Arming Ukraine will put the West in danger

February 6, 2015
A member of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic looks on near a building destroyed during battles with the Ukrainian armed forces in Vuhlehirsk

A member of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic stands near a building destroyed during battles with the Ukrainian armed forces in Vuhlehirsk, Donetsk region, Feb. 4, 2015. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

A dangerous, possibly irreversible, dynamic of conflict is taking hold of Russian-Western relations.

In every arena of the Ukraine crisis, escalation is the order of the day. On the ground, where fresh fighting rages in the Donbass region. In the skies over Europe, where British fighter jets are intercepting Russian nuclear bombers. In Washington, where Congress and ambitious policymakers with an eye on the 2016 presidential elections are forcing the White House’s hand on lethal assistance to Kiev. In Moscow, where the few remaining voices of compromise are considered weaklings or traitors. Even in the realm of global finance, where expelling Russia from the SWIFT payment system is now under serious consideration.

At this rate, someone’s really going to get hurt soon. This is not to make light of the suffering already being caused by the conflict in eastern Ukraine, with half a million people displaced and thousands killed and wounded in fighting there. What it does suggest is the need for perspective amid the increasingly unhinged talk of war with Russia.


Memories are short. The fallout from the wars of 9/11 in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria has all but consumed Western strategic thinking. But the Cold War ended only 25 years ago, and Ukraine’s singular strategic significance to Russia ought to make the memory of a nuclear crisis over Cuba seem positively quaint by comparison.

Russia still possesses a nuclear arsenal in excess of 8,000 warheads. It has a conventional military of nearly one million men under arms, and in the age of cyberwarfare has the ability to inflict catastrophic damage on critical Western infrastructure.

To their credit, President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have sought to keep the West on a sober path, addressing Moscow’s annexation of Crimea with firm diplomacy in the pursuit of a peaceful solution. Even as this conflict has demonstrated the speed with which Washington can push for sanctions whose consequences are largely borne by Europeans, Merkel has made maintaining trans-Atlantic, as well as European, unity her lodestar.

What the current escalation risks, however, is a breakdown of this unity — even as the possibility of open conflict is growing. A new approach is urgently needed.

It must begin with a reality check on the nature of the adversary, and the futility of the current course of action. The features of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime that its critics most like to cite — kleptocracy, repression, chauvinism, revisionism, paranoia — are the very characteristics that will make it utterly unwilling to capitulate under pressure, be it financial or military.

The more the West emphasizes a belligerent course of action, the more Putin’s popular support, already in a range undreamed of by Western leaders (80 percent approval), will harden rather than soften.

The West is increasingly dealing with a government in Moscow whose most liberal and pluralist elements see a reality of economic war with the West, and a future of responses “without limits” to further sanctions — as that most pliable (and unrepresentative) of Russian leaders, Dimitri Medvedev, noted Jan. 27.

Moscow will view a decision to expel the Russian banking system from SWIFT as not just an economic measure but as a strategic one. To be met by any and all means at Russia’s disposal. Cyber, energy, finance, nonstate groups in neighboring states — all could become weapons in such a response. That is also without considering the risk of a catastrophic miscalculation or overreaction by a single pilot, nuclear submarine captain or militia member with a shoulder-fired missile.

In an atmosphere of zero trust, anything becomes possible.

If a diplomatic solution is to be found before — and not after — a terrible conflagration involving the world’s two nuclear superpowers, a new U.S.-German diplomatic initiative toward Moscow must be launched.

Moscow will have to accept that the people of Ukraine freely elect their own leaders and can choose membership in the European Union. The West will have to accept that the minority rights we trumpet elsewhere also should apply to Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine, and that membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will make Ukraine — and the alliance itself — less secure, not more.

For this kind of settlement to be possible, the Kremlin will have to walk back its most extreme rhetoric — and ambitions — about a Novorossiya. The West will have to reverse its folly of walking the people of Ukraine out on a plank of military and economic dependency on Europe in a conflict with Russia that has no sustainable political support among European populations.

The contours of a deal acceptable to both sides has long been clear. Given the cataclysmic consequences of an armed conflict with Russia, only the absence of an all-hands-on-deck diplomatic push by the West is a mystery.

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