Politics & Policy

Ukraine: The West Has Promises to Keep

(Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)
Russia’s aggression is undeterred by ceasefires.

At a summit meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on February 12, Russia and Ukraine agreed anew to a cessation of hostilities in the year-old conflict between them. On hearing the news, Washington and other Western capitals let out a collective sigh of relief. But there was good reason from the start to be skeptical that the ceasefire would hold.

That’s because the new ceasefire is strikingly similar to the one struck between Kyiv and Moscow back in September. That agreement was flouted by the Kremlin, which continued to prop up pro-Russia separatists operating in eastern Ukraine with troops and significant amounts of war matériel.

In fact, Moscow has broken every commitment it has made to Kyiv, dating back to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum — under which Washington, London, and Moscow all pledged to respect and, if necessary, defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for its denuclearization. Russia has not done so. Instead, it has pursued a concerted pattern of political and economic aggression against its former holding, culminating in the conflict that it launched last year.

It’s reasonable to conclude, then, that the deal struck in Minsk was seen by Moscow in much the same way as the previous ones. It was not intended to be a settlement of hostilities, but rather a temporary reprieve from hostilities, allowing Moscow to consolidate its territorial gains so far.

Those gains are considerable. As the Wall Street Journal has astutely noted, the latest ceasefire codified a further erosion of Ukrainian sovereignty, forcing Kyiv to give greater autonomy and resources to the separatist enclaves that Moscow supports.

In a reflection of this fact, the agreement was signed not by the so-called Normandy Four (Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany) but by representatives from Ukraine, Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. This has lent legitimacy to Ukraine’s pro-Russia separatists, thereby inevitably hardening their political positions. 

And, as the events of recent days have demonstrated all too clearly, even this state of affairs isn’t likely to last, because the Ukraine crisis isn’t just about Ukraine. It is, rather, a reflection of Russia’s expansionist, neo-imperial worldview.

Russian officials, chief among them President Vladimir Putin himself, have repeatedly intoned their belief that Russia’s destiny lies in a reconstituted empire. In fact, the Kremlin has worked diligently in recent years to recreate such a neo-Soviet sphere, using security alliances, economic unions, and energy politics as its tools of choice. Putin’s conduct in Ukraine is just the latest manifestation of this urge.

That inevitably puts other parts of the former Soviet sphere in Moscow’s crosshairs. And it makes resolute Western action a necessity.

NATO officials understand this fact. The bloc is now in the process of establishing six new bases in Eastern Europe, and it is forming a 5,000-member “spearhead” force designed as a rapid-reaction contingent against any Russian advances. Yet these plans are hampered by deep divisions within Europe over the future of the alliance, including an increasingly unreliable Turkey, a Spain actively eyeing a NATO exit, and countries like Cyprus and Greece adopting an accommodating attitude toward Moscow. More worrisome still is the fact that NATO remains chronically under-resourced. Because just three of NATO’s 28 members — the U.S., the U.K., and Greece — currently meet or exceed the bloc’s goal of having each member spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, the collective protection of Europe remains something of an unfunded mandate, at least for the moment.

American policy is similarly deficient. Back in December, Congress passed legislation authorizing the provision of lethal aid to Ukraine’s beleaguered military. Yet this aid remains undelivered by a White House that is leery of escalating tensions with the Kremlin. And now that a new ceasefire is theoretically in place, this assistance is even less likely to be rendered.

The Kremlin understands these realities very well, which is why it is likely to remain on the offensive in Ukraine. It is also why Russian aggression in other parts of the “post-Soviet space” cannot be ruled out.

Simply put, Moscow believes that the West’s bark is far worse than its bite. It’s up to Washington and other Western capitals to prove it wrong.

Ilan Berman is the senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.

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