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Ukraine’s New Diplomatic Battlefronts: U.S. Weapons, UN Peacekeepers
Ukraine’s New Diplomatic Battlefronts: U.S. Weapons, UN Peacekeepers

Ukraine: Running out of Time

Ukraine needs a government of national unity that reaches out to its own people and tackles the country’s long overdue reforms; both Russia and Western powers should back a vision for the country as a bridge between East and West, not a geopolitical battleground.

Executive Summary

Ukraine’s provisional government faces an uphill struggle to make it to the 25 May presidential election. Shaken by separatist agitation and distracted by Russian troops on its borders, it has not asserted itself coherently and has lost control of the eastern oblasts (regions) of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have voted for independence in contentious referendums. It appears incapable of keeping order in much of the south east, where separatists, supported and encouraged by Moscow, threaten the state’s viability and unity. Kyiv and the presidential candidates should reach out to the south east, explaining plans for local self-government and minority rights, and for Ukraine to be a bridge between Russia and Europe, not a geopolitical battleground. With relations between Moscow and the West deeply chilled, the U.S. and EU should continue tough sanctions to show Russia it will pay an increasing cost for destabilising or dismembering its neighbour, while pursuing parallel, vigorous diplomacy to reach understandings that avoid the worst and respect mutual interest.

The situation has consistently worsened since late February, as much of the optimism from the Maidan protests that brought down the Yanukovych government has faded. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, “volunteers” and quite possibly special forces (Spetsnaz) dispatched by the Kremlin have seized the initiative in the south east. The separatists’ objective seems to be to provoke sufficient disruption and bloodshed so that President Vladimir Putin can assert, if he chooses, what he says is Moscow’s right to protect Russian speakers anywhere – in the worst case scenario by carving off what would in effect be a new autonomous entity embracing almost a third of the country and many of its most viable economic resources, which might eventually be absorbed into the Russian Federation. All this deepens the crisis between the West and Russia, making the rapproche­ment necessary to resolve it much more difficult.

The chaos in the south east seriously threatens the presidential election. The govern­­ment formed in February after months of street demonstrations and fighting barely functions, consists mostly of veterans of a discredited political system and new faces with little or no government experience. Communication within government institutions seems weak, with the public as a whole almost non-existent. Moscow’s depiction of a country in the thrall of a fascist coup, dominated by ultra-right militias, has persuaded the Russian public and for lack of alternatives has taken root in parts of Ukraine.

Kyiv must urgently talk to its own people, especially in the south east, where, unlike Crimea, ethnic Russians are not a majority, and even some leading members of the Yanukovych-era ruling party denounce calls to break up the country. Language, self-government and corruption – the latter of immense public concern – should be high on the government agenda and publicised as such. So too should preparing the population for the inevitable pain of deep reforms required to save an economy wrecked by two decades of endemic corruption and incompetence.

Military efforts to restore order in the south east have underlined both the government’s weakness and the pressing need for a solution through dialogue, not force. Such a solution is made more difficult by the competing prisms through which the crisis is viewed. For much of Ukraine and the West, a popular uprising in support of a more European-oriented Ukraine is being stymied by Russian revanchism; for Russia, the Maidan revolution was another calculated move, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, to surround and threaten Russia with enemies and humiliate it.

President Putin appears to consider that a West-leaning Ukraine government born of mass protests would set a dangerous example at home and thwart his ambition of establishing dominant Russian influence over as much of the former Soviet republics as possible. Russia is changing fast, and buoyed by overwhelming public support after the annexation of Crimea, Putin is rapidly creating an avowedly conservative ideology that consciously rejects many of the principles and concepts of Western democracy. In bringing Ukraine to its knees, however, Russia may also have lost its neighbour as a cultural and political ally in the long term.

A mid-April four-party – Russia, Kyiv, U.S., EU – Geneva agreement to calm the situation was ignored by the separatist forces, so is a dead letter. Nevertheless, the effort should be renewed as soon as possible. Ukrainian leaders – particularly presidential candidates – should commit to forming a post-election government of national unity with important representation from the south east and emphasise, as the guiding principle for rapprochement, that they want their country to link, not divide, Russia and Europe. They should also say forthrightly that they do not desire NATO membership and will guarantee continuation of Russia’s important defence industry and other ties to the south east, indeed to all Ukraine.

The dysfunction within the provisional government has complicated a slow and often fragmented Western response. The U.S. and EU need now to convey a consistent, firm, united and measured message, recognising – even if not accepting – Moscow’s take on the crisis’s origins. Its components should be political support for Kyiv to conduct elections, and political, financial and expert support for a national unity government to carry through the necessary stabilisation measures; measures to make Ukraine viable for foreign investment; further sanctions, to bite deeper into Russia’s economy if it does not change course; and quiet high-level talks with Moscow and facilitation of Kyiv-Moscow talks with a view to calming the situation and allowing Ukraine’s future to resolve itself organically over a period of years.

It is important to recognise that the new Russian readiness to use force to change borders, first evident a half-dozen years ago in Georgia, now clearly requires a firm deterrent response including sanctions and reassuring NATO members of the commitment to fulfil collective security obligations. Those actions must, however, be paralleled by diplomatic steps to lessen the confrontation. On the ground in Ukraine today, Russia has immediate advantages of escalation; over time, the West likely has the economic and soft-power edge. A successful, democratic Ukraine, substantially integrated economically in the West, but outside military alliances and a close cultural, linguistic and trading partner mindful of Russian interests would benefit all. Finally, as Kyiv and its international supporters look to the future, all should keep in the centre of their attention that Ukraine is a profoundly damaged country. This damage goes far beyond separatism and is the fruit of the poor governance and massive corruption that, over the past two decades, has all but destroyed it.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis walks past honour guards during a welcoming ceremony in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 24 August 2017. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Ukraine’s New Diplomatic Battlefronts: U.S. Weapons, UN Peacekeepers

The front lines between the Ukrainian army and Moscow-backed forces in eastern Ukraine may be static but see frequent and violent firefights. Diplomatic manoeuvering over new U.S. lethal weapons for Kyiv risks aggravating the conflict and Russia’s UN peacekeeping proposal could prove a distraction from a genuine solution.

Washington is considering providing Kyiv with lethal weapons, worrying many residents of eastern Ukraine – and not just separatist rebels or pro-Russian sympathisers. “Most people here don’t think about what these weapons would mean in practice – but of course I am scared”, an outspoken city council member generally loyal to Kyiv told me in Severodonetsk. The town has been Kyiv’s administrative centre for the Luhansk oblast since 2014 when its main city and former administrative centre, Luhansk, fell into Russia-backed rebel hands.

Another new dimension to the international struggle over Ukraine are competing proposals from Moscow and Kyiv for a new UN peacekeeping operation that would keep armed forces apart in the main conflict areas in eastern Ukraine. So far, however, it is unclear whether these are schemes designed to sow confusion or genuinely intended to lead to a separation of forces.

Not much is known either about what weapons the U.S. might provide to Ukraine, although media reports suggest it could be a $50 million package featuring shoulder-mounted Javelin anti-tank missiles. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reconfirmed U.S. backing for Ukraine’s territorial integrity on a visit to Kyiv on 24 August, a welcome signal of support after the uncertainties of the early days of the Trump administration. At the same time, Mattis said the U.S. was reviewing the provision of lethal weapons. President Trump’s approval of any arms deal would be a sharp change of direction after years of refusal by the Obama administration.

Providing lethal weapons would do little if anything to change the situation on the ground or deter the most frequent kind of military action now taking place ... .

Opinion is sharply divided over what impact – military or political – the provision of lethal weapons would have on a war that has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014. Sceptics in this highly polarised debate cannot be written off merely as Russia appeasers; the military and political pressure such an arms deal could provide is limited. This is why it is all the more important to consider how the lethal arms provision would affect the humanitarian situation on the ground.

Meaningful Defence or Pouring Oil on the Fire?

In military terms, those in favour say the weaponry would be solely defensive and would improve Kyiv’s chances to push back against Russia’s continued aggression in eastern Ukraine. They say the arms package would allow Ukraine’s armed forces to face the volatile situation along the line of separation with more confidence and the most optimistic argue the mere presence of such weaponry would deter any attempts by Russian and separatist forces to shift the front line and acquire more territory. The newly-appointed U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, has dismissed the Obama-era argument that supplying weaponry to Kyiv would likely provoke an escalation by the Kremlin, calling the logic “backwards” and stressing deterrence.

Those who oppose such a move warn it would give Kyiv little military advantage or deterrence capability. First, they point to the current situation on the ground. The conflict generally is stable: positions along the line of separation are static and neither side is pushing for more territory, even if the sides have moved farther into the so-called grey zone over the past months. But there are still frequent and heavy exchanges of fire, which claim both military and civilian casualties. Some fear that this deadly stalemate could settle into protracted conflict, as in other disputes in Russia’s neighbourhood. But providing lethal weapons would do little if anything to change the situation on the ground or deter the most frequent kind of military action now taking place, the tactical use of rockets and other artillery to test the adversary’s resolve.

The most commonly discussed weapon – Javelin anti-tank missiles – illustrates this point. Kyiv first asked its partners for these portable missiles in 2014 when battles were raging and they arguably could have strengthened Ukraine’s positions. But today, provision of Javelins would constitute little more than political symbolism. As a Western diplomat commented: “Kyiv wants a decisive show of support from the West. Whether this is the right form now is not relevant: Ukraine has been wedded to this request for the past three years, so backing down is politically inopportune. Getting the weapons will be a powerful signal”.

Tactical military escalation is hardly the answer to a conflict that has no military solution.

Opponents of the lethal weapons package point to another issue, which relates to broader strategic calculations. Pouring $50 million worth of lethal arms into an already heavily militarised conflict zone likely will be met by matching Russian support for the rebels. The result would be an increasingly militarised zone of conflict, and more fighting. This is why Europeans generally have pushed against such a decision, with the exception, among NATO allies, of Lithuania, though many provide other forms of military aid. One could argue that the West should give Kyiv the weaponry it needs to take on the rebels and their Russian supporters. But this would be a risky, costly and uncertain gamble, and something for which few if any Western countries have an appetite.

That Ukraine has the right to defend itself is beyond dispute. Kyiv has been understandably unhappy about its Western partners’ emphasis on strengthening the government’s long-term resilience rather than its military arsenal. “We feel left alone with Russia and don’t see the focus on resilience as something that is helping us”, a Ukrainian security analyst told me in June. But tactical military escalation is hardly the answer to a conflict that has no military solution. Under the circumstances, the West can be most effective by maintaining sanctions on Russia while helping Ukraine build robust institutions and professionalise its armed forces.

Encouraging Negotiations or More Conflict?

The political, not the military, impact of providing lethal weapons is the real issue. Here too there are stark differences between assessments of how it would affect negotiations. Supporters claim provision of these weapons would strengthen Ukraine’s hand in the Normandy Format and Trilateral Contact Group negotiations, the main settlement venues for the conflict, giving Kyiv a better chance to achieve stronger security and political outcomes.

But others consider this too optimistic. Critics, and not only pro-Russian ones, warn that providing lethal weapons could further aggravate a zero-sum negotiation process that has failed to address issues central to a future settlement. “Power and perceptions of power are used as a negotiating chip in the talks”, commented a senior diplomat involved with the process, adding that neither side can afford to give in to a show of force and therefore each would respond with counter-measures of its own. Indeed, ever since active fighting for territorial gains ceased, the application of force by one side or the other has never helped efforts to end the conflict. Such a logic arguably could change if the balance of power were to shift substantially. But that does not appear to be in the cards for the foreseeable future.

A lethal weapons package that Russia could easily match is unlikely to have any political impact. It will not address the imbalance between Ukraine’s and Russia’s military capacities, nor the mismatch between the level of Western and Russian interest in Ukraine. The West does not want to engage in an armed proxy confrontation with Russia over Ukraine, a reality both Moscow and Kyiv understand. While the provision of lethal weapons could boost Ukraine’s confidence and tactical posture in the talks, it is unlikely to change their course, even if accompanied by a strong push by the West for diplomatic progress.

“Beating down the Temperature”

The conflict’s centre of gravity is not in eastern Ukraine, but that is where the situation is most unstable. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission reports anything from dozens to thousands of ceasefire violations each day. Ceasefire commitments periodically are renewed – at Christmas, Easter, for the harvest or the start of the school year – to give those living in the conflict zone a sense of normalcy. But these pauses invariably fizzle out, making way for new hostilities.

Constant insecurity aggravates the humanitarian situation. Front line villages are especially vulnerable given the intermixing of civilians with armed actors on both sides. Shelling of vital infrastructure is common. Interruptions of water and electricity supplies heighten the crisis, especially in the summer and winter months. Infrastructure also suffers from tremors caused by recurrent shelling and needs frequent repair.

While the provision of lethal weapons could boost Ukraine’s confidence and tactical posture in the talks, it is unlikely to change their course ... .

“Windows of silence”, or humanitarian ceasefires, have been hard to negotiate, although they periodically allow repair teams to weld leaking pipes or reconnect broken wires. Recent rounds of talks offer hope for establishing safety zones around key infrastructure hubs, such as the Donestk Filtration Station that provides water to over 345,000 people.

Negotiating these safety zones or implementing the last of three agreed disengagement areas would improve civilian lives in parts of the war zone, but these are small steps. Destructive weaponry still would remain within firing range, and the disengagement areas do not cover the most pernicious hotspots along the line. The systemic malaise would remain unaddressed. A diplomat involved with the settlement talks said: “We are beating down the temperature”, not healing the illness.

Focusing on the Bigger Picture

In this context, adding lethal U.S. weaponry risks shifting the focus away from what ought to be the priority: fashioning short- and long-term steps to settle or at least manage the conflict. While a comprehensive political solution is not within immediate reach, much could be done to minimise the conflict’s human cost. The greatest immediate danger is the deployment of weapons systems and hostile forces close to the line of separation.

Ceasefires are already hard to arrange and implement. They require all sides to make tough decisions, pass orders to all forces in the field and discipline those who do not comply. A diplomat told me that when Ukrainian soldiers were asked how they heard about the latest ceasefire, called ahead of the start of the school year, some answered that they had learned about it from TV.

Although Moscow bears significant responsibility for the conflict, Ukrainian authorities also need to take difficult steps to stabilise the east and better manage the humanitarian situation. Demonstrating full commitment to the ceasefire, disengaging forces, and formulating an inclusive vision for the reintegration of the divided region’s populations would be a good start, particularly as positions harden on both sides. Kyiv’s Western partners need to press Ukraine to implement such measures before the country’s 2019 presidential election. In the run up to that poll, Kyiv also should redouble its reform efforts, especially regarding systemic and high-level corruption.

While maintaining sanctions is important to convince Moscow its engagement in eastern Ukraine is costly and dangerous, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) also need to increase pressure on the Russian Federation, including in the OSCE, to allow monitoring of the Russian-Ukrainian border in rebel-controlled areas. This would allow the movement of weapons and supplies across those border segments to be tracked. The debate in the UN over different draft proposals by Moscow and Kyiv for a peacekeeping force in Ukraine is also a good opportunity for Ukraine’s Western partners to insist that Moscow allow for transparency along the Russian-Ukraine border as a first step. Meanwhile, Moscow should press its allies in rebel-held areas to urgently comply with their ceasefire commitments and withdraw heavy weapons.

New weapons in the area are unlikely to affect the sides’ broader calculations, but are sure to impact or even end the lives of those who live along the line of separation.

The idea of a peacekeeping operation is well worth pursuing, even if Moscow’s intentions appear to be to create a diversion rather than seek a genuine solution. Though likely to stumble on difficult issues such as mandate, area of deployment and composition – to cite just a few – it ultimately could help “unzip” the line of separation and facilitate a genuine disengagement of forces.

Providing lethal weapons to be deployed in the conflict zone should not be a priority for Kyiv’s partners. Such a step could upend the status quo, which, however imperfect, is preferable to escalating violence; nor would it produce substantive progress toward settlement. In Kramatorsk, a local humanitarian worker showed me pictures of Soviet-era shells, recently fired at front-line villages, enhanced in makeshift ways for more lethal impact. He said the sides were copying one another in their use. New weapons in the area are unlikely to affect the sides’ broader calculations, but are sure to impact or even end the lives of those who live along the line of separation. This can and should be avoided.

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