Berlin Policy Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations May 5, 2015
by Elizabeth Pond
As the sober National Interest warns that America and Russia are “stumbling to war,” roughly four Western scenarios compete to explain where we stand in the year-old Ukraine crisis. Let’s call them the McCain, Mearsheimer, Motyl, and Merkel theses of, respectively, Russian aggression, Russian hegemonic privilege, Russian decline, and Russian paranoia. The first part of this two-part blog examines the McCain and Mearsheimer view; the second examines the Motyl and Merkel views.
US Senator John McCain sees Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine as an epic (and hotter) re-run of the Soviet-American Cold War that the wimpish United States is losing to Putin’s military juggernaut and superior political will. University of Chicago purist realist John Mearsheimer, by contrast, regards Russia as behaving normally for a great power in invading a smaller neighbor, annexing Crimea, and then stoking secession in eastern Ukraine through military coercion and patronage.
Rutgers political scientist Alexander Motyl, on the other hand, contends that Russian President Vladimir Putin is losing the contest in the long run and that Ukraine finally holds the initiative, despite the Russians’ overwhelming superiority on the battlefield. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who leads the West’s diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the violence in Ukraine, argues – to put it more bluntly than she herself does – that it is Putin’s post-empire paranoia that makes the current state of play so dangerous.
The difference matters: the four premises imply very different Western responses. In essence, the McCain thesis assumes that the ongoing Russian military buildup in eastern Ukraine is laying the groundwork for Moscow to overturn the present fragile truce and launch a fresh offensive in Ukrainian “Novorossiya” in the next few weeks, and that there is no non-military solution to Russia’s regressive violation of Europe’s seven-decade taboo on forcible seizure of a neighbor’s territory. The West must therefore avoid appeasing Putin as it once appeased Hitler, and instead give Ukraine lethal weapons to defend itself while calling Putin’s bluff that he would trump any Western escalation all the way up to the nuclear level. For his part, John Mearsheimer blames the West itself for provoking the Russian bear, and counsels Washington to simply defer to Moscow in its sphere of influence.
Motyl maintains that Kiev should cede to Moscow the half of the Donbas that is already controlled by Ukrainian rebels and Russian soldiers, defend the remainder of Ukraine and make it a showcase of economic and democratic development, and deter further Russian encroachment on Ukrainian territory. Deterrence could be achieved, he believes, through the cumulative impact of the West’s financial sanctions, rising Russian casualties, and Russian generals’ worry that any escalation of the army’s mission to occupying Ukrainian territory against probable partisan guerrillas would overstretch its capabilities. At this point, he posits, it is Moscow rather than Kiev that would lose if there is a stalemate.
Finally, the pragmatic Chancellor Merkel insists that there is no possible military solution, given the West’s weak geopolitical position in Russia’s backyard. She focuses instead on deescalating the level of violence in Ukraine to a semi-stable level and relying on the long-term policy of containment that won the first Cold War.
The McCain View
It became clear how sharply Senator McCain’s view diverged from Merkel’s last February on the sidelines of the blue-ribbon Munich Security Conference. In a private meeting between German officials and American politicians, he lambasted the chancellor (and President Barack Obama) for not sending lethal weapons to Ukraine, and compared the European pursuit of peace talks with Putin to Neville Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement of Hitler in 1938. Shortly thereafter, in unusually caustic criticism of an allied leader, McCain complained to a German TV interviewer that one could think Merkel “either had no idea that people in Ukraine were being butchered, or was indifferent to it.”
Former NATO commander Wesley Clark, the most prominent spokesman for the McCain approach today, recently made the case that delivering weapons was the only course that could deter further “military adventurism” by Putin in Ukraine. He said that Ukrainian forces, although they are vastly inferior to the Russian military machine in manpower and weapons, are ready to fight, and even came close to defeating the Russian-led secessionists in eastern Ukraine last August. Ever since, the Russians have been augmenting their already superior arsenal in the area despite making tactical withdrawals under the truces that Merkel negotiated with Putin in September and February. Moscow has used the barely monitored ceasefires to infiltrate ever more tanks, rocket launchers, and drones into the Donbas, amass some 50,000 troops on the Russian side of the Russian-controlled border, and fire artillery from Russian soil onto Ukrainian strongpoints. Last January Moscow also sent “rotating commanders” into the Donbas to lead the secessionists’ renewed surge there and push the truce line westward along the 400-kilometer front.
Neither financial sanctions nor diplomacy can stop “the Russian war plan,” Clark argued. Therefore, Ukrainians – who are fighting “the battle of Western civilization” for all of us – should be provided with the lethal defensive weapons that would enable them to repel “the next wave of the attack” that Clark expects the Russians to mount in the next few weeks. Specifically, he wants the West to equip the Ukrainians immediately with portable Javelin fire-and-forget anti-tank missiles.
The Mearsheimer View
Mearsheimer also perceives the Ukraine crisis in black and white; however, he flips the colors by declaring that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis.” The trigger was not Russian actions, but NATO enlargement in the past quarter century as “the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” American and European leaders “blundered in attempting to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border.” This threatened Russia’s “core strategic interests.” Putin was understandably displeased, as he demonstrated in 2008 by invading NATO applicant Georgia and in 2014 by seizing Crimea. The Russian president feared that Crimea “would host a NATO naval base,” and he therefore began working “to destabilize Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.”
Mearsheimer continues, “The EU, too, has been marching eastward….In the eyes of Russian leaders, EU expansion is a stalking horse for NATO expansion.” Moreover, “[t]he West’s final tool for peeling Kiev away from Moscow has been its effort to spread Western values and promote democracy in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, a plan that often entails funding pro-Western individuals and organizations” like the pro-Europe demonstrations by Ukrainian activists in the center of Kiev at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014. “[T]he West’s triple package of policies – NATO enlargement, EU expansion, and democracy promotion – added fuel to a fire waiting to ignite.” It was therefore understandable that Putin would not tolerate more Western meddling in the “buffer state” that has long been the gateway to Russia, just as Washington would not tolerate a Chinese attempt to incorporate Canada or Mexico into a military alliance.
Mearsheimer does agree with McCain in dismissing financial sanctions as ineffective. But his policy prescription is diametrically opposed to McCain’s: “The United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia … And the West should considerably limit its social-engineering efforts inside Ukraine.” The super-realist rejects any protest that the independent state of Ukraine should be free to determine its own future as unrealistic. “The sad truth is that might often makes right when great-power politics are at play.” Since Ukraine is not a vital interest for the United States, Washington should simply reject Kiev’s clamor to join the European Union and NATO and not let Ukrainian wishes “put Russia and the West on a collision course.”
Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the past 30 years. She is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe” and “Endgame in the Balkans.”
Berlin Policy Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations May 8, 2015
A Farewell to Arms?
by Elizabeth Pond May 8, 2015
Analysis of the Ukraine crisis by Ukrainian-American historian Alexander Motyl and German Chancellor Angela Merkel differs sharply from that of John McCain and John Mearsheimer in that it regards Russia as the loser rather than the winner so far. This view by no means belittles the dangers in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s zero-sum adventurism, but it sees a glimmer of hope that diplomacy could help deescalate Putin’s aggression. Such hope is conspicuously absent in McCain’s drive to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons, and in Mearsheimer’s appeal to let Moscow rule unchallenged in its own sphere of influence.
Beyond the role of diplomacy, there are some areas of overlap between the four views. In part, Motyl, Merkel, and McCain implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) heed the constraints of Mearsheimer’s realpolitik. Motyl argues that, pragmatically, Kiev should cede to Moscow both of the “two economic sinkholes – Crimea and the Donbass” that Russian troops and local separatists already control physically, the better to transform and modernize the remaining nine-tenths of Ukraine. The West as a whole has tacitly accepted Russian control of Crimea, and even McCain, by rejecting the risky deployment of Western boots on the ground, has implicitly endorsed the consensus fear that Russia’s 771,000-strong armed forces and 20,000 tanks could quickly trump a tiny Western augmentation of Ukraine’s 121,000 servicemen and 2000 tanks. In an era with fewer agreed taboos on state violence than existed during the Cold War, all want to avoid sleepwalking into tit-for-tat escalation that could unwittingly build momentum toward a nuclear showdown.
In today’s most urgent policy debate, Motyl and McCain both support arming Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons. Both Merkel and Mearsheimer oppose this move, the former because of the danger of uncontrolled escalation, the latter because the West shouldn’t meddle in Russia’s hegemonic “near abroad.”
The Motyl View
Motyl builds his case on the premise that Russia no longer possesses the “escalation dominance” it enjoyed in Ukraine a year ago from its regional military superiority, its fierce perceived national interest in subduing a neighbor, its ability to export heavy weapons and soldiers at will across Ukraine’s unprotected eastern border, and Kiev’s lack of allies. What may by now be making even Putin rethink a new offensive – one that NATO commanders believe to have already been planned – is the unexpected cost, in blood and treasure, of Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine.
The Russian president never dreamed that the fractious West could agree on financial sanctions that would lead Russia to a projected GDP drop of some 4 percent this year and block key new investments from the West. Or that the weak interim government in Kiev would survive. Or that Russian-speaking peasants in eastern Ukraine would decline to rally to the secessionist cause, even after Russian Spetsnatz officers lit the fuse of rebellion. Or that the Russian army would be overstretched by the intervention. Or that Russia’s incursion would prove counterproductive in accelerating the formation of a distinctive Ukrainian identity unified against Russian aggression, resuscitating the NATO alliance, sparking closer Scandinavian defense coordination with NATO and the formation of a joint Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian brigade, and condemning the Russian economy to stagnation at the level of mineral extraction.
Above all, Putin never guessed that the ragtag Ukrainian army and volunteer militias would take up a doomed fight against the Russian behemoth and kill an embarrassing number of Russian soldiers. In fact, the Ukrainian forces would actually have defeated Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine last summer, had Putin not sent Russian paratroopers with devastating firepower to rescue the insurgents. And although the “cyborg” Ukrainians who held out for months at the Donetsk airport and the Debaltseve salient failed to stop the final fall of those enclaves to insurgents under clandestine Russian command in January and February 2015, they took a heavy toll on Russian combatants. If Putin were to escalate from mere seizure of Ukrainian territory to a far more demanding occupation, he would have to expect high casualties from guerrilla forces, similar to those inflicted by western Ukraine’s two-year underground resistance to Soviet takeover after 1945. This (despite official denials that any Russian troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine) would make it impossible for the Russian populace to remain ignorant of the combat deaths of Russians, which the Russian army is doggedly hiding at the moment from the mothers and wives of the dead.
Motyl does not by any means think that the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian forces could win set battles against the mix of Russian regulars, local mercenaries, and criminal gangs in eastern Ukraine by themselves. What he argues instead is that if the Ukrainians and their Western supporters can hold Putin to a stalemate, they will have won the war. Motyl summarizes: “Anything short of such a victory amounts to a defeat for Russia. Having destroyed the Russian economy, transformed Russia into a rogue state, and alienated Russia’s allies in the ‘near abroad,’ Vladimir Putin loses if he doesn’t win big. In contrast, Ukraine wins as long as it does not lose big. If Ukraine can contain the aggression, it will demonstrate that it possesses the will and the military capacity to deter the Kremlin, stop Putin and his proxies, and survive as an independent democratic state.”
Former US presidential security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski agrees, saying the West should offer Russia “genuine accommodation, and at the same time convince Russia that crossing certain lines is prohibitively expensive for Russia itself.” He sees an “analogy here between the German general staff after Anschluss, warning Hitler that if he pursues the efforts against Czechoslovakia too energetically, he will plunge the Germans into a war for which it is not yet ready but will be ready in about four years.”
The Merkel View
Chancellor Merkel’s approach is less an analytical school than a psychological reading of Vladimir Putin and a pragmatic guideline to the crisis diplomacy that she is leading. She is the Western head of government best equipped to talk with Putin, and she has stuck with the need to do so, no matter how fruitless the dialogue has been.
As a Russian speaker who grew up in the Soviet client state of East Germany, she understands Putin’s bitterness at the abrupt loss of Moscow’s empire in 1989 and the loss of all of Ukraine last year through the political failure of Viktor Yanukovych. She sees the Russian president’s fury at a Ukraine that gutted his pet project of a Eurasian Union by not joining it. She famously warned President Barack Obama early on that Putin was living “in another world.” She declined to elaborate, but Western pundits take this as meaning a poisonous paranoia that regards Russia as all-powerful militarily in its own neighborhood, but simultaneously as the greatest victim of Western exploitation when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to withdraw Moscow’s armed forces from Berlin and Central Europe a thousand miles to the east.
Merkel’s diplomatic goal might best be described as operationalizing, incrementally, what Brzezinski defines as the “balance between deterrence and accommodation.” Her method is to maintain contact so as to be available for compromise whenever Putin finally realizes that the costs of his present belligerence – including being forced to accept a junior role in a new partnership with China, rising jihadism among Russia’s Chechens and other Muslims, Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s tentative moves to put more distance between Belarus and Moscow, and continued capital flight and brain drain from Russia – far outweigh the benefits. Her mantra is that there is no military solution in Ukraine. For her this truism excludes delivery to eastern Ukraine of Western lethal weapons, which could be matched and surpassed instantly by Russia’s heavy weapons anyway and risk pushing Putin to up the military ante and blame the West when he feels cornered. But it also requires Putin to keep his own military and the trigger-happy proxies he has empowered in the Donbas on a short leash.
Thus, in May and June of last year, she played the West’s weak geopolitical hand to get Russia’s signature on a Geneva agreement, however ambiguous, that she could measure Putin’s future actions against – and to win time for the fledgling Ukrainian government to pull itself together. Simultaneously, she successfully rallied support for financial sanctions on Russia from businessmen in the pro-Russian German industrial lobby, and achieved the required unanimous approval of all 28 members of the European Union. In September, after Putin revealed his red line – he would not let client insurgents in eastern Ukraine be routed – she choreographed a truce that at least deescalated the violence. Last February she renewed the imperfect truce to provide a three-month relative lull, one that the United States and Britain – soon to be joined by Canada and Poland – are now using to send a modest few hundred trainers to western Ukraine to drill Ukrainian troops. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also used the lull to get NATO and the Russian military to reintroduce a hotline for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
If Chancellor Merkel’s instincts are right, President Putin might play the peace card and roll over today’s uneasy ceasefire for another few months to encourage dissenting EU members to balk at extending sanctions at the EU’s next decision rounds in July and December. If Senator McCain’s instincts are right, the truce could explode into a heavy battle in eastern Ukraine within weeks.
Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the past 30 years. She is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe” and “Endgame in the Balkans.”
© Elizabeth Pond