Flashpoint and Sinkhole? The Security Cost of a Western Overreaction in Ukraine

By Nicholas Hager, Transatlantic Community Analyst

Recent events in Ukraine have elevated its domestic politics to global proportions. Russia’s has a longstanding stake in the country, but both the U.S. and the EU have a vested interest in Ukrainian peace, sovereignty, and allegiance as well. This is why they have both pledged sizeable financial packages to stabilize Ukraine’s flagging economy and ease its transition into a Eurocentric state. Russia, seeing Ukraine as a part of its own sphere of influence, is loath to permit what it views as a wayward province from freeing itself from the Russian orbit and has taken rather extensive measures to ensure that this does not happen, or at least not without difficulty. Thus, strategic calculations dictate that the resolution of the situation in Ukraine is of prime importance. Damon Wilson, the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, has asserted that “the U.S. must be ready to pour its efforts into Ukraine, even at the cost of policies and priorities elsewhere,” but this would be a dangerous overreaction that overlooks the larger strategic landscape facing the U.S. and the West as a whole. 


One situation which is in danger of being overlooked is the longstanding Syrian civil war. Tepid Western support for the rebels and Russia’s robust support of Assad’s regime have allowed the conflict in Syria devolve into a brutal civil war and the resulting instability has opened the country to occupation by regional extremists of all stripes. With the failure of diplomacy, it is up to the West to compel the Assad regime to halt its indiscriminate attacks on the Syrian populace and negotiate an end to the hostilities. But Ukraine has exacerbated an already growing divide between the U.S. and Russia, and there are those in the regime who believethat any conflict in the world which distracts…Americans…eases pressure on Syria.” That is, while Western nations are occupied with emergencies like Ukraine, the Assad regime is less inclined to fulfill its international obligations, and it is likely to exploit this blind-spot to step up its ruthless campaign against the Syrian people. The regime’s forces already feel comfortable employing unjust tactics such as the use of barrel bombs and starvation, so a distracted West threatens to permit these, and other, horrors, to go virtually unchecked – with all the negative implications for regional and global security that would entail.


There is also the potential for a narrow focus on Ukraine to affect U.S. global security efforts more generally. The Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region is a landmark, comprehensive strategy aimed at helping the U.S. expand its engagement with that region through various economic, diplomatic, and security initiatives. However, there is speculation that deep cuts in military spending could  jeopardize the U.S.’ ability to follow through. There is a multiplicity of complicated, moving parts involved in this program, and it will require careful management and balance to ensure that this strategy is properly executed. In recent years, the U.S. has overseen an insecure Japan, an increasingly pugnacious (and nuclear) North Korea, and has had to strike a delicate balance between allaying Chinese fears and protecting its own regional allies. The odds of success for the administration’s pivot are long enough, and shifting its focus from this key region now will only make them longer. Failure to maintain a meaningful presence in the Asia-Pacific could abandon the fate of the region to a China looking to bolster its military and expand its territory.


With these and other consequences in mind, there remain a few options for the West to make a strong show in Ukraine while retaining the bulk of its capacities in other respects. Russia must come to understand that the West will not stand by while it violates the sovereignty of its neighbors. This lesson was not learned in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia under a similar pretext, so it is imperative that it is hammered home this time because, as Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey has noted, there are numerous ethnic enclaves in Eastern Europe and if Russia is allowed to set a precedent here, there is no calculating the future potential for aggression and instability that might result. In light of this, the U.S. and the EU should supplement their material assistance to Ukraine with punitive measures aimed at Russia. There is already talk of sanctions, but these are likely to be slow in effect and there is worry that they may not be as effective as hoped. Because of this possibility, Russia needs to be pressured on all fronts, and this can be done effectively by deploying NATO forces to what remains of free Ukraine, with its permission, to deter further incursions.


NATO should also renew efforts to offer Georgia NATO membership to augment the pressure Russia already feels from NATO expansion. This could be multiplied further by threatening to place missile defenses in Georgia, or even intensifying current efforts to do so elsewhere in Europe. It would also be helpful to supplement the official Track 1 diplomacy between Russia and the West with Track 2 (and Track 1.5) diplomatic efforts aimed at helping Russia and especially its president, Vladimir Putin, discover a way to de-escalate that allows it to save face. Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that a policy focused purely on admonition “may backfire” because it “[dares] Putin to dig in.” So, to help facilitate peace, the West must be willing to negotiate in private. But these negotiations should be imbued with a clear demonstration of the consequences of disregarding them. This would be more effective at ending the crisis quickly than simply relying on sanctions or toothless diplomacy alone.


Ukraine is an important strategic concern for both the U.S. and the West as a whole, but its response must be carefully calibrated. Foreign policy goals do not exist within a vacuum and preferencing one objective over another will have consequences that must be considered. Allowing Ukraine to consume the focus and resources of the West’s foremost decision-makers would be problematic because conflicts and security challenges elsewhere will persist, and perhaps proliferate, in the absence of a watchful West. 

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