Russia’s war with Ukraine has entered its sixth year, and despite the asymmetrical nature of the conflict, it has reached a stalemate. Russian President Vladimir Putin has clearly breached all international laws, but nobody wants to do the heavy lifting required to dislodge Putin from the occupied territories.
To Ukrainians, now entering the second round of their presidential election, the war is second only to corruption as the most important issue facing their nation. Each candidate must now detail his blueprint to resolve the lingering and costly conflict. President Petro Poroshenko has vowed to fight until the territories are returned and join NATO, and frontrunner Volodymyr Zelenskiy wants the territories returned, has pledged to hold a referendum on joining NATO, and says he’s willing to talk with Putin.
Several US military experts were asked about the best way forward and were divided as to priorities: More military aid, more diplomacy, more sanctions, a clean-up of Ukrainian corruption, or all in varying degrees.
“I don’t think it is complicated,” said Phillip Karber, a defense advisor to NATO governments and president of the Potomac Foundation. Karber has been in Ukraine thirty times, including spending one winter at the front. “Nothing is going to change until Putin decides he’s not going to do it anymore.” Karber said that the West must find ways to increase the costs on Putin in the Donbas.
Karber suggested that vehicles, missiles, and equipment, now in storage in the United States, should be shipped to Ukraine, at no cost to the US taxpayer. He suggested that 400 “Bradleys” or tanks; 24 Cobras (attack helicopters); six Hawkeyes (airborne command and control system); and 70 Harpoon missiles (anti-ship weapons on fighter bombers) would help equalize the situation for Ukraine.
“All of a sudden the situation would be very different,” he said. “This increase wouldn’t be an escalation but reciprocity.”
US Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker emphasized a mixture of diplomacy, military defense, and sanctions.
“I don’t want Ukraine to launch a new military offensive because it will lose,” he said in an interview. “But Ukraine should strengthen its defensive capability to provide a strong deterrent to Russian aggression. Holding the ground, raising the costs to Russia.”
He said diplomacy remains important and that the Ukrainian government should remain committed to the Minsk Agreements, and support the proposal for a UN mandated peacekeeping mission.
“The active fighting should stop in the Donbas. Crimea is on a different trajectory and that involves sanctions,” he added.
Unfortunately, the reality is that Putin holds all the cards at the moment. Ukraine is years away from being qualified to join NATO, and the United States and Britain failed to enforce the Budapest Memorandum which promised protection for Ukraine in 1994 after it surrendered its nuclear weapons. After the 2014 invasion, the Obama regime refused to supply lethal defensive weapons, due to worries about Russia’s reaction.
One year ago, the Trump administration made a small step by delivering lethal defensive weapons, or thirty Javelin anti-tank missile systems. But little changed on the ground. Fighting continued and in November Russia seized Ukrainian ships and sailors to blockade and control shipping in two Ukrainian ports. Some speculate this is in preparation to seize more territory.
Michael Carpenter, senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense at the Department of Defense, believes the conflict suits Russia’s purpose. “Their ideal solution is a Kyiv government subservient to the Kremlin,” he said.
Ukraine needs more military help and the current sanctions on Russia are not tough enough, Carpenter said.
“Full blocking sanctions to even one major Russian bank, or prohibition on all financial transactions by major Russian banks, would have a huge impact on financial markets and give us greater leverage,” said Carpenter. “Instead, we sanctioned Russia’s 26th largest bank, a crony bank in Russia, but so small it was easy [for cronies] to reconfigure portfolios.”
By contrast, he added, sanctions against Iran worked. They brought the country to the negotiating table and shrank its economy 9 percent a year for three years, shrank oil exports from 2.5 million to 1.1 million barrels a day, and froze $120 billion in Iranian reserves abroad.
Ben Hodges, a retired general and former commander of the United States Army in Europe, agreed that Putin remains undaunted.
He added that Ukraine’s systemic corruption does not help its cause. “I think Ukraine’s effort is undermined by the level of corruption and perception of corruption there. And the Russians exploit this. The recent scandal, involving the defense bureaucracy, wrecks morale and harms the competence of the people in Ukraine. And in the West, there is a danger of Ukraine fatigue as corruption continues.”
Hodges said the Kharkiv tank factory illustrates what’s not working. There workers repair battle-damaged tanks for the Ukrainian army but also produce new top shelf tanks for export. “Yet the [Ukrainian] government has been asking the West to provide basic equipment. Something is wrong with the system. There is zero transparency of its defense budget. This needs to be addressed.”
Going forward, Ukraine’s next president must not only make it clear to allies that Russia represents an existential threat against Ukraine, but also against the rest of Europe. The case for more military, diplomatic, sanctions, and aid must be made forcefully and often.
As a recent article by Dennis Soltys of KIMEP University in Kazakhstan put it: “The Ukrainian civilian population and under-equipped army conveniently guard Europe’s eastern wall. But such an effort cannot be sustained indefinitely by a poor country with a population less than one-third that of Russia’s. Thus, Western military and economic aid is necessary.”
Volker agrees. “Much higher on Europe’s list of priorities should be to make Ukraine strong. Europe is not doing enough.”
Ukraine protects Europe and now Europe, and its allies, must protect Ukrainians in return. Without that reciprocity, winter will come.
Diane Francis is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Editor at Large with the National Post in Canada, a Distinguished Professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, and author of ten books.