Before The United States Makes Any Moves On Ukraine, It Needs A Strategy

Before The United States Makes Any Moves On Ukraine, It Needs A Strategy

The West needs to figure out a coherent endgame with Ukraine. It's not clear that London and Washington have one.
Sumantra Maitra
By

What is the British and American grand strategy in Ukraine? What do we really want from that region? Is it to push Russia away from the European balance of power? Is it to arm every single state that is adversarial to Russia, so they can bog Russian forces down and drive up the cost? Is it the duty of only the British and American taxpayers, or should the Europeans be more responsible for their own security? What is the ultimate endgame?

If we go by two recent reports, the answers to those questions are as confusing as they come. On one hand, the United States wants to ease Ukraine’s dependency on Russian gas and energy resources. Rick Perry, the current U.S. energy secretary, said in Warsaw after meeting officials from Poland and Ukraine that the United States wants to ease the dependence on Russian energy and Russian coercion.

The Polish and Ukrainians agree, of course, and the reason is purely material. Poland and Ukraine want to buy American liquified natural gas (LNG), which will cut down Russian coercion and influence. Germany, on the other hand, wants to have Russian gas. Naturally, a geopolitical stalemate is certain.

The second instance is the Trump administration rethinking a $250 million weapons aid to Ukraine. According to Politico, “President Donald Trump asked his national security team to review the funding program, known as the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, in order to ensure the money is being used in the best interest of the United States.”

It is again a valid question, as $250 million is a hefty sum of cash to be spent on weapons to Ukraine, without even knowing where the money is going or what the endgame is. For those unaware, the security initiative is a program primarily by the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, to transfer nonlethal equipment, deploy advisers to assist with a reform of the Ukrainian defense forces, and provide training to selected Ukrainian units.

Interestingly, once again, the countries that actually border Ukraine, especially Germany, are reluctant to arm or train Ukrainians. In the recent G7, the rift was clearer, with French President Emmanuel Macron planning a detente with Moscow, and the Germans refusing it.

If Russia Loses Ukraine, It Ceases to Be a Great Power

To understand the situation, one needs to understand why Ukraine is more important to Russia than it is to the United States, and will always be. Recently in the Kerch Strait, Russian navy rammed, fired upon, and then seized three Ukrainian patrol boats. It was a sudden spike of tension after a year of relative calm and sporadic violence in the embattled Eastern Ukraine.

The Kerch Strait is the gateway to this landlocked water that borders Ukraine and Russia. Russia’s fundamental aim is to have control of the entire water, which gives the Russian navy a free ride as it de facto controls Eastern Ukraine as well as the Crimean Peninsula. The reason is geopolitical.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the greatest grand strategists of modern times, wrote in one of his last books about why Ukraine is pivotal in the grand chessboard of Europe. According to Brzezinski, Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe and the strategic focal point. To put simply, without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a European great power, or even a great power at all.

Research suggests Eastern Ukraine is invaluable to Russia because Russian military depends on the Ukrainian military industrial complex. This is not just about Crimea, or the Sevastopol naval base, which gives Russia a foothold in the Black Sea. This is about the industries in Mariupol and next to Donbas, which provides supplies from jet engines to missile parts to naval radars for the Russian forces.

Ukraine’s accession to the European Union would stop two things. Ukraine being attached to the European security umbrella would mean Ukraine not being able to trade with Russia on military parts, and without those spares and upgrades, Russian armed forces would be paralyzed. Ukraine as part of a new security architecture would also mean regular military ties with Russia would be cancelled. Ukraine is also a market of Russian products, especially food, which would be stopped if Ukraine cedes sovereignty to the EU and Russian products do not pass EU customs checks.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin might have underestimated the divisions within Ukraine. Ukraine isn’t as tiny as Georgia. And Russian armed forces know that while they would be able to win any war with Ukraine, keeping control of the huge land is another story altogether.

Other than Eastern Ukraine, Russians don’t enjoy popular support. The historical legacy of Ukraine’s suffering under Joseph Stalin is too strong. Ukrainians are extremely nationalist ever since World War I. And the American experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya should give any great power a pause about sending an occupying force for a long time, and risk a withering war of attrition. It is unlikely that Russia, alone and with an economy smaller than Italy, is intending for that.

The West Must Determine an Endgame

Other than that, the Russian strategy seems pretty straightforward. Russia’s intention is to stop Ukraine from joining NATO or the EU. NATO wouldn’t accept any country where a war is going on, which is going to be a security burden. EU won’t accept any country that isn’t whole or democratic. The war in Eastern Ukraine will stop both and result in a status quo, which will continue in Russian favor and result in a new fait accompli, which will be hard to break.

But what is the endgame on this side? At this point, it is neither engagement nor containment, and there is a huge difference in opinion within the West as to what we need to do. It is unlikely that anyone from Michigan, U.S., or Manchester, U.K., or Manitoba, Canada, or Melbourne, Australia, wants to die defending Mariupol, Ukraine. America, Britain, and others simply do not face the threat from Russia that the Soviet Union used to be, and Ukraine is simply not that strategically important.

Second, the combined manpower of EU is five times that of Russia, and the combined GDP of the EU is 15 times higher than Moscow. Yet on security burden, Europe is happy to pass the buck to the rest of the Anglosphere.

Ukraine is already receiving arms, and that would continue as NATO rearms and positions brigades in Eastern Europe, resulting in the security dilemma and spiral increasing. Also, any conflict has a momentum of its own and would continue to spiral regardless of who wants it. Single renegade commanders, rogue agents, a mistimed naval war, and a serious lack of communication might lead to a situation in which there would be another land war in Europe. That is not a future anyone should want.

But what needs to be decided is a clear strategy and endgame. If the endgame is to push Russia out of the European balance, then that should be stated clearly, and offensive weapons that raise Russian casualties in Ukraine and Georgia should be contemplated. Alongside, Europeans must do more to deter Russia and share the security burden.

If the strategy is to engage Moscow and let it have its sphere of influence while focusing on China, then that should be stated as well. In that case, all arms sales should be stopped and a detente should be initiated, meaning also that Europeans should be coerced, under Macron if needed, to start the process and take more burden.

Either way, the West needs to choose a strategy depending on the final aim and the endgame. So far, it is not clear there is one, either in London or in Washington.

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a senior contributor to The Federalist. His research is in great power-politics and neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.

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