Vladimir Putin’s fourth offensive in eastern Ukraine is underway, in what by now should be simply called a Russian-Ukrainian war. This most recent Russian campaign got off to a rolling start over several months, with increased deployments of Russian regulars, from 7,000 only a few months ago to more than 9,000 and counting, with new armor and Grad missile launchers. The azimuth of Russia’s strike has been completely predictable yet again: punching through a land corridor to Crimea, with an assault on the city of Mariupol as the first order of business.
This weekend’s fighting in Mariupol has already claimed thirty dead and 83 wounded. Putin’s sights are set firmly inland on the cities of Odessa and Kharkiv and beyond—all places he identified before the war began as part of his “Novorossiya” project. The areas under threat go beyond Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk. They include in addition Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Kherson, and Mikolaiv, which would allow Putin’s Russia not just to dominate the entire Black Sea northern littoral but also to expand its territory to the borders of Moldova and Romania. An ancillary strike may soon develop in Transdnistria, which has begun to practice mobilization bordering on the Odessa region.
If Russia succeeds in setting up its “Novorossiya” project, Ukraine is finished as we know it. It will have lost close to half of its population, about two-thirds of its GDP, and, to top the already crippling losses to its industrial and energy sectors, 70 percent of Ukraine’s coal production is in the territories now controlled by Russia, forcing Ukraine to import coal from overseas.
Since the Russian invasion of Crimea, U.S. and European media have been filled with rationalizations about why the West should not get dragged into the Ukrainian war (the latest only a couple of days before the recent Russian offensive), as if anyone were talking about a direct NATO military intervention in Ukraine. Such straw men have dominated U.S. policy debates since Russia’s aggression started, many of them having been stuffed and propped up by the so-called “realists” in the policy community. These arguments to abandon Ukraine to its fate (i.e., Russian domination) exhibit everything from bad history to simple analytical disconnect.
Examples: Ukraine has always been under Russia’s thumb, therefore…therefore what, exactly? Or there’s the one that says the West should not assist Ukraine because its plight is ultimately all our fault: we enraged Russia by enlarging NATO. The message: Europe would have been so much more secure had we kept the new democracies in a perpetual gray zone after the Cold War. In the vernacular of my students’ generation: Seriously? And how is the fact that Russia attacked a non-NATO country the result of our having brought Central Europe and the Baltics into the alliance? A new take on “preventive war,” Russian style? A “Putin doctrine” for the 21st century?
Finally, there are the hackneyed arguments for appeasement: Russia matters more to the U.S. than Ukraine. Well, yes and no. Besides the obvious threat Russia poses to the West, this at least begs the question of what kind of Russia we want to do business with, and what are the consequences of our relations with Russia if Ukraine essentially disappears again under its thumb? If the Obama Administration is prepared to shrug off the fact that Russia has launched a war in Europe, and to look the other way when Ukraine implodes, does Putin have reason to believe the response would be any different if he sent his “little green men” to the Baltics?
It is time for the U.S. policy community to stop talking only to itself about these questions and to start talking to Ukraine, to the NATO countries along the northeastern flank, and yes, even to Russia. We should take seriously the experience of the people on the front line not because we owe them any special compassion or support, but because we may just learn something about Putinism that we cannot grasp from inside a think tank office or conference room in Washington.
Nobody with any sense of reality about the NATO alliance today has been advocating that NATO launch a military mission in Ukraine. And it is also painfully true that the Ukrainians themselves bear a lot of the responsibility for their country’s weakness, for the economic collapse, for corruption, for the scope of Ukraine’s past penetration by the Russian intelligence services, and for its overall military ineffectiveness today. Even now, one could point out that, instead of making speeches about wanting to join NATO (symbolically important but a complete non-starter), the Poroshenko government should have taken the Donetsk Airport a month ago and hardened its defenses around Mariupol beyond mining the city’s outskirts.
But let’s be fair. Ukraine is grappling with an almost impossible set of tasks: preventing its economy from collapsing, reforming its state, and defending its territory. All three must be undertaken within a time frame of six months to a year.
So let’s get right to why a Russian victory in Ukraine should matter to the West, and what we should be doing to make sure Kiev at least has a fighting chance. First and foremost, Ukraine is most emphatically not a one-off crisis; it is part of a larger policy design that Vladimir Putin has put in place to restore the Russian irredenta. It is ultimately immaterial whether the man fancies himself another Mikhail Romanov or whether he is simply a clever KGB operative. The results of Putin’s policies are what matter. I choose to use the term “policies” rather than “strategy” because his irredentist project is about his intent, direction, and determination, not about clear design. And yet, these segmented Russian military campaigns, starting with Georgia in 2008, then Crimea in 2014, and now Donetsk, Luhansk, and ultimately the drive to establish “Novorossiya”, have been jointly effective in one respect: Each step has tested NATO’s consensus.
Case in point: at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales the Alliance could not agree to offer necessary reinforcement to the most exposed Nordic/Baltic/Central European peripheral countries, despite their repeated pleas for permanent NATO bases. Instead of sending an unequivocal message of deterrence and defense, the best NATO could do was to offer a fuzzy policy of “reassurance” and “persistent rotational presence.” While symbolically important, a small contingent of NATO soldiers on ad hoc exercises and a few additional aircraft for Baltic air policing do not make for a deterrent posture against a revisionist Russia. Furthermore, NATO’s slowness and overall inability to respond decisively when Russia breached the allied air space or penetrated territorial waters (or, as it did last December, deployed its naval assets in the Baltic) only further reaffirmed Putin’s conviction that he retains the initiative.
The result has been a persistent erosion of confidence in NATO’s security guarantees among states along the northeastern flank, notwithstanding official rhetoric. To compensate for the hollowing out of NATO, these countries are scrambling to rearm and to build regional security cooperation networks. But their increased budgets and new purchases will not register until in 2016–17 at the earliest, and when it comes to air and missile defenses, not until 2020. This makes 2015 arguably the most volatile and potentially dangerous year for the security of Europe since the end of the Cold War. The Putin regime, despite reeling from the energy-price collapse and from the economic sanctions imposed by the West, has nonetheless faced nothing in terms of hard power that would preclude it from entertaining further military moves. This will make Russia even less predictable in the coming months. It is in this context—a direct and accelerating threat to Europe posed by Russia—that Ukraine matters to Transatlantic security writ large. Russia may either dispatch Ukraine in short order, or it may face the mounting costs of a long-term war that it cannot afford in its current economic condition. Today the United States and its European allies have the ability to significantly influence either of these outcomes, and thus weaken or strengthen Europe’s security.
If Ukraine gets the requisite military assistance and continued conditional economic aid, Kiev will have bought NATO more time to build consensus and to hopefully decide to harden its periphery through permanent NATO basing in the Baltic States, Poland and possibly Romania. If the Obama Administration makes the decision to extend military aid (at least to sell weapons if direct military aid is politically impossible), then the impact on the NATO allies along the periphery will be significant. It will signal Washington’s ability to move beyond ideology and politics and see the bigger geostrategic picture. Most of all it will bring in spades real credibility to President Obama’s Warsaw and Tallinn speeches. The effort needed to assist the Ukrainian military is not excessive. It falls into four areas: anti-armor, anti-air, medical, and communications. There are readily available U.S. and European systems that do not require substantial training to operate and that would dramatically change the picture on the battlefield.
Talk of more sanctions—additional sanctions, targeted sanctions, sectoral sanctions, and so forth—is all the West has thus far been able to come up with in response to Russia’s fourth offensive in Ukraine. This has in effect become an ironclad, self-imposed limitation for the United States and Europe. During his State of the Union address, President Obama extolled the sanctions’ effectiveness; days later, Putin struck at Mariupol.
As Russia’s war against Ukraine transforms the military equation along Europe’s periphery with breathtaking speed, the West continues to communicate that it will do nothing that would stop or at least complicate Putin’s military advance. If unchecked, Russian aggression may shift farther westward, this time into the NATO area itself: the Baltics and, if the alliance continues to weaken and eventually unravels from the inside, possibly even into Poland and Romania.
Simply put, so long as NATO remains America’s principal alliance and a means to project our power and influence, Ukraine is most emphatically our business. This is not about going to war; it’s about extending military aid to a country under attack at a critical geostrategic point between Europe and Eurasia. If Russia defeats Ukraine, the loss will reverberate across the continent, underscoring how vulnerable the residual security paradigm in Europe has become to the naked use of force. This is a region whose security has been successfully integrated with ours for decades; America, faced with crises across the globe, cannot afford to allow it to unravel. What is at stake in Ukraine is the future of NATO and the stability and security of Europe. It’s true that since Ukraine is in Europe’s neighborhood the United States has the right to expect greater determination from Berlin, London, and Paris to stop Russia’s war. But it is only partially true. Ukraine is our common problem as an alliance. This is about the growing threat of a wider war in Europe. It’s time for Washington and its European allies to act accordingly.