Despite triumphant announcements of a ceasefire, hostile fire has not quite ceased in eastern Ukraine. Russia continues to funnel in weapons and troops as they quietly ferry out their casualties. As France and Germany lead negotiations and peace talks, NATO and the EU is at a loss for how to proceed.
If a NATO country was invaded by an outsider, fellow member nations would consider that an attack on all of NATO and would be obligated by Article 5 of the NATO treaty to lend military assistance to the victimized country. However, as a non-member Partner for Peace, Ukraine is not entitled to those same guarantees of collective defense. While there are some dissidents, most of Europe is opposed to arming Ukraine and further fueling the fire. President Vladimir Putin has continued his campaign of international aggression by escalating his probing of the West, both in the air and underwater.
With this backdrop, American policy seems to be a ragtag combination of tit-for-tat sanctions, angry rhetoric, and threats. Unlike elsewhere in the world, this is not a situation where America can engage from afar through drone strikes, frozen assets, and bombing runs. The need for the U.S. to move beyond tactical responses by developing a comprehensive and coherent strategy in Eastern Europe is more pressing than ever.
Up to this point, the U.S. has mostly allowed German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande to lead NATO’s negotiations with Ukraine and Russia. Absent of major diplomatic involvement, American actions have revolved around four main efforts:
1) Sanctions: A year of sanctions combined with plummeting oil prices has damaged the Russian economy. While sanctions are an integral piece of a whole-of-government plan, they cannot be considered a holistic strategy in and of themselves.
2) Non-lethal aid: Defensive military equipment such as first aid supplies, helmets, body armor, night vision devices, and vehicles are key to sustaining Ukrainian military capabilities.
3) Military trainers: Partnership between American and Ukrainian forces is integral to improving Ukrainian capacity and capability.
4) Joint military exercises with Poland and the Baltic States: These training operations are invaluable in building relationships between leaders, improving military capabilities, and ensuring interoperability between the militaries of different countries in the event of a real-world attack. Actions speak louder than words, and these joint exercises help to draw a clearer red line against further Russian aggression.
A Consistent Path Forward
At a minimum, America should continue non-lethal aid (and actually deliver on promises) and increase economic aid to Ukraine while encouraging the European Union and International Monetary Fund to follow suit. In the mid-term, we should continue joint training missions with the Baltic States and Poland while pushing for NATO’s newVery High Readiness Joint Task Force to be strong enough to serve as an actual deterrent. For impact into the future, America’s blind sequestration and misguided military drawdown must immediately be stopped to prevent further harm to the military’s readiness. Additionally, America should press NATO members to reverse years ofweakening forces by meeting their 2% defense spending targets.
Any further actions must be carefully considered to fully understand their consequences. While American efforts up to this point have been mostly non-controversial, the time is fast approaching to decide: will America avoid unnecessarily antagonizing Russia while supporting Ukraine or will we seek to stop Putin now before he gains a foothold in Eastern Europe and is emboldened to press on to the Baltics? While both perspectives have merit, the American government needs to develop a comprehensive plan to protect Ukraine and eastern European NATO members both immediately and in the future.
Many European NATO members favor supporting Ukraine without overtly threatening Russia. American proponents of this path advocate for keeping a united front with Europe, maintaining current sanctions against Russia without pressing the EU for deeper restrictions, and refusing to provide lethal weaponry to Ukraine.
The arguments in favor of following European leadership are many. We don’t have the military power available to back up our threats in the region. We risk more Ukrainian lives by intervening at a distance and supplying “defensive weapons.” Inserting military trainers also endangers American lives and may inexorably pull us into direct conflict with Russia. Besides, no matter how well-trained or well-armed Ukraine’s military is, Russia will most likely be able to overpower them through sheer manpower alone. Finally, America should give diplomacy a chance instead of contributing to the war-mongering reputation earned in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen.
The other camp prefers a more aggressive response to Russian probing. Options include calling on Europe to join in increasing sanctions against Russia, sending additional military aid – including the lethal kind – to Ukrainian forces, and increasing training missions with the Ukrainian military.
Considering that the last decade’s limited response against Russian military adventurism in Georgia, Ukraine, and NATO airspace around the world has had a minimal impact on Russian actions, advocates say it may be worth the cost to stand up to Putin. While sanctions may eventually undermine Putin's regime, they will do nothing to prevent deaths or limit Russian invasions in the meantime. Though Ukraine’s military is mismatched by Putin’s “little green men,” weaponry and additional training may just be enough to tip the difference and deter Russia.
There are pros and cons to each worldview and accompanying strategy. Whichever camp we ultimately fall into, it is imperative for our leaders to analyze the situation and choose an overarching strategy to guide American efforts in shaping the debate and action in Eastern Europe rather than constantly reacting to each tactical situation. While Russia and Europe will always have a majority vote in the outcome, the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and Defense must all read from the same sheet of music as the president. Only when all instruments of American policy speak with one voice will the U.S. be able to help steer NATO policy towards a safer future on NATO’s eastern flank.
-Micah Ables is a freelance writer and has lived in and traveled extensively throughout Ukraine. His interests include Ukrainian and post-Soviet politics, the future of Sino-Russian relations, and religion, terrorism, and society in Chechnya. Any views expressed in this piece are solely those of Micah Ables and are not representative of any other organizations or institutions.