Stuart E. Gallagher is a United States Army Officer and a graduate of the National Defense University. He served as a Military Advisor to the United States Department of State during the outset of the Ukraine crisis and is a recognized subject matter expert on Russian-Ukrainian affairs. He currently serves as the Chief, G3/5 Plans and Analysis for the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Divergent Options content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, organization or group.
Title: Assessing Ukraine’s Return to Stability
Date Originally Written: September 22, 2020.
Date Originally Published: December 9, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author maintains a keen interest in Russian-Ukrainian affairs. The author contends that Ukraine will not return to a position of stability as long as the West continues to seek a military solution to the conflict – the military instrument of national power will only serve as a supporting effort. Stability in Ukraine will only be attained through thoughtful and effective diplomacy.
Summary: Russia sees Ukraine as critical to its security and economy. Viewing Ukraine as a zero sum game, Russia will continue to destabilize it, to prevent Ukraine’s inclusion into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. The solution to Russian destabilization of Ukraine is not military means – this situation will require diplomatic intervention with compromise by both sides – if there is to be any enduring peace and stability in the region.
Text: Throughout history, Ukraine has played a critical role in Russia’s security and economy. The Soviet Union collapse in 1991 led to a techtonic change in the security environment that endures to this day. This change also opened the door to self-determination, enabling Ukraine to become a state of its own. Since that time Russia has remained intent on keeping Ukraine in it’s orbit as Ukraine plays a crucial role in providing a geographic buffer between Russia and the West.
When the former President of Ukraine Yanukovych fled the country in February of 2014, Ukraine began to gravitate increasingly more towards the West. As a result, Russia took immediate action. In 2014, Russia occupied eastern Ukraine and invaded Crimea ultimately destabilizing the country and effectively blocking its inclusion into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union. Russia’s actions relied heavily on information and the military as their primary instruments of national power.
When considering the Ukraine conflict, one of the first questions one must ask is why? Why does Russia care so much about western expansion? The first part of this answer derives from the country’s history. More specifically, Russia has consistently survived existential threats through defense in depth. That is to say, Russia maintained a geographical buffer zone between itself and that of its adversaries, which provided a level of stand-off and protection critical to its survival. The second part of this answer is a perceived broken promise by the West that NATO would not expand. As some recently declassified documents illustrate, “Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was given a host of assurances that the NATO alliance would not expand past what was then the German border in 1990.” This point is one that Vladimir Putin reminded western leaders about during the Munich Conference on Security Policy in 2007 when he stated, “What happened to the assurances our Western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today?” The third part of this answer lies in the Russian perception of the West taking advantage of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, which included and continues to include Western encroachment on Russian borders. Debating the merits of whether or not this perception is a reality is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say that in the Russian mind, when it comes to NATO expansion and encroachment, perception is reality thus justifying any and all Russian actions in the near abroad.
The warnings concerning Russia’s actions in Ukraine over the course of the past five years have been voiced on multiple occasions since the 1990s. In 1997, Zbigniew Brzenzinski, former counselor to President Lyndon B. Johnson and National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter stated, “If Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources as well as access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia.” In a similar vein, George Kennan, former American diplomat and historian, professed that pushing ahead with expansion “would inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western, and militaristic tendancies in Russian opinion,…have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy,” and “restore the atomosphere of Cold War to East-West relations.” Considering Russia’s actions, it would appear that these warnings were ignored until 2014.
Today the situation in eastern Ukraine remains grim. Despite the litany of economic sanctions placed on Russia by the West, over 1 billion dollars of military aid to Ukraine and a multitude of diplomatic engagements to include the Minsk agreements, the conflict in Ukraine endures with no end in sight – a conflict that has claimed more than 10,300 lives, 24,000 injuries and displaced over 1.5 million people since April of 2014. To exacerbate matters, the conflict has for the most part fallen out of the media, eclipsed by other events deemed more pressing and newsworthy.
Although the Ukrainian military is making great strides in training, manning and equiping their force with Western assistance, they are still a long way from unilaterally standing up to a military power like Russia with any sort of positive outcome. Even if Ukraine could stand up militarily to Russia, a land war between Russia and Ukraine would be catastrophic for all involved. Hence, the solution to the conflict in Ukraine and the future stability of the region does not lie with the military. On the contrary, it will ultimately be resolved through diplomacy and compromise. The question is when?
It is safe to assume that no western leader wants to see the conflict in Ukraine escalate. However, as it sits, the frozen conflict in the region is likely to endure as the West continues to struggle with the new geopolitical landscape that Russia instigated. “The prospect of [the West] recognizing Russia as an aggressor is too scary. It means that a country that was a founding or key member for setting up the world’s post-World War II security and diplomatic institutions has undermined those institutions and deemed them redundant. The world has no idea how to deal with this massive shift in Russia’s international relations.” Further, “Modern diplomacy presumes that everyone plays by the same rules, which include at least some political will to negotiate once you sit at the round table, and the readiness to implement agreements once they are signed.” Unfortunately, Russia and the West’s interests continue to be mutually exclusive in nature. In order for diplomacy to work, the West will need to understand and admit to this paradigm shift and adapt its diplomatic efforts accordingly. However, the Kremlin does not want Ukraine to slip into a Western orbit as it threatens their economic and security interests in the region. The result… diplomatic gridlock.
Albert Einstein once surmised that, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This is a thought that aptly applies to the conflict in Ukraine. Ukraine simply cannot be viewed as a zero-sum game and/or a prize between Russia and the West. Moreover, although the military will play a role, the situation will not be solved with shear military might alone. The long-term solution to this in Ukraine will only be realized through meaningful, informed diplomatic dialogue and compromise on both sides of the conflict. This road less traveled will take time and be fraught with disagreement and frustration, but the alternative is much worse. It is one riddled with more death, more destruction and an enduring instability that will impact Russian and European interests for years to come.
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