Part II. Ukraine and the Search for a Strategy
Back on June 4, we posted Part I, “The Islamic State and the Search for a Strategy” and promised that Part II would deal with Ukraine and Eastern Europe. After a somewhat longer interval than anticipated, we turn now to Part II. As it happens, little appears to have changed with respect to Ukraine and Eastern Europe since our previous post. Ukraine, and more broadly Eastern Europe, seems to have slid largely out of political and public consciousness. Yet that part of the world continues, in our view, to represent a highly dangerous situation that is almost certain to appear as a new crisis at some point.
In June, Anne Applelbaum, a foreign policy expert, resident in Europe and a columnist for The Washington Post, discussed the decline of American influence in Europe in her column in the Post:
President Obama’s failure to defend his own “red line” in Syria and his admitted lack of strategy against the Islamic State have left many wondering whether he’s interested in the Middle East at all. The same problem exists with regard to Russia, where there is a strange split between NATO military leaders, who are publicly very blunt in their assessment of Russian maneuvers over the Baltic Sea and Scandinavia, as well as in Ukraine, and the strangely sanguine White House. While Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, warns of “revanchist Russia,” Obama lightly dismisses Russia as a weak “regional power” that poses no larger threats.
In Ukraine, the situation continues to be dire, not only militarily and economically, but from a humanitarian standpoint. The Administration has resisted calls for supplying military equipment to Ukraine but the sanctions that are the core of the Administration’s strategy have had no discernible effect. It appears that the absence of a strategy on the part of the administration may have reflected not only a failure of nerve and imagination but a desire to avoid upsetting Russia unduly while relying on its active cooperation and assistance in reaching a deal with Iran.
As noted in a New York Times column, President Obama made clear his gratitude to Russia:
Referring to Washington’s tensions with Moscow, Obama said in an interview after the agreement was reached in Vienna that “Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me.” He added: “We would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us.”
But whether the fruits of Russia’s support—the agreement now before Congress—were to our benefit, opinion remains sharply divided and we are distinctly skeptical. However that may be, the Iran negotiations no longer provide a reason or excuse for treading lightly in Europe.
Militarily, a cease-fire agreement reached in February has been observed more in the breach than the observance. Fighting has not only continued but has increased in recent days. On August 10, a State Department spokesman said that Ukrainian rebels had launched more attacks over the last three days than in any similar time period since February and indicated that it may represent an escalating effort to destabilize Ukraine’s government. The White House, however, had nothing to say on the subject. The most recent press release from the White House was a bland statement summarizing a telephone call between Vice President Biden and Ukraine President Poroshenko on July 24:
Both leaders agreed that Russia and Russia-backed separatists had still failed to fully implement the first few steps under the February 12, 2015 Minsk Implementation Plan calling for a ceasefire and the removal of heavy weapons from the line of contact.
What, if anything, the Administration plans to do, or to assist Ukraine in doing, in resisting Russian aggression remained, and still remains a mystery.
If the military situation is grim, Ukraine’s economic challenges are at least as serious. The country’s economy has suffered hugely from the loss of Crimea, continued combat and a plunging currency. At the present time, the focus of economic concern is Ukraine’s urgent need to negotiate debt relief from its creditors in order to receive vitally needed financial support from the International Monetary Fund. The country’s largest single creditor is a California fund manager, Franklin Templeton, which holds more than $7 billion in bonds out of a total of $19 billion. (Ironically, as pointed out by George Soros in a op-ed piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, Templeton’s management is headed by Nicholas Brady, who as Treasury Secretary under President George H.W. Bush created a debt relief plan for Latin American countries and should therefore understand Ukraine’s problem.)
The United States does not appear to be playing any role in the current restructuring negotiations. It has previously provided $2 billion in loan guarantees, but clearly more financial support is needed. Just how much the United States can and should provide to keep the Ukraine economy afloat is a complex matter on which we are not qualified to opine. We suggest, however, that the issue deserves more public attention than it has received from either the Administration or Congress. While there has been considerable debate of whether and what kind of military assistance should be provided to Ukraine (and the questions are still unresolved), a total collapse of the Ukraine economy might make those questions moot. Ukraine is not without blame for its economic situation—there as elsewhere government corruption has been a major problem and economic reforms have been too slow in coming. Nevertheless, unlike Greece, whose economic wounds have been seen as largely self-inflicted, Ukraine’s disastrous economy can be directly tied to the Russian aggression. Put another way, Russia should not be allowed to win through bankers and hedge funds what they and their proxies could not win on the battlefield.
In the meantime, the humanitarian crisis continues to grow. The United Nations reported in July that the number of Ukrainians in need of assistance has now reached a total of five million people. Almost 1.4 million people were internally displaced while another 3 million remained in non-government controlled areas. Both groups, he said were prioritized for humanitarian aid.
The United States has a moral and legal commitment to Ukraine dating back to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing of its nuclear arsenal. The means of enforcing that commitment, however, have never been spelled out. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and even the most hawkish voices on Capitol Hill have not gone beyond urging that we supply Ukraine with legal weaponry. If Russia should succeed, through military or economic pressures, in absorbing all of Ukraine, or even just placing that country firmly within its orbit, the implications for other European countries will be grave. In the end, the greatest importance of Ukraine to our own national security may be what it portends for the countries with whom we are joined as members of NATO.
Expressed fears and urgent pleas for NATO support have been heard throughout Eastern Europe, but most loudly from Latvia and Poland. On June 22, NATO announced that it “may” increase its rapid response force to 40,000 troops to be stationed close to Russian borders in Eastern Europe. At the same time, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that the United States “would help NATO with aircraft, weapons and forces” and that “the decision had been made to stand by Europe in its battle against security threats.” It appeared that Carter was referring to some recent decision, but it was not clear exactly what “decision” and by whom he had in mind. One would have thought that a commitment to stand by Europe in its battle against security threats was inherent in our creation and continued membership in NATO.
It is unclear what if any action has been taken thus far to implement the proposed expansion of the rapid response force. Carter did indicate in June that heavy equipment (armored vehicles and self-propelled howitzers) sufficient to arm one combat brigade would be provided. The schedule for providing the equipment was not announced nor the number of troops involved. The brigade would not have a permanent base, as urged by Poland, but would be rotated through Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland for training exercises. In any case, a single combat brigade force is a tiny fraction of our deployments during the Cold War and it appears more symbolic than substantive. What other NATO countries have done, or are planning to do has not been disclosed. Nothing further has been said by the Administration or NATO and little apparent interest in the subject has been shown by Congress.
Other NATO countries have continued to lag in meeting their commitments for defense spending. Moreover, a recent poll show a significant drop in public support in European countries for their NATO obligation to provide mutual defense pursuant to Article V of the NATO treaty. A survey by Pew Research was reported and analyzed by the Brookings Institution on June 16, “Not ready for a post-American world: European views on NATO.” The Brookings report indicates that “European publics appear to view the military defense of the alliance as a specifically American job.” That seeming complacency, and inclination to rely on America, seems at odds with the declining American influence cited at the outset of this blog. But logic and consistency may be in short supply as often in international politics as they are in the domestic variety.
The Brookings report also observed that the European perception “sits uncomfortably with the Obama administration’s aspirations for its allies’ role in European security.” While we would a support the Administration’s goal of Europeans assuming greater responsibility for the defense of that continent, the security of Europe is, in the end, a vital interest of the United States. And if we are unable to persuade our allies to do more, that too may be seen as a failure of leadership.