Why the Ukraine Ceasefire Increases the Chances of NATO Involvement
On 6 February 2015, Georgia Today reported that Washington policymakers were debating providing lethal military aid to the Ukrainian government. A ceasefire agreement was reached on 11 February, putting a temporary halt to the fighting. However, doubts are growing that the ceasefire will hold.
“We will continue to provide Ukraine with security assistance, not to encourage war, but to allow Ukraine to defend itself.” Allow Ukraine to defend itself. Does that mean providing the Ukrainian government with lethal defensive weapons? Not necessarily, according to US Vice President Joe Biden, who gave the above statement at a 7 February press conference.
The Vice President’s office rejected claims that the VP has come out in favor of furnishing Ukraine with lethal weapons. Regardless, pundits and members of the defense community are buzzing about Biden’s support for a proactive policy toward the ongoing war between the Ukrainian government and an alliance of pro-Russian separatists and the Russian soldiers.
Perhaps more importantly, US Secretary of State John Kerry told lawmakers at a private reception in Germany that he personally supported sending lethal aid to Ukraine. Newly-confirmed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter did the same during his confirmation hearing in front of the US Senate.
When asked by chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain whether he supported sending arms to Ukrainian government forces, Carter said: “I very much incline in that direction,” and “we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves.” McCain pressed him for more details, to which he responded more directly: “I incline in the direction of providing them with arms, including, to get to what I’m sure your question is, lethal arms.”
NATO Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove, a four-star General in the US Air Force and the top-ranking military figure in Europe, is a well-known proponent of lethal aid. So is Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State of Europe and one of the most influential figures in American foreign policy.
There are supporters in other NATO member states as well. Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, whose country is believed to be the most at-risk from further Russian aggression, recently told Angela Merkel, “surrender or arm Ukraine.”
Polish leaders have pledged publicly to back any US-led effort to arm Ukraine. UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond recently said that: “While there is no military solution to this conflict, we could not allow the Ukrainian armed forces to collapse,” leading to speculation that the British government would also back measures if the US took the lead.
Obama’s go-ahead on arms – especially much-needed anti-tank weapons – would also be welcomed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whose government has been calling for arms for months. But according to Merkel, who is one of Europe’s staunchest opponents of lethal aid, such measures would only play into Putin’s hands.
Merkel’s opposition has deep roots. The German Chancellor holds the personal conviction that provision of arms would provoke an intensified Russian response, escalating the crisis and leading to a negative-sum outcome. But she also faces domestic political pressure to avoid conflict. Germany is more economically dependent on Russia than any other large Western economy, and the German political class broadly shares the conviction that lethal aid would trigger a bitter response from Moscow.
Then, there is the ongoing identity crisis within German society, with much of the population mistrustful of full alignment with the country’s western allies. Large numbers of Germans are sympathetic to the Putin regime and see his actions in Ukraine as a legitimate defensive response to American aggression. This can be attributed in part to growing anti-Americanism, a sentiment not difficult to understand given last year’s NSA hacking scandal and a global decline in support for the US in the wake of the war on terror and 2008 global financial meltdown. Each development has been blamed on a combination of American hubris and buffoonery. But the issue is deeper than that. Germany’s ongoing struggle to build a coherent, vigorous foreign policy is also the burden of its tortured history.
Where Merkel is being pushed to make nice with Russia, Obama has withstood pressure to do the opposite. A long list of influential American policymakers favor extending lethal aid. A report published earlier this month by the Brookings Institution, Atlantic Council, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs called for the US and NATO to “create a situation in which the Kremlin considers the option of further military action in or against Ukraine too costly to pursue.” To be specific, that means arming government forces sufficiently to deter future aggression by Russia.
Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are now agitating for arms, and in November they received the backing of the US Congress. The then-bipartisan legislature passed the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act, which authorized the President to provide lethal weapons. The bill explicitly names “anti-tank and anti-armor weapons” and “crew weapons and ammunition.” Everything has been placed on Obama’s table. All the President has to do is sign the dotted line.
Obama remains skeptical that lethal aid will induce the desired outcome, and according to insider reports from Washington, National Security Advisor Susan Rice vehemently opposes such measures. Senator McCain said of calls to arm Ukraine, “It always reaches the Susan Rice- Valerie Jarrett level and then it dies.”
Despite opposition in the President’s inner circle, during the first week of February he appeared to be opening up to lethal aid, telling the media that “if, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options. And the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that’s being examined.”
But as Obama appeared to inch toward arming Ukraine, Merkel continued to preach caution, convinced that there was still hope for diplomacy. She appeared vindicated on 11 February, when the Chancellor and French President Francois Hollande’s eleventh-hour diplomatic mission to Minsk ended in a successfully-negotiated ceasefire. Struck after 17 hours of negotiations between the two European leaders, Putin, and Poroshenko, the agreement involved commitments by both sides to remove heavy weapons from the contested territory as well as a pledge by Kiev to devolve more competences to regional governments, including the rebel strongholds.
While the ceasefire offers a glimmer of hope that cooler heads will prevail, there is much more reason to believe that it will fail. The agreement is strikingly similar to the one signed in Minsk on 5 September, which lasted all of two days before fighting resumed. Russian armored columns continued to move across the border into Ukraine, and rather than a return to normalcy, the Ukrainian people have been forced to endure war of even greater intensity. The death toll stood at roughly 2,500 when the first Minsk agreement was signed. By the signing of the second Minsk agreement, deaths had more than doubled to 5,300.
In both cases, Russia and the rebels negotiated from a position of power. Ukrainian leaders came to the negotiating table after suffering a string of military defeats, and Ukraine offered concessions to the separatists in exchange for peace. The difference, Ukrainian and Western leaders hope, is that this time the rebels and their Russian patrons will hold up their end of the bargain.
Given the unequivocal failure of September, there is little reason to be optimistic about February. Putin and the separatists’ motivations and capabilities haven’t changed. Ukrainian government forces are in roughly the same condition they were in September, lacking the capability to deter a vigorous offensive.
On Monday, just a day after the new ceasefire went into effect, the Associated Press reported that government and rebel forces were battling over the town of Debaltseve, an important rail hub currently under Kiev’s control. The town is encircled by rebel troops, who demand that it be handed over to them.
Reporters in Luhansk, a nearby government-held city, heard what they took to be shelling by both sides. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – sent to monitor adherence to the ceasefire – claimed that they were denied access to Debaltseve by separatist soldiers. Five Ukrainian government troops were killed and 25 wounded during the first 24 hours of the ceasefire. According to Merkel, “the situation is fragile.”
Indications are that the latest ceasefire won’t last much longer than the first did. Thus it is more likely, not less, that the US and potentially other NATO members will pull the trigger on sending arms to Ukraine. In a recent Foreign Affairs op-ed, Rajan Menon of CCNY and Kimberly Marten of Columbia University argued that “if the peace deal is not honored, the administration of President Barack Obama will then be under even greater pressure to send lethal weapons to the government in Kiev.”
Given the prevailing mood in Washington, that scenario appears likely. The real question is how Russia would respond. The Kremlin has threatened retaliation; last week Interfax quoted Russia’s envoy to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, as saying that weapons supplies “would increase the risk of Russia’s counter-involvement, and the risk of a direct confrontation.”
Surely Putin is aware that Obama may be forced to respond if the ceasefire collapses on his account. By escalating the crisis, he would be willfully inviting the US to respond in turn. Russia’s actions in the coming days will thus reveal much about its intentions. If it provokes an American pushback, one can reasonably conclude that it’s what Putin wanted in the first place. But if Russia allows the fragile peace to hold, it would be doing so (at least partly) from the desire not to see an armed Ukraine. Unfortunately for Ukraine and its western backers, only Putin knows what his next move will be.