25 Apr 2014 – Last night in the strongest, loudest and clearest of words US Secretary of State John Kerry exploded the myth that Russia has any intention of abiding by the Geneva agreement on Ukraine which it signed up to last weekend. Warning that “the window for Russia to change course was closing and that if it did not choose to deescalate [the current situation] the US was ready to impose further sanctions” it is clear to me that US patience with Russia is close to exhaustion. However the real question is, assuming that the Russian government is not prepared to listen, what apart from imposing more sanctions can the US or Europe do?
Few will disagree that given the tone of the Kerry language US/Russian diplomacy has taken a very severe turn for the worse over the past twenty-four hours. The prognosis for Ukraine does not look good and in terms of satisfactory resolution of the present conflict close to impossible. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that I sense the worsening situation in Ukraine could over the coming months have wider repercussions for how we may envisage future global stability and future defence.
Accusing Russia of distraction, deception and destabilisation over its real intentions regarding Uraine, Mr. Kerry made one final plea to Moscow to help settle the dangerous situation that exists in eastern Ukraine. “Not a single Russian official” he said “has gone on television in Ukraine and called on the [Russian] seperatists to support the Geneva agreement, to support the stand down, to give up their weapons and get out [of the various Ukraine government buildings]”. Mr. Kerry went on to accuse Russian media of promoting Vladimir Putin’s “fantasy” about events in Ukraine saying that Moscow continued to “fund, co-ordinate and fuel a heavily armed separatist movement in Donetsk” adding that “this is a full-throated effort to actively sabotage the democratic process through gross external intimidation that has been brought inside Ukraine”.
As to what happens next I suspect that we need look no further than the statement made by Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations. Vitally Churkin has said on Russian television that Moscow would have “international legal grounds” to deploy what he termed as “peacekeepers” to Ukraine just as it had in the much earlier conflict with Georgia. Such remarks if true are both untimely and unwarranted.
If, or should I say when, Russia decides to go down that damaging road we may expect the western response to be limited to ‘threats’ combined with actions restricted to the imposition of additional sanctions that would, from both a financial markets and diplomatic perspective, isolate Russia from the rest of the world.
Russia would no doubt respond by raising the price of the gas it supplies to Ukraine and to other nations it supplies in Continental Europe – raising the potential of further damage to the Euro economy. European industry would be damaged and trade and travel between Russia and Europe would grind to a halt. I suspect that within a few months this [sanctions] would become a vicious circle from which I suspect only Russia might eventually win.
With the ‘West’ perceived to be weak in both resource and resolve, military involvement from the US or through NATO remains a very unlikely prospect; regardless of the calls for help from the interim Ukrainian government. Providing small scale additional military capability and support to the handful of small Baltic States that are now members of NATO is absolutely right on the part of the US and its allies but the plain fact is that Ukraine remains an international problem as opposed to being a NATO one.
Active and ongoing diplomacy should, as we all hope and believe, provide an answer to the Ukraine problem but with diplomatic efforts seemingly in intensive care, and trust between Russia and the US having all but disappeared, I believe that the likelihood of a meaningful diplomatic agreement is extremely low.
United Nations involvement at the heart of this crisis also seems an unlikely prospect. In the short-term it loks as though we must be content with our de facto role of observers and sanction managers. Like others I am afraid that the west’s impotence will once agian be exposed as it was with Crimea and Georgia before that. In failing to act and hiding behind sanctions western foreign policy will play further into the hands of Vladimir Putin; who, in my opinion, is committed to a grand strategic vision of Russian domination over the largest and most powerful of its former Baltic States.
It would of course be totally wrong to blame Ukraine’s problem on Russia alone. By offering the possibility of NATO membership, the ‘West’ cannot ignore its role in fomenting the current crisis. The Ukraine itself, has also contributed to its own downfall; the Yanukovych administration demonstrated that the country is still a long way from becoming a truly democratic state and the host of vibrant ethnic and powerful religious minorities which exist within its borders are sure to provide a significant barrier to future national unity. Despite this, Ukraine now has a number of fledgling democratic institutions which are deserving of international support.
There has been much criticism of White House foreign policy objectives and there are many who believe that President Obama’s foreign policy lies in tatters; especially given that his inaugural electoral platform offered a commitment to a foreign policy based on international engagement. However American attitudes to engagement in the affairs of others is quite different from what it was forty years ago; the true cost of Iraq and Afghanistan may yet be America’s adoption of an isolationist foreign policy. Far East Asia and Pacific regions apart, there can be little doubt that America has lost its appetite to be lauded as the world’s policeman.
As for the UK, our stance on Ukraine will not be independently determined by our own principles. America and Europe may be strong on resolve but they are weak in their abilities to act decisively, outside of taking the sanctions route which is just as likely to backfire on them as it is the Russians. NATO, despite its many doubters, remains strong and it is through this organisation alone that the UK will channel any efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis. However the wider lessons of our impotence must not be lost – the lack of foreign policy tools currently at the UK’s disposal is a direct result of cutting the defence budget to far. This warning must be heeded in the forthcoming SDSR, otherwise our reputation as a major player on the international stage will be irrevocably damaged.
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd