Expand the Negotiations Format and Provide Military Aid to Ukraine
WARSAW—The latest escalation of fighting in Eastern Ukraine clearly shows that current Western policy toward Russia is not working. The rocket attack last weekend in the city of Mariupol, which killed 30 civilians and injured almost 100, is a heinous crime. It is also a flagrant violation of the Minsk Protocol, the agreement brokered last September between Ukraine and Russia, as Mariupol lies 25 kilometers beyond the agreed ceasefire line.
What is clear is that negotiations under the Normandy format — involving the foreign ministers of Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine — is spent, and needs to be adjusted. The escalation in the Donbass region came in the immediate aftermath of a Normandy meeting last Thursday in Berlin; the diplomatic agreement was upended by facts on the ground before the ink had a chance to dry. One power that is clearly missing is the United States. It is time for Washington to engage directly in the negotiations over the conflict in Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged as much in his recent phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The format should also be supplemented by representatives of European institutions. Given its importance and the geopolitical dimension, the negotiations with Russia over peace in Ukraine will require the attention of the European Council and close cooperation with High Representative Federica Mogherini and Council President Donald Tusk.
It is also time to rethink military aid to Ukraine. The escalation in Eastern Ukraine shows that, unassisted, the Ukrainian military will continue to be under enormous pressure from separatist forces that are regularly resupplied, and even directly supported, by the Russian military. Many skeptics worry that arming Ukraine will lead to further escalation. Yet, the opposite is true. Faced with a weaker opponent, the separatists and their masters in Moscow have an incentive to push further and escalate while there is a window of opportunity on the ground. Military aid to Ukraine could change this calculus. Western military aid to Ukraine should be mainly defensive in nature and carefully calibrated in order to raise the price in blood and treasure of the Russian-backed separatists and deter further attacks in Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
Reconnaissance is one of the key areas where Ukraine could use help, allowing it to avoid surprise attacks by the separatists. It is also an area where Russia provides substantial assistance to the separatists. Sharing actionable intelligence with the Ukrainian army would also give separatists a pause, providing some degree of deterrence. The initial hesitation in Europe and the United States against arming Ukraine made sense in September when there was hope of freezing the conflict with the Minsk Protocol. But this approach is clearly not working, and the Russian-backed separatists walked right through the agreed limits, both in Donetsk and in Mariupol. Waiting for a major Russian offensive before considering military aid would be too late.
Expanding the Normandy format and arming Ukraine are vital for deescalating the fighting in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. But these steps alone will not solve the strategic problem with Russia. The conflict in Ukraine is not a passing crisis, but rather a new, long-term change of Russia’s behavior in its neighborhood. By annexing Crimea and invading Eastern Ukraine, Russia has rejected the Helsinki principles that were signed 40 years ago by the Soviet Union, and that lie at the core of the European security order. Russia openly aims to reestablish its sphere of influence, and is willing to violate principles of territorial integrity and the sovereign ability of countries to choose alliances.
To counter this long-term challenge, the West needs to recognize Russia for what it is: a strategic competitor in the European Union’s neighborhood and a spoiler on the global stage. This recognition should be a beginning of a long-term strategy toward Russia. And this strategy can be effective only if it is devised and implemented by Europe in conjunction with the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.