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Ukraine: Six questions behind the march to war in Europe

For the moment, the war in Ukraine has dropped from the headlines.  But things are happening which could take it to a whole new level of violence and directly involve neighbouring countries. In this article, we offer answers to six questions exploring what’s behind the conflict and why it matters:

1. How dangerous is the current situation?

2. What motivates Putin?

3. Why does Ukraine matter so much to the Russians?

4. Do the Russians really have anything to fear?

5. What brought on the current crisis?

6. Is there a peaceful way out?

1. How dangerous is the current situation?

Things are relatively quiet right now. Just daily skirmishes along the ceasefire line in Eastern Ukraine, with mortars taking a regular toll. Russian special forces at the ready, the “polite little green men” (vezhlevye zelenye chelovechki) who so impressed in the takeover of Crimea. Russian weapons and equipment being convoyed to rebel-controlled areas. A buildup of Russian mechanized infantry, armour, and air defence systems in Belgorod about 40 kilometers across the border from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city which lies to the northwest of (i.e. behind) the currently contested areas. Russia and NATO providing military training in situ to their respective sides.  And in neighbouring countries, US, Canadian, British, French and German forces increasing their ground and air power presence to provide “reassurance”.

There’s nothing about this situation that should reassure us. With all the elements for combustion in place, one wonders whether Ukraine will be the next Central European country to ignite a wider war — as Serbia did the First World War and Poland the Second World War.

For the time being, there is only a ceasefire to govern the situation. The ceasefire protocol was worked out in Minsk in September 2014, had to be supplemented by an explanatory memorandum two weeks later, and then re-written in February 2015 after the Russians and the Ukrainian separatists took advantage of the “ceasefire” to wrest control over large additional tracts of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. Minsk II was signed in the presence of the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France and conference host Belarus, but it is noteworthy that none of them put their personal signatures to the document. The only signatures were those of the leaders of the self-styled “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, a former president of Ukraine (Leonid Kuchma), and a Swiss diplomat representing the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Not exactly a stout reed.

ceasefire in ukraine

One of the reasons Poroshenko, Merkel and Hollande kept their distance from Minsk II was that it documents a second capitulation to Russian aggression. In effect, the agreement cedes parts of Eastern Ukraine to the rebels. The agreement provides for local elections to determine the future of the contested districts, but it is inconceivable the Russians would allow the votes to do anything other than put a legal veneer on the status quo.  The agreement also stipulates that “all foreign armed formations, military equipment, and also mercenaries” must be pulled out, without acknowledging that Russian forces are even inside the country; and it provides for restoring the Ukrainian government’s “full control over the state border”, several hundred kilometers of which the Russians now hold.  Neither is ever likely to happen.

It has taken NATO governments a long time to re-learn some of the fundamentals of statecraft which kept the peace in Europe for 65 years — from NATO’s founding in 1949 (after which the USSR took no further territory) to the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. Principal among these was deterrence, the combined political and military strategy of demonstrating to a would-be attacker the determination and the means to resist force with force – and hence to deter the use of force. The force you show doesn’t have to be overwhelming, just sufficient for the other side to know it would have a war on its hands if it wasn’t careful.

Cautiously, hesitantly and piecemeal, the show is being made and the Russians are taking notice. But the indecision in Western capitals and the slow pace of the NATO military buildup offer little comfort that Russia’s current despot will take it seriously enough to alter his course. Putin has important national interests to pursue, he has not been impressed by the pushback he has received, and he may well have concluded he should press on while circumstances allow. The prospect of having to face a less accommodating US president in 18 months will be a factor in his calculations.

So you don’t have to be an alarmist to conclude Ukraine is the crucible which may determine whether there is to be another war in Europe.

2. What motivates Putin?

When he addressed the Federal Assembly in April 2005, Vladimir Putin famously declared that “The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” But it was what had happened to Russia which most concerned him. “As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” In the words of one of Putin’s foreign policy advisors, Sergei Karaganov, “A softer version of the Treaty of Versailles was imposed on the country. There was no outright annexation of territory or formal reparations like Germany faced … but Russia was told in no uncertain terms that it would play a modest role in the world.  This policy was bound to engender a form of Weimar syndrome in a great nation whose dignity and interests had been trampled.”

Russia’s concerns were not trivial. In the “near abroad”, the loss of compliant and captive nations in Central Europe meant the loss of the hard-won defensive depth so vital to protecting Russia from being invaded from the west – as it had been by Charles II in 1708, Napoleon in 1812, the Kaiser in 1915, and Hitler in 1941. More galling was that many of the former client states had not settled for neutrality but had thrown in their lot with the enemy, joining the hated NATO military alliance.  Most had also become members of the European Union, effectively hitching their economic futures to Western Europe.



In light of Russia’s historically abominable treatment of its neighbours, it would have been surprising if most of the newly sovereign states had not sought the protection and the promise of a better future offered by membership in NATO and the EU. Both organizations, however, were conscious of the importance of assuaging Russian fears. As a result, NATO established the NATO-Russia Council to talk about things, and the EU negotiated a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia which proposed cooperation in four “common spaces”.  In 1998, despite misgivings about its credentials for membership, Russia was invited to join the exclusive G-7.  In 1999, it became an inaugural member of the larger G-20 group of nations.

Nonetheless, Russians are convinced the West cares nothing for the insecurity and sense of isolation – so much part of Russian history since earliest times – which afflicts them as a result of post-Cold War developments. In 2007, in a candid moment at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, Putin expressed his resentment over guarantees he said NATO had failed to honour not to put “frontline forces on our borders”, over NATO members’ refusal to ratify the 1997 treaty on conventional armed forces in Europe, and over NATO and US plans to construct a ballistic missile defence system for Europe. What he was most resentful of was the emergence of a “unipolar world” and the “almost uncontained hyper use of force” by the United States. “No one feels safe”, he said.  Strong feelings, even if the arguments are weak.

In the same speech in which he lamented what had happened to Russia, Putin offered some broad hints at what he had in mind to correct the situation. “Our objectives on the international stage are very clear – to ensure the security of our borders and create favourable external conditions for the resolution of our domestic problems.”

3. Why does Ukraine matter so much to the Russians?

Of all Russia’s losses in 1991, Ukraine poses the greatest concern – by far. For Russians, the “geopolitical disaster of the century” was the dismemberment of “greater Russia” and the establishment of an independent Ukraine.

“Losing Ukraine” represented a profound break with Russian history, which begins with the formation of Kievan Rus around 878. In the evocative words of James H. Billington, currently the Librarian of Congress and author of an exceptionally perceptive history of Russia:

However weakened and transformed in later years, however subject to separate claims of Polish and Ukrainian historians, Kiev remained “the mother of Russian cities” and “joy of the world” to the chroniclers. Memories of its accomplishments lingered on in oral folklore to give the Orthodox Eastern Slavs an enduring sense of the unity and splendour that had been theirs. In the words of the popular proverb, Moscow was the heart of Russia; St. Petersburg, its head; but Kiev, its mother. (The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, Random House, New York, 1966.)

This sense of Ukraine’s place in Russian history remains as profound as ever. As Conor O’Clery writes in his account of the last days of the Soviet Union:

The Soviet president (Mikhail Gorbachev) could not bring himself to believe that Ukraine would vote for independence. Most Russians felt they and Ukrainians were politically and culturally of the same stock – Slavs descended from the once united Rus people. Classic Russian writers like Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov placed their tales in Ukraine. Gogol and Shevchenko were born there. So too was Brezhnev. Gorbachev and his wife both had Ukrainian blood. They believed Ukraine was to Russia what Bavaria was to Germany. It had been part of greater Russia since the “Eternal Peace” between Russia and Poland three centuries earlier, when Kiev and the Cossack lands east of the Dnieper went over to Russian rule. (Moscow December 25 1991, PublicAffairs, New York, 2011)

While Ukraine remained nominally independent after the Russian Revolution, including having its own ersatz foreign ministry, it was of course entirely under Russian control. Nikita Khrushchev, for example, was First Secretary of the Central Committee of Ukraine from 1938 to 1947. He had been born in what is now Kursk Oblast near the Ukrainian border and for much of his early life lived and worked in Donetsk as a metal worker before joining the Communist party in Ukraine. He later held senior party positions in Kharkov and Kiev, and made his reputation as political commissar in the defence of the eastern front during the Great Patriotic War.

In some senses, Ukraine has always been a work in progress, with vast lands being added in the north and west in the time of the czars, then still more in Soviet times. The latter included the westernmost parts of the country seized in World War 2 to secure the USSR additional strategic depth, the eastern and southern parts which the Bolsheviks assigned to Ukraine at the end of the Russian civil war largely for administrative convenience, and Crimea transferred to Ukraine in 1954.

Ukraine territorial growth (cropped)

When Ukraine achieved real independence in 1991, the issue of its territorial boundaries assumed an importance it had never had before in modern times, and not every Russian was prepared to leave things as they were. In a speech on March 18, 2014, Vladimir Putin sought to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea in part on historical grounds:

After the Revolution, the Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons — may God judge them — added large sections of the historical south of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these areas form the southeast of Ukraine. Then, in 1954, a decision was made to transfer the Crimea region to Ukraine, along with Sevastopol … This was the personal initiative of the Communist Party head Nikita Khrushchev. What stood behind this decision of his — a desire to win the support of the Ukrainian political establishment or to atone for the mass repressions of the 1930s in Ukraine — is for historians to figure out.

What matters is that this decision was made in clear violation of the constitutional norms that were in place even then. The decision was made behind the scenes. Naturally, in a totalitarian state nobody bothered to ask the citizens of Crimea and Sevastopol … On the whole, this decision was treated as a formality of sorts because the territory was transferred within the boundaries of a single state. Back then, it was impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia might split up … It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized it had not simply been robbed, it had been plundered.

4. Do the Russians really have anything to fear?

For Russia, Ukraine constituted an enormous loss of people (45 million), of agriculture in Western Ukraine, and of industry in Eastern Ukraine. Critically, it also represented a 500-kilometer pullback of Russia’s defences on the north European plain and along the shore of the Black Sea, both which had historically provided invasion routes from the west and the south respectively (the latter during the 1853-56 Crimean War). The new sovereign state stretched deep into historic Russia and blocked access to the Black Sea (and hence to the Mediterranean), other than the narrow five kilometer-wide Kercher Strait leading out of the Sea of Azov and a 300-kilometer length of shoreline along the northeast coast of the Black Sea.

Without the traditional home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula, southern Russia would be rendered virtually indefensible. For Moscow, the nightmare scenario was that Ukraine would one day join NATO, and that NATO (read US) forces would move into Crimea.

TransnistriaThe simultaneous establishment of an independent Moldova exacerbated the Ukraine problem. Moldova historically had served as a defensive bulwark against a Western attack through the Bessarabian Gap (the southern-most axis of Operation Barbarossa in 1941) which opens the road to important strategic holdings such as the port of Odessa on the Black Sea and Crimea. After independence in 1991, a civil war broke out between pro-Moldovan and pro-Russian forces. The war ended with a ceasefire which left pro-Russian forces in control of “Transnistria”, a narrow strip of land along the east bank of the Dniester River bordering Ukraine which has since been occupied by Russian forces.  Russia fears Moldova might one day go the route of its neighbour Romania and join “the West”. Moldova has official relations with NATO, but its prospects for membership are remote unless Ukraine were somehow to become a member. Moldova, however, has signed an association agreement with the EU.     

When Ukraine declared its independence in August 1991, there was little Russia under Yeltsin wanted to do about it. Yeltsin himself had been one of the three leaders of the “Soviet republics” who met in early December 1991 to dissolve the USSR (the others were Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislau Shushkevich of Belarus) and sign the “Agreement on the Creation of a Commonwealth of Independent States”. But Moscow did want to do something about the Soviet nuclear weapons which Ukraine had inherited and work out some kind of deal with Kiev to divide up the Soviet military bases and conventional weapons located in Ukraine.  

At the time, Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal was the third largest in the world, greater than those of Britain, France and China combined. It comprised 1900 strategic nuclear warheads, 2500 tactical nuclear weapons, 176 inter-continental range ballistic missiles, 55 air-launched cruise missiles, and 44 strategic bombers. Following protracted negotiations, the leaders of Russia (Yeltsin), Ukraine (Kravchuk), and the United States (Clinton) met in Moscow in January 1994 to sign an agreement (the Trilateral Statement) by which Ukraine would transfer all strategic warheads on its territory to Russia, be compensated for the commercial value of the highly enriched uranium (HEU) it would be giving up, and receive US financial assistance to help with the safe disposal of the ICBMs, missile silos, bombers and other nuclear infrastructure on its territory. Importantly, Ukraine would accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state and its security would be guaranteed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

It took most of another year, however, to work out the modalities of the security guarantee. These were finally documented in the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed on December 5, 1994 by Yeltsin and Clinton, the newly elected president of Ukraine (Leonid Kuchma), and British Prime Minister John Major. France and China associated themselves with the agreement in separate documents.  In the Memorandum, the parties committed to:

In brief, Ukraine gave up an enormous nuclear arsenal in return for big power guarantees of its security and its borders.

Three years later, in 1997, Russia and Ukraine also reached agreement on dividing up Soviet-era military assets in Ukraine. Crucially, Ukraine refused to compromise its sovereign control of Crimea and the port of Sevastopol, but it agreed to lease the Sevastopol naval base back to Russia for twenty years, i.e. until 2017.  In 2009, as relations between them deteriorated, Ukraine threatened Russia with not renewing the lease, but the following year they agreed to a 25-year extension. In return, Russia would supply Ukraine with natural gas at concessional rates under a long-term contract.

5. What brought on the current crisis?

Immediately after independence, Ukraine began making overtures to join NATO (and the EU). In 1997, it received some encouragement with the establishment of the NATO-Ukraine Commission.  The declared purpose of the Commission was to “develop the NATO-Ukraine relationship, direct cooperative activities, and provide a forum for consultation on security issues”.  In Moscow, this was seen as a first step toward the nightmare scenario of Ukrainian membership. Russia appears never to have seriously contemplated the possibility of itself joining NATO, but the same year (1997) it signed its own agreement with NATO (the NATO-Russia Founding Act) to work on “mutual relations, cooperation and security”.

In 2002, the Ukrainians took a second step when Kuchma announced that Ukraine aspired to join the Alliance. As an earnest of its intentions, Ukraine contributed forces to NATO-led missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Following the “Orange Revolution” in 2004-05, which had been prompted by a contested election finally won by Viktor Yushchenko over the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych, there were further discussions about NATO membership and, at their 2008 summit in Rumania, NATO leaders announced that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO”.  The politics of the announcement were more important than the practicalities, since NATO members made it clear they had no immediate intention of instituting a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for either country to actually join the Alliance. To this day, many in NATO question whether it makes any sense for the Alliance to take on such a project. But the Bucharest announcement constituted a third important step towards Ukrainian membership — and Putin, who had been invited to attend the summit, warned that Ukrainian membership would be viewed as a “direct threat” to Russia.



Independent polls had consistently reported Ukrainian opinion divided on NATO membership, with support strongest in the Europe-oriented western oblasts and opposition greatest in the Russian-speaking eastern oblasts.  So there was little surprise when the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, who had won the 2010 presidential election, reversed the position of his immediate predecessors and declared his opposition to membership. Later that year, he secured passage of legislation declaring that Ukraine would be “non-aligned” and would not participate in any “political-military alliances”.  At that point, the matter seemed closed.

In February 2014, however, conditions changed dramatically when the “Euromaidan” protests drove Yanukovych from office. The protests had largely been prompted by the President’s refusal to proceed with plans for Ukraine to join the European Union, for which there was widespread support in most parts of the country. Moscow had gone to great pains to try to keep Yanukovych in office and blamed Western intelligence agencies and NGOs for his ouster. For Russia, his departure represented a strategic defeat of the first order. Once again, Moscow faced the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO — this time, it seemed, for real.  At which point it appears Putin decided to take matters into his own hands to secure Russia’s strategic interests in Crimea. A month later, Russian forces had established military control over the entire peninsula.


When the new president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, took office shortly afterwards, he promptly arranged for Ukraine to sign the Association Agreement with the EU which his predecessor had refused to do. Poroshenko was more cautious on the subject of NATO membership, but his prime minister Arseny Yatsenyuk was quite direct: “In light of Russia’s aggression”, he said, “I consider the most correct decision would be to accept Ukraine as a member of NATO”.

As Russian military encroachments and advances by pro-Russian separatists in the summer and fall of 2014 wrested away Kiev’s control over large sections of the eastern oblasts, Ukrainian resolve strengthened and in December 2014 parliament repealed the law barring Ukrainian participation in NATO.  The vote did not constitute an application to join NATO, and Ukrainian officials worry about moving too quickly for fear of rejection by the Alliance. Ukraine will not be in a position for some years to satisfy Alliance membership criteria; nor can it take for granted the unanimous approval of NATO members which would be necessary. But the writing is on the wall. “Finally, we corrected a mistake”, said Poroshenko, “Ukraine’s non-aligned status is out”.

The Russians, for their part, have given no hint they are willing to modify their position. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has continued to warn that membership would be “an issue for Russia”. He described the parliamentary vote as “counterproductive” and said it “only escalates confrontation”. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has warned that a formal application “would turn Ukraine into a potential military adversary for Russia”. Presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Putin “would like to hear a 100 percent guarantee that no one would think about Ukraine’s joining NATO”.

6. Is there a peaceful way out?

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has sometimes been excused as an impulsive act of self-defence, but reversing history is a better explanation and one that helps illuminate Russia’s actions both in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

As currently configured, Ukraine is simply too important to Russia to be allowed to join “the West”.  In comparison, Moldova and Georgia and even the Baltic states are sideshows.  At minimum, Russia’s interests require that Crimea be under Russian military control and the rest of Ukraine be “non-aligned”, i.e. compliant and not formally associated with any “Western” group such as NATO or the EU. Better still if Russian forces could return to Ukrainian territory, as they have done in Crimea and aspire to in Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk.  Best of all for Russia would be the re-incorporation of at least eastern and southern Ukraine if not the whole country. The Minsk ceasefire line left Russian forces perilously close to Mariupol on the north coast of the Sea of Azov, key to opening a land link with Crimea and re-establishing Russian control over southern Ukraine.

With Russian and Ukrainian interests diametrically opposed and in the absence of any serious diplomatic track to reach an accommodation, the parties are on the road to war.

In January, the US Senate Armed Services Committee asked Henry Kissinger for his advice. There is wisdom in what he had to say:

We should begin with the definition of the objective we are trying to reach and then see which measures are the most suitable. I am uneasy about beginning a process of military engagement without knowing where it will lead us and what we are willing to do to sustain it … Ukraine should be an independent state, free to develop its own relationships with perhaps a special aspect with respect to NATO membership. It should be maintained within its existing borders, and Russian troops should be withdrawn as part of a settlement. But I believe we should avoid taking incremental steps before we know how far we are willing to go. This is a territory 300 miles from Moscow and therefore has special security implications. That does not change my view of the outcome, which must be a free Ukraine. And it may include military measures as part of it, but I am uneasy when one speaks of military measures alone without having the strategy fully put forward.

In other words, Washington and its NATO allies have only the fuzziest idea of what they want to achieve but are nonetheless taking military measures apparently oblivious to their potential impact on Russian security interests. As Sun Tzu observed, “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”. In Europe, the noise people hear is the rumble of Russian mechanized forces preparing to move on Mariupol, Kharkiv and maybe Kiev.

For all that, it is possible to conceive of a diplomatic solution in which both sides make concessions as the price of safeguarding their security interests. But just to get the Russians to deal would first require convincing them there is (or soon will be) sufficient military strength arrayed against them that they could not hope to achieve their objectives in Ukraine without taking heavy losses and, simultaneously, that they had something of value to lose by persisting in their current course. The former would require a considerable acceleration and expansion of NATO military assistance to both Ukraine and other “at risk” states. The latter could include such measures (threatened or actioned) as lifting NATO’s self-imposed restriction on stationing forces in Ukraine and providing the Ukrainian forces with heavy weapons; inviting Moldova to join NATO, under special provisions which temporarily waived its inability to meet the membership criteria; and denying the Russian navy the full value of holding Sevastopol by restricting the passage of Russian warships through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles to prevent their egress to the Mediterranean. Ukraine, so far losing the war in slow motion, would probably not require any inducement to negotiate.

But the deal is not one to be resolved between Russia and Ukraine alone, particularly since Ukraine has much the weaker bargaining strength. The so-called international community must be a party to any deal, considering the stake the whole world has in respect for the laws and norms governing relations between states. It was the big powers’ failure to insist international law be upheld in the 1930s which eviscerated the League of Nations and left nothing in its place to arrest the course of war; if they let Russia get away with its aggression in Ukraine, what’s the point of the United Nations?

In light of these considerations, the main elements of a deal could be the following:

Though there would be pain for both sides, such an agreement would respect international law while satisfying the minimal security requirements of the principal parties. Just discussing such a deal could alter the dynamics of the situation Europe now faces. Putin, in particular, would be hard pressed to reject it out of hand. Were he to do so, his political friends beleaguered by sanctions could be counted on to apply some pressure in support, and consequential allies such as Belarus and Kazakhstan would likely weigh in as well.

The fearful and unimaginative politicians and bureaucrats who have commanded the heights of Western foreign policy during this crisis have followed the dictum: “Better to do nothing than the wrong thing”. They need to be moved aside and replaced by individuals made of sterner stuff — before the spirit of appeasement once again leads Europe into war.