Ukraine: How Far Can It Go?

Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is how far it might go. Will Russia provide more assistance to rebels in eastern Ukraine or even intervene directly in the fighting there? Will the United States and other governments apply additional economic sanctions on Russia and apply further pressure on others to punish or isolate Moscow? And will the Kremlin respond outside Ukraine, through economic, political or other steps to retaliate? While a negotiated de-escalation is still possible, the likely answers to these questions are becoming increasingly disturbing.

No Incentives for a Settlement

The fundamental problem in the Ukraine dispute is the lack of incentives to de-escalate—on any side. This is most obvious with respect to Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists, who are under heavy pressure on the battlefield and have been losing ground in recent weeks. After a brief post-election cease-fire during which he offered a settlement on terms the militants would have had great difficulty accepting, President Petro Poroshenko has renounced negotiations with the militants.

This essentially forces them to choose between death or injury in combat while hoping for additional Russian help, on one hand, and death or imprisonment by Ukrainian authorities combined with very difficult lives for their surviving families and supporters, on the other. The Russian government’s conduct so far provides some grounds for hope that more help will be forthcoming. So long as this is the case, the rebels are likely to keep fighting.

Pro-Russian protesters in Lenin Square, Donetsk, March 8, 2014 (© Andrew Butko CC BY-SA 3.0)
Pro-Russian protesters in Lenin Square, Donetsk, March 8, 2014 (© Andrew Butko CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Ukrainian government likewise has every incentive to continue its current offensive. Most importantly, Ukraine’s troops have been successful so far in taking back significant territory from the rebel forces and look close to their immediate goal of cutting off the narrowing corridor between rebel groups in Donetsk and Lugansk. At the same time, despite mounting civilian casualties— recently estimated at about 800 killed and over 2,100 wounded since April by the United Nations —Washington and Brussels have tacitly encouraged Kiev’s offensive and have slowly but steadily hardened their positions toward Moscow, particularly since the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17.

On top of this, US and European officials have warned strongly against any further Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine. For example, America’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, recently declared that sending Russian forces into eastern Ukraine would be “completely unacceptable” and that it would be “viewed as an invasion of Ukraine” even if the Kremlin said that its mission was humanitarian assistance. [ ] Statements like this allow Ukrainian officials to be confident that they will have Western assistance (though probably not Western troops, at least initially) in resisting any possible direct military action by Russia. This encourages Ukraine to do whatever it takes to crush the rebels.

The problem for Kiev is that Russia has every incentive to escalate too. Politically, President Vladimir Putin has invested too much of his personal reputation in supporting the separatists—abandoning them could be costly and potentially destabilizing. As a result, Putin cannot allow Ukraine to defeat the rebels. The more likely this looks, the more Putin will have to consider either sharply increasing his support for them or, alternatively, intervening in Ukraine.

US and European leaders hope that their threatened “sectoral sanctions” against Russia’s financial, energy, technology and other segments of the Russian economy will deter Kremlin escalation, but their policy so far may actually have the opposite result, for two reasons. First, President Barack Obama and European leaders have said specifically and repeatedly that they will not fight a war with Russia over Ukraine. This removes the strongest possible deterrent—the danger that Russia could face war with much stronger opponents.

Second, many in Russia’s foreign policy elite think that if Russia abandons the separatists, Washington and Brussels will not simply accept this outcome and return to the pre-crisis status quo. On the contrary, they think that any Russian concessions would produce greater Western demands—perhaps for Crimea’s return, for example—with no real hope to escape economic sanctions. So from Moscow, the cost of escalation is low and the benefit of de-escalation is low.

American and European officials appear to see a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield as the most attractive outcome, since it would remove political pressure in the United States and some parts of the European Union for deeper involvement while avoiding politically unattractive negotiations with Moscow and the separatists. Negotiations would inherently require concessions to succeed, of course, and no Western politician wants to support “rewarding Russian aggression,” a likely criticism of any viable settlement.

This is why Washington, Brussels and European capitals will likely continue backing Kiev’s attempt at a total military victory—including stronger and stronger threats to discourage any additional Russian support for the separatists. If Russia provides further help to the rebels, Western governments may in turn impose wider economic sanctions. (And Russia will probably respond with its own stiffer sanctions—its recent agricultural import ban was a clear warning, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has now suggested that Moscow could block Western airlines from overflying its territory [ ].)

The dynamics currently driving the Ukraine crisis are increasingly troubling because none of the parties appears genuinely interested in a diplomatic solution. Absent that, the conflict could become far more dangerous than it already is.

Paths to Wider Conflict

Imagine the following series of events. Fearing a separatist defeat, Moscow encourages large numbers of Russian volunteers (including possibly entire Russian army units who have removed their uniforms) to cross the border with sophisticated weapons, such as mobile surface-to-surface missiles to attack Ukrainian airbases supporting airstrikes on rebel positions. With this help, the rebels stop Ukrainian advances and recapture some key towns. Western governments publicly describe this as a Russian invasion of Ukraine, impose severe economic sanctions, and start to provide arms to Ukraine. The United States sends unarmed drones into Ukraine to help Kiev locate and target the missile launchers and to provide other intelligence. Separatists shoot down a drone and supply video to Russia’s state television channels, further inflaming the Russian public.

In response, Russia cuts off not only Western commercial flights but also NATO air access to Afghanistan through its airspace, and security forces detain a handful of Western journalists in Moscow on accusations of espionage or of disseminating anti-Russian propaganda. Having already lost access to Western capital markets and investment, the Kremlin nationalizes businesses fully or partially owned by foreign companies based in countries imposing sanctions on Russia and expels their senior Western executives.

Russian commandos posing as separatists infiltrate central or western Ukraine with man-portable surface-to-air missiles and destroy a NATO cargo plane delivering weapons, killing the American crew, intending to deliver a signal to Washington to stay out. Russia disavows responsibility for the incident, but its officials argue that arms shipments are a legitimate military target and criticize US interference in Ukraine. The American media brand Putin as a “murderer,” and the US Congress passes a resolution declaring the incident an act of war.

Is this particular series of events a likely one? Probably not. Nevertheless, it illustrates starkly where confrontation over Ukraine could lead. Even if neither the United States nor Russia wants or expects a direct military conflict, predictable decisions that leaders in both countries may have to face could gradually but relentlessly produce that result. Top officials on all sides should consider their assumptions and their options extremely carefully. The crisis in Ukraine could get much worse.

Paul J. Saunders

  • Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest

    President, Energy Innovation Reform Project