In recent months, Russia has refrained from triggering another major escalation in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region similar to those that led to the large battles at Ilovaisk in 2014 and Debaltseve in 2015. The Kremlin’s continuing low-intensity warfare against Ukraine is designed to avoid raising broad attention in the West, where many have come to believe that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is frozen.
The purpose of Russia’s behavior is to slowly but continuously worsen the general public climate in Ukraine, especially in the country’s eastern regions adjacent to the territories occupied by Russian-backed separatists. Should this strategy be successful, large parts of eastern Ukraine could become economically, socially, and psychologically depressed on a permanent basis. According to Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine’s losses in the east of the country from the beginning of 2017 until early July amounted to “120 dead soldiers, almost 900 wounded soldiers, 47 dead civilians and more than 100 wounded civilians.”
Still, a continuation of this sad state of affairs may not even be the worst-case scenario for Ukraine in the coming years. Renowned Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer has warned that the current buildup of the Russian army as well as related infrastructure projects along the Russian-Ukrainian border and in the Black Sea may be preparations for an open Russian invasion of mainland Ukraine.
In view of the depressing record of 2017 and the ever-growing risk of a new, high-intensity war, Western governments should consider a number of steps aimed at more resolutely supporting Ukraine’s national security and economic prospects.
Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, London, and other European actors will have to become more flexible, predictable, and outspoken in announcing, defining, and applying economic sanctions. Already, the EU and its member states could publicly indicate their possible future reactions to either a further worsening or a substantive improvement of the situation in Donbas. Moscow’s elite should today be given clear signals about the kind, amount, and range of economic and financial punishments or rewards it can expect for different types of Russian behavior in Ukraine.
First and foremost, Brussels should announce its readiness to introduce a large-scale embargo on Russia’s pipeline oil deliveries into the EU, especially in the event of new Russian advances into mainland Ukraine. Although Russia has other potential clients, it would face enormous challenges in marketing and transporting large amounts of its crude in a cost-efficient way to other world regions. The EU, by contrast, could relatively easily replace Russian pipeline oil with tanker oil from other exporters—a future possibility that not only the Kremlin but also the Russian public should be made aware of today.
This and similar public warnings would encourage the vibrant participation of Russia’s oligarchs, civil ministries, economists, and society at large in a discussion of Moscow’s future policies toward Ukraine. Such a discussion would avoid the misunderstanding that large parts of the Russian elite and public had in 2014 about the long-term implications of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and covert intervention in Donbas for Russia’s economic and political relations with the West. A major reason for Moscow’s recent Ukrainian adventure was the timid or absent Western reaction to continuous Russian support of Transdniestrian separatism in Moldova, Russia’s de facto annexations of Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, and multifarious earlier Russian nonmilitary pressure on Ukraine, especially in 2013.
The most obvious way to ease tensions in Eastern Europe would be to increase Ukrainian security through greater political, economic, and material support for Kyiv. Apart from stronger pressure on Kyiv to reform more quickly, this should include the provision of free political risk insurance for foreign and domestic direct investment, especially in eastern and southern Ukraine, for instance via the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency. More direct investment would not only counteract Russia’s depression strategy. It would also increase the stakes of possible future Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, as it would affect Western businesses operating there.
The Ukrainian army should be provided with Western high-tech lethal weapons, electronic equipment, and staff training that would protect Ukraine better against Russian cyberattacks, airpower, cruise missiles, landing ships, and modern tanks. To be sure, even a large amount of advanced Western weaponry for Ukraine would not be sufficient to make the Ukrainian army superior to Russia’s. Yet, up-to-date weapons, equipment, and training for Ukraine’s armed forces would serve as a deterrence mechanism vis-à-vis the Kremlin. Such tools would increase the military risks and political costs of Moscow’s possible further adventures in the Donbas or elsewhere.
Washington and London could consider deepening the security assurances they gave Kyiv when they signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum together with Moscow in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As depositary states of the NPT, the United States and the UK could argue—to their domestic audiences as well as the international community, including Russia—that they are upgrading their security guarantees for Ukraine to support the coherence and logic of the international regime preventing the spread of atomic weapons.
The United States could take additional action in support of Ukraine via its major non-NATO ally program. The idea of designating Ukraine as a major non-NATO ally was floated in the U.S. Congress in December 2014 but was abandoned at the eleventh hour. In spring 2017, the Ukrainian parliament, with extensive reference to the Budapest Memorandum, issued an official request to Washington to grant Ukraine this status.
These and other measures in support of Kyiv would not only help make Ukraine more secure but would also boost Ukrainian economic development. International embeddedness would increase Western influence in Ukraine, strengthen reformers in Kyiv, and make the country more attractive to international investors.
In combination with a gradual implementation of the now fully ratified EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, these moves would make a Ukrainian success story possible. Such progress would be noted beyond mainland Ukraine, above all in Crimea, the occupied territories of Donbas, and Russia. The repercussions of successful Ukrainian economic and political development would create the preconditions to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity and help start a Russian-Ukrainian reconciliation.