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Ukraine: The New Cuban Missile Crisis?

February 22, 2015

February 6, 2015: Refugees moving between Debaltseve & Uglegorsk are escorted by pro-Russian rebels. Image via Shutterstock

Carnegie Council Global Ethics Fellow Rajan Menon has just published a new book, with Carnegie Endowment scholar Eugene Rumer, titled, Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order. With the Ukraine crisis unresolved and the timeliness of this new publication, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart asked Professor Menon to help us better understand the ethics and implications of the conflict for global security, regional economies, and U.S. foreign policy.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you make of the peace agreements that have been reached so far? They have been described as fragile at best. What is missing to make them stick?

RAJAN MENON: It's a bit early to say. The fighting centering on Debaltseve that went on despite the February 12 "Minsk II" agreement and the resulting forced withdrawal from that town of encircled Ukrainian troops made for an inauspicious start. Now there is some movement on the exchange of prisoners and apparently on the pullback of some heavy weapons. But still, none of the pivotal provisions of Minsk II (a ceasefire and the pullback of heavy weapons, for example) has yet been fully implemented. Besides, without a verifiable ceasefire that involves third-party observers and peacekeepers on site (they can only be introduced when there is a peace to keep) in a weapons-and-troops-free zone on, say, a 50-kilometer swathe on either side of the current battle lines, the ceasefire could fall apart quickly. If that happens more people in eastern Ukraine will die, and many more will flee their homes. And Russia and the United States could slide toward their biggest confrontation since the Cuban missile crisis.

DEVIN STEWART: Your book, Conflict in Ukraine, was published just this month (February 2015) during the middle of the crisis. Were you anticipating the conflict? If so, what were the signs?

RAJAN MENON: No one could have foreseen the Russian incorporation of Crimea in the spring of 2014 nor the war that erupted in Ukraine's eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk at that time. That includes Ukrainians. When Eugene Rumer (my co-author) and I visited Ukraine, separately, before this volcano erupted, no one in that country thought that they would find themselves where they are today.

That said, the tensions between Crimea and Donetsk and Luhank on the one hand, and the various central governments in Kiev go back to the independence of Ukraine in 1991 and have involved disputes over the place of the Russian language, regional autonomy, the nature of Ukraine's relationship with Russia, and, on one occasion at least, in Crimea's case, a bid for independence. Crimea is Ukraine's only Russian-majority province and though only a fifth or so of Ukrainian citizens are ethnic Russians, four-fifths of them live in Crimea and Ukraine's eastern provinces. The tension between Ukraine's western and central regionsand its southern and eastern ones can be overstated and it certainly has not been the defining element in Ukraine's politics. But there's no denying that the current crisis has roots in the past and did not emerge from the clear blue sky.

The book that Eugene Rumer and I wrote is not, I should stress, a policy primer. Instead, it seeks to offer a historical, economic, and political-security framework for understanding the complex set of circumstances that bought this crisis about and what pathways it might take.

DEVIN STEWART: You and others have described this conflict as an upending of the post-Cold War order. How would you describe that order and what do you see for the next one? Are we headed for a new Cold War? If so, over what?

RAJAN MENON:That order was based on the assumption that Russia and the West shared enough interests in common (for instance, economic relations, combating terrorism, stability in Afghanistan, and checking nuclear proliferation) that they would, the Cold War having ended, coexist in harmony at minimum and perhaps even become partners. The belief was that differences over NATO's expansion eastward and the EU's effort to increase integration with some ex-Soviet states would create challenges that would need to be resolved politically, but not that there would be a confrontation in Europe that would escalate to a military level.

There will be no Cold War redux, given that Russia and the United States are not involved—despite the hype following the Ukraine conflagration—in a military and ideological competition on a global scale as the heads of rival alliances. That said, it will take many years for the relationship between Russia and the West to return to anything we would consider normal and stable. The Ukraine crisis is like a big rock that has been thrown into a pond. It is having, and will have, far-reaching ripple effects, above all for Ukraine and Russia. I do not think that our own national security interests are at issue in this crisis in the way that many others do.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there any hope for U.S.-Russian cooperation in the future? What about the future of NATO?

RAJAN MENON: The atmosphere for U.S-Russia cooperation has certainly been spoilt. But neither side must hold hostage cooperation on important issues that remains in their interests and in the interests of international peace and stability. I have in mind, for example, a resolution to the dispute over Iran's nuclear program, stability on the Korean peninsula, and terrorism. To say that we will refuse to work with the Russians on these matters until they do what we wish them to do in Ukraine amounts to cutting off our nose to spite our face. That may offer catharsis but it's not a basis for a sensible policy.

DEVIN STEWART: Much has been made of the broader security and economic impact of this conflict. What has been the damage to the Ukrainian economy and European security environment?

RAJAN MENON: It is not an exaggeration to say that Ukraine teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. Whether it is the value of its currency (the hrivnya), which is down 50 percent against the dollar over the past 12 months; interest rates (raised to almost 20 percent in a desperate move to prop up the hrivnya); currency reserves, which are now a mere $6.4 billion, barely enough to cover two months of exports; or the economic output (down almost 8 percent in the past year)—all the indicators look terrible. I do not see light at the end of the tunnel.

Those who focus on the effect of sanctions and low oil prices on Russia's economy (the consequences for Russia have undeniably been very bad) forget that a continuing war will take a far heavier toll on Ukraine.

As for NATO, for now it has received a shot in the arm. But problems that have remained unresolved will come back to plague the alliance: one is the huge disparity in military spending (as a proportion of GDP) between NATO-Europe and America. Americans will find it harder and harder to understand why Europeans cannot do more for their own defense. The EU's GDP is about on par with ours. Moreover, Ukraine's predicament is far more consequential for Europeans than it is for Americans.

DEVIN STEWART: What has been the impact on U.S. goals for fighting terrorism and reducing nuclear proliferation?

RAJAN MENON: That remains to be seen, for reasons I've already mentioned. Alas, as the U.S. election campaign gets underway, expect a lot more heated rhetoric between the United States and Russia. Expect, as well, a "Who lost Ukraine?" chorus. The resulting war of words won't solve anything—to the contrary—but it will happen anyway.

DEVIN STEWART: There has been a lot of debate about the potential merits of arming Ukraine. What is your view and why?

RAJAN MENON: I have enormous sympathy for Ukraine's plight, but those who think that Putin will back off if only we'd arm Ukraine are kidding themselves—and the rest of us. He will not do so and has many more options to stir things up than we do. Why? Eastern Ukraine is across his border and very far from ours. And he has a lot more at stake in Ukraine than we do. What do we propose to do if he responds to our arming Ukraine by escalating? Arm Ukraine some more? Then what?

DEVIN STEWART: Tell us about the ethical dimensions to this conflict. Can the conflict be seen as a clash of ideas about Russian nationhood and Ukrainian sovereignty? Does the United States have a responsibility to protect Ukraine? Is it also a conflict between a liberal West and an illiberal Russia or is it more complicated?

RAJAN MENON: There is both an ethical and strategic imperative to end this war, which has killed some 6,000 people. A half million are "internally displaced people," and about a quarter of a million have fled to nearby countries, the vast majority to Russia, incidentally. War is always cruelest to the most defenseless and the least wealthy.

DEVIN STEWART: Ultimately, what's the best approach for the United States toward resolving this conflict?

RAJAN MENON:There can be no military solution to this, only a political one. And sending arms to Ukraine to gain political leverage against Russia will set back prospects for a solution. The way forward is: an end to fighting, a monitored ceasefire in which peacekeepers patrol no-forces/weapons zones on either side of the current line of control once the gunfire stops, external monitoring of the Russia-Ukraine border—from the Ukrainian side of the line—unimpeded access for relief agencies to former war zones, and international aid for returning refugees.

If the deal holds and the fighting stops, we must think hard about what incentives Russia can be given. If Ukraine agrees to this (and we must not cut a deal with Russia over its head), a pledge of neutrality on its part for, say, five years is one carrot. Another is phased sanctions relief for Russia.

Whether or not one believes this is all Russia's fault, Putin will not settle for a deal that requires him to go home empty-handed. And he has many cards left to play. That said, concessions must be based on a concrete change in the situation on the ground. That will require hard choices by Russia and by Ukraine above all and then by the United States and Europe. Even if all this happens, a host of issues, not least the future of the breakaway areas of eastern Ukraine, will have to be resolved. Don't expect this mess to be cleaned up quickly.

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