Here is how the Ukraine Freedom Support Act and House Resolution 758 can affect U.S.-Russia relations and the endgame of the Ukrainian crisis in 2015. Instead of leading to peace, they could lead to an intensification of the conflict and a hardening of negotiating positions.
Ukrainian soldier looks down from a military truck at pro-Russian rebels during the Ukrainian military rotation of Airport of Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Jan. 6 , 2015. Photo: AP
In assessing the potential effects of the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act, the most important question is the following: What do U.S. policymakers see as the endgame in Ukraine?
With Kiev and the Moscow-backed separatists edging towards negotiations to end the war, Washington must decide how much it is willing to invest in that process. On the one hand, any peace deal will require painful concessions to Moscow and the Donbas “People’s Republics” about regional autonomy, which Kiev and Washington will perceive as partially legitimizing the separatist cause and Russia’s covert support for it. On the other hand, this may be the last chance to avert a full-scale shooting war in the spring, the cost of which in lost lives, economic destruction and social strife that could prove untenable for Ukraine.
The signing of the Ukraine Freedom Support Act into law by President Barack Obama in December, on the heels of the explicitly critical House Resolution 758, indicates that U.S. policymakers have not reconciled themselves to such a settlement of the Ukraine crisis. It suggests that their endgame may instead be to push Moscow and its separatist clients to a total capitulation, with the ancillary goal of undermining Putin with his domestic electorate.
If that is the case, then peace could be a very long way away in Ukraine.
The most important provision in these legislative enactments is the authorization for Obama to supply “lethal defense articles” (arms) to Ukraine. But beyond this concrete provision there is a general rhetorical escalation, particularly in Resolution 758, which is a detailed political indictment of Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and internally, against its own citizens.
Although the Resolution is not a law, it can be interpreted as a list of changes Congress wishes to see in Russia’s behavior before returning to (more or less) normal political relations. Amongst them are changes not previously tied to the sanctions, including internal Russian political reform and an end to support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Besides the more direct risk that U.S. arms pose to a Ukrainian peace deal, this progressive expansion of demands could convince Russians that no amount of change will ever be enough for America to lift its economic restrictions. They may believe that the proverbial “goalposts” will just keep moving farther down the field. Importantly, the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act (which is law) gives discretion for arming Ukraine and adjusting sanctions to Obama. In the end, he may choose not to use the powers granted him. An assessment of the risks involves suggests that he would be better to set a more limited endgame for U.S. policy, and refrain from sending arms that could bring the military conflict to a new level.
Sending U.S. arms to Ukraine risks inciting a symmetrical increase in arms flow from Russia to the Donbas separatists. This could either occur by covert channels, (the same ones by which most observers of the conflict believe the rebels have already received most of their firepower), or in the form of Russia’s first openly supplied arms. A member of the State Duma defense committee has already prepared an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to provide military assistance to the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in the event that U.S. weaponry is sent to the Ukrainian military.
Such a stakes-raising move by the U.S. could undermine the apparently successful use of sanctions to influence how ordinary Russians perceive the “price” of their government’s policies in Ukraine. While public support for Kremlin policies is still high, expectations amongst Russians have contracted significantly since the initial euphoria of the Crimea annexation and “Russian Spring.”
There seems to be a correlation between this perception of economic cost and the conciliatory language of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the past month. He called President Petro Poroshenko “Ukraine’s best chance”, made clear Moscow’s preference for maintaining the Donbas within Ukraine, and claimed that, “There will be no second Crimea.”
Furthermore, many Russian commentators see Moscow’s hand in the marginalization of firebrand field commanders and the ascension of more conciliatory, pliable civilian leadership in the separatist People’s Republics. Thus, we hear from the “premier” of the Donetsk Republic that, “Novorossiya is a dream... an idea that didn’t come to fruition… In practice we are one unified people. We need to talk. We even need to try to reach an agreement.”
But the U.S. could change that cost-benefit analysis for Russia and Ukraine by drastically raising the ideological stakes of the conflict. Painful concessions, such as officially swearing off of an independent “Novorossiya,” are one thing. But total capitulation, completely “abandoning the Donbas” to a U.S.-armed campaign – that is quite another. For bruised and blunted as it may be, the ideological mobilization of the “Russian Spring” is still in effect. Anecdotally, a large majority of Russians see their country locked into a decisive political conflict with the United States, which they believe is committed to undermining Russia’s role in the world. Pain in their pocketbooks certainly influences their decisions, but so does this elemental, not-entirely-rational force.
U.S. policymakers do not need to agree with it or justify this ideology, but they should at least appreciate the risks of inciting it.
A renewed Ukrainian offensive to decisively defeat the separatists, carried out with U.S. arms (and presumably, with U.S. advisors) would unquestionably lead to horrific civilian casualties, the single most important factor in maintaining popular support in the Donbas for the separatists and in Russia for the Kremlin’s policies. In the assessment of the Ukrainian newspaper Vesti, if full-on war returns in the spring it will not be contained to its current bounds but could spread to other eastern regions, “fatefully testing the durability of the already markedly weakened Ukrainian state organism.”
In the public comments of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Putin and the self-proclaimed leaders of the separatist “People’s Republics,” it is possible to see the ground being prepared for some kind of political arrangement to end the war. It will need to involve much back-room dealing and ideologically suspect compromise. To borrow the Russian phrase, it will likely be a “lousy peace” (khudoi mir). But given the certain risks of a return to war, U.S. policymakers would do well to reconsider the vague aims of the Ukraine Freedom Support Act and recognize this “lousy peace” as the best endgame for the conflict in Ukraine.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.