TSG IntelBrief: Ukraine at a Crossroads
February 9, 2015

Ukraine at a Crossroads

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• It has been 348 days since Russia moved into Crimea, kicking off an increasingly serious threat not just to the Ukrainian people but to wider European stability

• In the nearly one year since the armed fighting began, Russian President Vladimir Putin has pushed aside assumed psychological barriers of behavior that the EU and NATO had hoped would bolster their decreased military deterrent towards armed aggression

• A meeting this Wednesday between Russia and its armed proxy Ukrainian separatists, Germany, France, and Ukraine shows how serious the crisis has become, with real concerns as to what happens when talks can’t stop the shooting

• Russia will insist any agreement make official the rebel gains of the last year, which would then mark the second time European borders have been remade by force in this conflict, since Russia has demonstrated it will escalate more so than the EU or NATO.

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From last February’s “tracksuit invasion” of poorly disguised Russian special forces into Crimea to this February’s blatant operations involving marked Russian tracked vehicles, the crisis in Ukraine has moved in only one direction: towards deeper conflict. The violence in eastern Ukraine has not only spawned a humanitarian crisis—with thousands killed and wounded, and perhaps one million people displaced—but also a geopolitical crisis between a European Union that had hoped to put armed aggression in its past and a Russian government determined to regain the glory of its imperial past through armed aggression.

The recent surge in violence has prompted an emergency meeting in Minsk, Belarus, this Wednesday between representatives of Russia, the Russian-supported separatists, Germany, France, and Ukraine. All sides understand the conflict is moving past its rhetorical tipping point and towards one of a larger confrontation. The crisis is exposing structural weaknesses in the continental military deterrent capabilities and policies of the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that have run into an actor in Putin who appears determined to plumb the depth of those weaknesses.

The prospects for a much-needed diplomatic breakthrough arising from the Minsk meeting have already been lowered with President Putin’s statement implying that a precondition would be official recognition of rebel gains. This would be the second time in this conflict that international borders had been altered by force, first through Russia’s annexing of Crimea last March and now through its armed support for the separatist fighters at levels far beyond perhaps what the West had envisioned months ago. Not even the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine by a separatist missile, killing 298 people, was enough to cause Russia to step back from the approaching confrontation with the West. Wednesday’s meeting might result in another ceasefire, though the last one was ignored as soon as it was signed.

Sanctions have thus far failed in their stated objective of forcing Russia to reverse its course in Ukraine. This isn’t to say that sanctions haven’t hurt Russia; it’s to say that Russia is willing to tolerate more pain than the West is likely to inflict. This imbalance extends from the force of finance to the force of arms, with Russia’s assessment that its actions in Ukraine, no matter how provocative, won’t be countered militarily.

This increase in violence has led to the question the EU and NATO have sought to avoid: what is the next realistic step if Putin does not stop? Recent talk in the U.S. about providing defensive military aid has been met with worry from European partners and warning from Russia, which labeled it a threat to the Russian Federation itself. Such a statement shows either how much Russia doesn’t want a tougher fight in Ukraine or how deeply it believes this fight is taking place entirely within its sphere of influence and not subject to Western meddling. There is a great deal at stake depending on which one of those possibilities is true, showing the difficulty in dealing with a nuclear-armed aggressor operating according to a worldview many in the West haven’t encountered in quite some time.

Even if there is a welcomed lessening of violence and tensions in Ukraine as a result of the Minsk talks—or other subsequent initiatives—the fundamental challenges facing NATO and the EU as they relate to a believable and deliverable deterrence have been brought to the fore. Prolonged economic distress in EU countries have only further reduced their respective defense budgets that had been based on the incorrect assumption that sustained armed conflict had finally left the continent.

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