for. The strategic posture of the West should not be conditional on Mr. Putin’s actions of the next few weeks or months. There are certain fundamental truths that Western leaders must comprehend if they are to respond appropriately and for the long-term.

Russia is not going to stop unless forced to do so. It is a grievous mistake to personalize the current crisis and blame it all on Mr. Putin[3]. This is the same mistake attendant to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, which was chalked up by many as a war of personalities between Mr. Putin and Mr. Saakashvili, when in fact the war was a clear effort by Russia to peremptorily stop Georgia’s moves towards the EU and NATO. So too with Crimea, and the pattern will continue to repeat itself until either Ukraine is in Russia or in NATO. Russia is responding to geostrategic imperatives, not to the whims of her ruler: so regardless of who sits in the Kremlin, Russia’s foreign policy will continue to follow the pattern of attempting to reabsorb Belarus and Ukraine. The only difference is the degree of belligerence and provocation pursued.

Russia needs to pursue these objectives because it needs to guarantee the integrity of its frontiers. This is a rather alien concept for most Americans, who have never had a serious military threat on any of our land frontiers, at least since 1848. Unlike America, Russia has few defensible frontiers, and her territory has been invaded time and again by Mongols, Tartars, Turks, Swedes, Poles and Germans. Given Russia’s traumatic history, it is understandable that her rulers would want keep potential enemies as far away as possible; they have spent the past 500 years expanding in order to achieve this goal. Most of these gains were erased in the blink of an eye by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now it is time to go into expansion mode again. Unopposed Russian expansion is not likely to stop before reaching the eastern frontiers of Poland, Romania and Turkey[4].


The territorial and security framework thus established at the end of the Cold War by the Treaty of Paris is defunct. It has been since the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, but the West has been too distracted to see it. In truth, it is possible to argue that the idea of territorial integrity and free choice for each state to decide its alliances died as soon as Vladimir Putin came to power, but that again errs on the side of over-personalization. This arrangement was only possible so long as Russia was weak and oriented westwards; as soon as Russia regained strategic freedom of movement and nationalism resurfaced, the Moscow sought to re-impose the old game of “spheres of influence” that had served its interests well for centuries.

Angela Merkel has said that Putin is “out of touch with reality”[5] – which is a very strange comment from a woman who grew up in communist East Germany. It is Europeans who are living on a different planet, one where international systems maintain themselves through the moral example and uprightness of a few European states, rather than through a calculation of mutual self-interests and an appreciation of military, economic and political power.

Europe’s economic and social model today depends on maintaining a large security buffer between the European “heartland” – roughly the area from the Weser to the Seine and the North Sea to the Alps[6] – and any potential threat. This allows the industrialized states to fully fund their social democracies “on the cheap”: a situation they have gotten habituated to since the Berlin wall fell. The end of the Cold War removed the existential threat of Soviet domination, not only pushing back the frontier by some 1,200 kms, but also resulting in the disintegration of the Russian Empire. Both results were important.

Europe therefore needs to keep an undemocratic Russia as far away as possible from the heartland, which is why all of the former Warsaw Pact states were brought into the EU and NATO as quickly as possible. Europe could settle for keeping Belarus and Ukraine as formally neutral states, but that is an inherently unstable situation. Both states will tend to gravitate towards one pole or another, either Russia or Europe, keeping them forever in limbo is an unlikely prospect. Europe cannot accept the formal or informal annexation of these two states into a new Russian Empire. The addition of another 60 million people and the Donbass industrial region would make Russia far more powerful and confident than she is today. It would also make the Baltic States indefensible, possibly causing them to fall out of NATO and the EU. That would be an enormous blow to the prestige of the already shaky European Union.


America shares the same strategic interest as Europe in keeping Russia weak and disunited. The Soviet Union was the only state, since the foundation of the Republic, which posed an existential threat to the US, both physically and ideologically. Russia still poses a physical threat with an arsenal of thousands of nuclear warheads and missiles. A resurgent Russia could also pose a profound ideological threat as well: not communism versus capitalism, but autocracy versus democracy. There are already states that view the single party Chinese system with envy and despise the bickering, negotiating and public accountability that are inherent in a fully functioning democracy. Russian success would bolster these “autocrat wannabes” even more, both morally and perhaps tangibly as well. Just as the seeming success of militant fascism inspired totalitarianism in Spain, Latin America and other regions during the 1930’s, so too autocracy could gain adherents all too easily. There are always a few men and women who believe they have the right and power to rule over the many.

To the extent that America has invested heavily in promoting an international system that rewards democratic government and liberal markets, it is not remotely in our interest to see an illiberal, anti-democratic, nationalistic government expanding its influence through mafia tactics and threatening the stability of the world order. It is even less in our interest to have this state expanding towards Europe, a continent that we have twice shed our blood for in the defense of freedom.

Arguments in favor of decisive action abound, but does the West have the strength to pursue it? The answer is an emphatic “yes”. Although the Western press is full of lamentations about Western weakness and Russian strength, the truth of the matter is different. Europe and NATO are immensely stronger today than they were at the height of the Cold War. In 1989, just before the Berlin Wall fell the Soviet Union had 19 Category “A” tank and mechanized infantry divisions in East Germany alone, whereas today there are not 19 divisions in the entire Russian army[7].

Russia’s conventional Armed Forces remain a formidable force and I am not suggesting that NATO pick a fight with them. But the strength of these forces has been overblown, both by Western media and also deliberately by Russian leaders themselves. They currently lack the ability to project power beyond their near abroad; it is a force which does not yet threaten anyone but Russia’s neighbors, much less have a global projection capability. It is also unclear how well the Russians would perform in large-unit, sustained operations. Their logistical capabilities are suspect and taking on a large, well-prepared enemy is not an easy task. Georgia, though showing the improvement of the Russian Army, was nevertheless a 5-day war against a vastly inferior opponent, for limited objectives. The size and scale of an operation in Ukraine would be much greater, even with the apparent discrepancies between the two potential combatants. If you add even a few NATO brigades and tactical air power to the mix, victory becomes very uncertain. That is the situation Europe and America seek to create: sufficient uncertainty to prevent the Russians from unilaterally using force of arms to achieve their objectives.

Given the shared interest in preventing Russian expansion at the expense of her neighbors and the need to have a “hard power” deterrent in place to increase risks of military action to an unacceptable level for Russia, Europe and America[8] should follow these concrete steps:

  • Fast-track Ukraine’s EU membership. Ukraine is not even remotely close to meeting EU criteria for admission, but without substantial support, it never will be. If nothing else, Russian interference will never allow these conditions to develop. Europe must therefore take the political decision to bring Ukraine in before she is ready, even as it did with Greece. The EU can stop just short of full membership until the domestic situation has stabilized sufficiently for the Ukrainians to implement the necessary reforms;
  • Support Ukraine financially. Ukraine owes a great deal of money, on the order of US$ 32 billion. This is an impossible sum for Kiev to repay in normal circumstances, and the current circumstances are anything but normal. Unless substantial financial support is forthcoming, Kiev risks defaulting and not only becoming a pariah to bond markets, but also furnishing the Russians with an additional excuse for intervention.So far, Europe has insisted that the IMF lead the way[9]. This is understandable given the public’s attitude towards rescuing even current EU members, much less rampantly corrupt semi-failed states outside of the EU. It is, however, a mistake. The cookie cutter IMF approach of massive austerity is 1. unlikely to deal with the underlying issue of corruption, and 2. very likely to antagonize eastern Ukrainians to the point where secession might look like the best option. Europe and America should therefore lead the way in pushing for the renegotiation of the debt held by European and American creditors for much longer terms to allow Kiev some breathing room on interest payments. Since Russian creditors are certainly not going to play ball, bridge loans and outright financial assistance will also have to be offered.

    The one financial bright spot is that Crimea as a region is a net debtor within Ukraine, with a massively negative internal current account. Crimea imports everything from what is now a foreign country; so to that extent, Ukraine’s current account balance with Russia should improve, at least over the short-term;


  • Give MFN status to Ukraine to both the EU and NAFTA. Even with sufficient financial assistance, the Ukrainian economy has limited growth prospects and is totally oriented towards the Russian market. This gives Moscow enormous leverage anytime the Kremlin wants to exert pressure on Kiev. Opening up Western markets to Ukrainian goods will not only help improve the growth of the economy and reduce reliance on Russian good will, it will stimulate foreign direct investment throughout the country, reducing in turn the economy’s dependence on the industrial production of the antiquated Donbas region;
  • Support Ukraine’s Armed Forces. The prospects of Ukraine’s military in a match up against Russia are dismal. That is because the rulers of the country have been too busy plundering it than in investing in the nation’s defensive capabilities. Even should interim Prime Minister Yatsenyuk wish to now devote adequate resources to rebuilding the Armed Forces, he no longer has them: neither the money nor the time.In this regard, Western nations, particularly the US and Germany, should lead the way in providing Ukraine with advanced weaponry that is being discarded or put into reserve status through budgetary drawdowns. Even used equipment is likely to be of superior quality and in superior condition to what the Ukrainians have available. Since the Ukrainians don’t have the money to pay for it, Western nations should extend it on very long-term credit, also known as giving it away. Leopard I tanks and A-10 “Warthogs” that are being retired from service will serve Western interests far more by continuing in Ukrainian active duty, than by gathering dust in some graveyard.


  • Improve NATO’s military preparedness and shift east. NATO nations, especially the European allies, have enjoyed a substantial “peace dividend” since the fall of communism, and have reduced their armed forces very substantially. This is going to have to be reversed to a certain extent. It is not necessary to rebuild NATO to its 1989 levels, and Europe is considerably wealthier than it was back then anyway; but rebuilt is must be. Furthermore, the states with the most urgent need for rebuilding their militaries are those of Eastern Europe, whose economies are the least able to devote the resources to force modernization and enlargement. For this reason, and others[10], the states of Western Europe should set up a “NATO fund” even as they have a Regional Development Fund. This fund would allow the least threatened states to pay into the collective security of all by giving the most threatened states the means to defend themselves and the others. Poland and Romania would be the primary recipients, but also the Baltic States, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary[11] and Finland.Both Europe and especially the United States must accelerate and intensify efforts to improve the capabilities of the military forces of the former Warsaw Pact nations. Funding for enlargement should come from a common European defense fund, but Poland, Romania and Czech Republic should be given priority in the provision of advanced weaponry, especially in aircraft, anti-air detection and defense systems, and command and control systems. You can significantly improve the capabilities of many ground systems like tanks, personnel carriers, and artillery through modular improvements; whereas it is very difficult to do the same to aging airframes[12];
  • American Return to Europe. America has just completed its almost complete withdrawal from Europe after 69 1/2 years of maintaining a military presence on the continent. The coincidence in the timing of the US drawdown and Moscow’s brinksmanship has been commented upon by many.  The United States needs to return to Europe in a meaningful, though proportional way. This is necessary to signal our resolve to resist any unilateral alteration of the post-Cold War balance both to Moscow, but also importantly to all the new states that were so recently under the dominion of the Soviet Union.The units currently in Europe should be moved east, with the consent of our allied governments. 173rd Airborne Brigade could be rebased from Vincenza, Italy to Romania while the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment could move from Vilseck, Germany to Poland. The 170th and 172nd Infantry Brigades (Mechanized) should also return to Eastern Europe. Finally, V Corps headquarters should be reactivated with the mission of planning for the defense of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.

    This would bring the US forces back to the position they held in Europe in the mid-2000’s. If it were deemed that additional support was required, the US could preposition the equipment of 2 more heavy brigades, in a return to the REFORGER concept of rapid deployment to the conflict zone without the whole expense of permanently basing personnel overseas. At full strength, that would give the US the equivalent of two mechanized divisions, plus combat support and tactical air assets (which can be quickly moved in the event of a crisis, unlike the equipment of a heavy brigade).

All of these actions have the objective of preserving the rule of international law and rejecting the unilateral use of force[13]. This is accomplished by making sure Ukraine does not become a failed state, reassuring our Eastern European NATO allies, and preventing Russia from using force of arms to re-establish dominance over the now independent states of the former Soviet Union. They are not intended for offensive military action or to intervene in any way in Russian internal affairs.

At all times, Russia must be offered face-saving solutions – the coup against Yanukovych did not, for example – to protect her legitimate defense and economic interests. Additionally, Russia should be continuously engaged to keep them as a beneficiary of the international community: they are too large and too important a nation to be permanently isolated, and an unstable Russia with nuclear weapons is a scenario no one wants to contemplate. Given that the Russian economic model is inherently unstable, and that the country faces very difficult demographic and political challenges, time is on the side of the Western democracies so long as adequate provision for defense of vital Western interests is made.

It is important to note that it was not German strength that led to the Second World War – German rearmament was not scheduled to be completed before 1945/46 – it was Western weakness and the distrust and disunity of allies that allowed Hitler to make his gambles and win. If Great Britain and France had united with Czechoslovakia and accepted Stalin’s offer of a guarantee of Czech territorial integrity, it is very likely that Hitler would have been forced to back down from his Sudeten gambit in 1938. And in backing down, it is also very likely that his enemies, especially his enemies in the Wehrmacht General Staff would have overthrown him in a putsch. Only his run of early successes silenced opponents and allowed the creation of the myth of the omniscient Führer – until it was too late of course.

Today, Europe and America should be conscious of their immense strength, and use it in the enforcement of the rule of international law and institutions. Unless we do, future historians will look back and weep at the opportunities we had and squandered.

Sources and Notes:

[1] On the Western side, at least, they are unlikely to include any measures that would truly affect Russia – such as banning high technology dual-use exports to Mr. Putin, or prohibiting new FDI flows to his country. The Russian response is likely to be political in nature, rather than economic: an emboldened Syria policy as well as obstructionism of a deal on Iranian nuclear inspections.

[2] An anemic economic recovery, lackluster prospects for long-term growth, an overly strong Euro, a real risk of long-term deflation, continuing high and unsustainable unemployment in the PIIGs, a looming demographic problem, a backlash against immigrants and the rise of extremist parties in the domestic politics of many member states, just to name a few.

[3] To a very great extent, it would also be a mistake to call the Second World War “Hitler´s War”, as the initial foreign policy objectives of the Third Reich were almost identical to those of the Weimar Republic; namely, the overturning of the Versailles Treaty and the restoration of lost German territory. Of course, Mr. Hitler went far beyond those objectives, which is why he is very properly vilified.

[4] I am less convinced that Russia would re-annex the Moslem Caucasian states due to their unpleasant and ongoing experience in Chechnya and Dagestan, but Orthodox Georgia would certainly be digestible.

[6] It is interesting the note that both the French and German capitals lie outside of the heartland, though Paris could just be included. Berlin was never more than political center of the foremost military state in pre-Imperial Germany.

[7][7] Comparing the order of battle of the Group of Soviet Forces Germany (GSFG) in 1989 with the estimated distribution of ground forces, 2013: 33 motor rifle brigades and 2 motor rifle divisions, 3 tank brigades and 1 tank division, 3 airmobile brigades and 7 Special Forces brigades (using a ratio of 3 brigades per division).

[8] In this broad sense of “America” I am including Canada, another stalwart NATO ally.

[9] It is also questionable whether an IMF-led rescue program will benefit anyone but Western creditors, as the Fund is not designed as an economic development agency (that is the World Bank) but as a lender and guarantor of last resort. The only likely outcome is a fire sale of Ukrainian public assets to Western (European) multinationals.

[10] Germany, as the most populous and wealthiest state in Europe, could be expected to lead by example. But given the evident history of German armaments in the XXth Century, no one, not even Germany’s allies, wants to see the Bundeswehr expand significantly. Furthermore, Russia is likely to react far more negatively – at least emotionally –  to a large German presence in Eastern Europe than to a large American presence, much less a strengthening of Polish or Romanian forces. And there is no conceivable scenario in which German Panzer and Panzergrenadier forces intervene in Ukraine that has a remotely happy ending.

[11] Hungary may be an EU and NATO partner, but the anti-democratic regime of Viktor Orbán leads me to question the wisdom of being overgenerous in funding or arming the Hungarians at this time.

[12] Improvements in avionics, detection and EW systems, and missile systems are all possible, but the airframe itself has basic limitations that are greater than those imposed on a tank or APC.

[13] I am perfectly aware of how hypocritical this may sound to non-Western observers, but I am the first in advocating that the West live by its own rules, especially the United States, who has tended to favor unilateral actions over the past 2 decades.

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