You don’t see much in the news any more about Eastern Ukraine. Nor is there any indication that President Obama is thinking about the situation there. The “cease fire” that Russia, in essence, imposed provides enough of a fig leaf for the world to avert its gaze.
However, as Ukrainian journalist Nikoay Vorobiov inconveniently informs us, the “cease fire” hasn’t stopped the fighting. Speaking yesterday at the Heritage Foundation, Vorobiov, who covers the fighting on the ground, reported that, if anything, it is now escalating.
Official estimates say that approximately 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died in the conflict. Vorobiov says the real number is considerably higher.
Either way, I’m told, the death count exceeds the number of all Eastern European soldiers killed in the fight against the Taliban. And according to Vorobiov, Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet army say the fighting is worse than what they experienced in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
Who is winning? To answer this question, we must consider the objectives of the Russian and Ukrainian governments.
According to Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation, Russia’s short-term objective is to maintain the conflict in Ukraine and, preferably, to freeze it. By doing so, it blocks Ukraine’s objective — control of all of its territory — and maintains a credibly threat of obtaining more territory, its longer term objective. That threat, in turn, may deter Ukraine from fully aligning with the Atlantic community.
Moreover, with the conflict frozen, Russia accomplishes these objectives without increasing its military commitment. Viewed in this light, Russia isn’t just winning, it has already won.
Nor do there appear to be any good options for reversing the victory. “Unfreezing” the status quo would entail a strong push against the separatists by the Ukrainian army. But even assuming that such a push occurs, it would be met, and presumably offset, by the insertion of more Russian troops. There’s a reason why Ukraine agreed to a cease fire.
I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t steps the U.S. should take. One important measure, advocated yesterday both by Coffey and Peter Doran of the Center for European Policy Analysis, is to provide lethal weapons, plus training, to the Ukrainian army. By increasing Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, we would decrease the extent to which the government will be cowed into moving away from its pro-West, Atlantic oriented stance.
A second important measure is tougher economic sanctions. Such sanctions won’t reverse Russia’s victory. But imposing a big price on that victory is key if we have any hope of upholding our version of the rules that should govern international behavior.
As Doran argued yesterday, Russia is testing the U.S. If its aggression goes essentially unpunished, the rules of international conduct will have been rewritten, NATO will continue to lose relevance, and ethnic tension will trump all norms.
Can tougher sanctions inflict major pain on Russia? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, Russia’s economy is much stronger and complex than, say, Iran’s, which we were able to set back to a significant degree. On the other hand, Russia’s economic aspirations greatly exceed Iran’s.
On balance, there is reason to believe that we can substantially raise the cost to Russia of its lawless aggression. We should try.
Doran also argued that we should develop a strategy for defending Eastern Europe. The old NATO approach was designed to deal with invasions by large, massed armies. It does not fit the kind of hybrid aggression Russia used in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
Doran advocated establishing permanent bases in the region, as opposed to the NATO approach of stationing a small number of troops to act as “trip wires.”
Whether this is the way to go, I’m not sure. But it does seem clear that the broad question of dealing with Russian ambitions in Eastern Europe requires much more thought than the Obama administration — which still won’t admit (at least publicly) that the Russian “reset” was a bad idea — seems willing to engage in.