For a few months now, I've been meaning to write a short piece to summarize my thoughts on the Ukraine crisis. The drag of real commitments has prevented that from happening, but the fortunate upside has been that my thoughts have had more time to stew, as the crisis, moving much more slowly than I had originally foreseen, unfolded.
A recent opinion piece published by the NYT argued for the deployment of NATO troops in strength to the borders of Poland and the Baltics as a deterrent and show of force. At least that's what I surmise the purpose of such a deployment would be, as the article is unconvincing in the extreme. What would reaffirming the alliance's commitment to Article 5 do to resolve the current crisis? (Don't get me started on calls for boosting missile defence). Humorously, the New York Times published the piece with a rather major misprint, attributing to the author a call for NATO troops to be deployed in Ukraine itself rather than its neighbours.
The correction appended by the Times ran:
Correction: Due to an editing error, James Jeffrey’s op-ed said that a ground deployment of U.S. troops “to Ukraine today could change perceptions on all sides.” The writer was referring to areas along Ukraine’s borders, and the column should have said that “a ground deployment in the current crisis with Russia could change perceptions on all sides.”It is possible to imagine the alarm with which Mr. Jeffrey read his modified piece as originally published. The panicked, indignant call to the editors of the Times would write itself as a comic skit. But all bumbling aside, the uniform reluctance among the Western punditry to cross that final bridge -- boots on the ground in Ukraine itself -- betrays a stifling orthodoxy in strategic thought that is symptomatic of the inability of NATO, the EU, and the United States to match the initiative of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Who wants to start a war with Russia? Orthodoxy is not without its justifications--besides the obvious risks of uncontrollable escalation, even a contained, conventional conflict with Russia would lead to casualties on a scale not experienced by any belligerent in decades. A 'small war' would destroy the post-Cold War international order and introduce innumerable political uncertainties for all sides, landing a potentially intolerable blow on the still weak global economy. Nobody wants war.
The problem common to most analyses of the Ukraine crisis is a failure to realize that "nobody" includes Russia. The critical question to ask is not "Who wants to start a war with Russia?" but "Who wants to start a war with NATO?"
But let's back up a step. Why does Ukraine matter? And to whom?
What is at Stake, Take One: Why the World Should Care
Foreign Policy magazine collaborates with the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at the College of William & Mary to publish a series of articles sampling academic opinion on contemporary policy issues. A recent addition to this series asked professors and elites whether it would be wise for NATO to send troops to Ukraine. An overwhelming majority of international relations scholars said "No". Curiously, however, academics that focus on international law were divided equally on the question. Why the discrepancy?
The obvious answer comes in two flavours, depending on whether you are sympathetic with the lawyers or not. If you are, then the argument goes something like this: international lawyers give more credit to international law in preserving order in an anarchic system, and are therefore more disturbed when a foundational proscription in the UN Charter, the prohibition on the use of force in Article 2(4), is violated. Therefore, international lawyers are more likely to advocate for a direct, strong response to Russian aggression. If you are not sympathetic, the answer runs on these lines: students of law over-privilege international law and sacrifice the good on the altar of the perfect. Failing to grasp political reality, their rigidity is in effect advocacy of a policy that implies extreme moral hazard and stunning opportunity costs incurred through worsened relations with Russia. Throw a "chicken-hawk" or "armchair general" in for good measure.
The lawyers reach the right conclusions, but for the wrong reasons. It isn't the violation of Article 2(4) that matters, but rather the breach of international norms. These norms carry enormous benefits for all actors in the international system, and it is these that must be protected. Critically, the law against the use of force does not translate directly into an identical norm against the use of force. The relationship is more complicated.
A common 'defence' of the Russian intervention holds that the West, and in particular the United States, is in no position to criticize Putin after it hollowed out the importance of Article 2(4) over the last two decades, first under the banner of humanitarian intervention (Kosovo), and later under that of preventive self defence (Iraq). Drone strikes and special forces operations have, according to this critique, further nibbled away at limits on the use of force. If a shift in international norms of behaviour is underway, it is the West to blame for initiating the movement while Russia only follows suit in protecting its citizens in the near abroad.
The problem with this critique is two-fold. First, of course, because the United States and its various coalitions broke with acceptable state practice does not mean further law-breaking is to be condoned. Second, the norm violation committed by Russia is of a very different type than that committed by the United States.
This second point is absolutely critical. For the lawyer, a breach of the rules is a breach of the rules -- motivations and circumstances be damned. Decision-making actors in international society are not, however, as blind as justice. Put to one side, for now, what one's opinion of the wisdom of the wars in Kosovo or Iraq might be (legitimate, justified, or further innovations in wordplay). Regardless what one thinks of those acts, it needs to be stated as clearly as possible that Ukraine presents a more central, more threatening menace to the international order. It is qualitatively different, and glib comments about rising powers merely following the United States' example must be rebutted.
The evolution of state practice in the realm of high foreign policy in the wake of the adoption of the UN Charter could be summarized as a tale of adaptation to a straitjacket that arguably made sense in 1945 but which has proven insufficiently flexible to address modern dangers. Cold War bipolarity led to the emergence of various experiments for getting around the prohibition on the use of force, some of which were summarized by Thomas M. Franck in his 1970 article asking "Who killed Article 2(4)?" Two of the trends Franck identified were indirect interventions through proxies short of an "armed attack" (this was written before Nicaragua, of course) and regional approaches to security in parallel to the UN system (more on those later). Ultimately, a strong argument could be made that international society came to accept indirect subversions of sovereignty as a nasty but tolerable practice, while treating direct, militarized assaults on sovereignty as beyond the pale.
More recently, states have been keen to develop new justifications for violating Article 2(4) to better manage the problems of gross human rights violations (including genocide) and terrorism. There bloomed legitimate, critical, sincere, and difficult debates about how force should be used to handle issues which the UN Charter was never designed to manage. Even commentators who strongly opposed the further erosion of the norm against the use of force recognized that something had to be done in cases where standing aside was akin to complicity--the debate was about methods, and their costs and benefits for the stability of the international system (and increasingly, a cosmopolitan conception of human values).
The poorly disguised invasion of Crimea launched by Russia in February 2014 was of a very different character than the Western interventions. In fact, the invasion was exactly the sort of behaviour that the authors of the UN Charter were concerned about prohibiting. It is military conquest followed by self-aggrandizing annexation. Acquisition of territory through occupation and formal integration has declined precipitously in state practice over the course of the 20th century. It is simply not something that well-behaved members of international society do anymore (see Zacher 2001).
Yes, but isn't conquest merely the pursuit of state interests by another means? When the West dismembered Yugoslavia, invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and justified drone strikes in the Pakistani hinterland, wasn't this equally self-aggrandizing and self-interested? And further, when it pours millions into opposition movements in anti-Western autocracies, isn't this a violation of self-determination? This is a cynical, deceptive, and frustratingly attractive argument. The fact remains: the practice of military conquest and annexation has a radically different goal, and tied to that goal is the potential for a radically different form of military conflict - a form which the UN Charter sought to consign to the annals of history. Russia invaded Crimea with no claim to legal title; it threatens eastern Ukraine with appeals to a historical concept, Novorossiya. This marks out its actions as relics - the militarized land-disputes of the post-WW2 era have generally involved some form of underlying legal claim.
This is not bad behaviour. It is the worst behaviour. International society must recognize this fact and stop trivializing it. States must recognize that Russia's predatory behaviour is a blow against a different, and more fundamental, norm than those assaulted by the West in the last two decades.
Key distinguishing characteristics of an international system are the underlying institutions and norms that define what sort of 'game' the actors are playing. The distribution of power can tell us some things about how states will act, but it does not define all the rules. One of the most important sets of norms and institutions in any system is that which regulates the balance between order and justice. These norms regulate how states can legitimately effect a justifiable change (not always territorial) and thereby put order temporarily at risk. The post-1945 system is characterized, in part, by its prohibition of unilateral annexation. The Western interventions of recent memory do not undo this prohibition; rather, they advocate for a further evolution of the system that accepts the 1945 norms and treats them as a starting point. The Russian intervention represents a turning back of the clock, and a challenge to the security of all states that have benefited from the post-Charter consensus.
What's at Stake, Take Two: Why the United States Should Care
U.S. President Obama has proven himself to be a cautious foreign policy decision-maker, consistently attempting to justify his choices by appealing to a need to safeguard U.S. power while avoiding "stupid shit". Obama's team has argued that this approach tracks the preferences of the U.S. public, which is weary of international commitments and constant war.
If we accept this assumption, which may well have a grain of truth to it, then the onus is on the advocate of a Ukrainian intervention to show that the United States stands to lose if it does not meet Putin head-on over Crimea. It is not enough, anymore, to argue that the United States is missing an opportunity or that it is failing to fulfill some abstract leadership role and jeopardizing its reputation. In effect, a case has to be made that doing nothing is "stupid shit".
In the long tradition of Eastern Europe being treated as a toy-thing of great powers, no scene stands out as vividly in recent historical memory as the purported meeting between Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin where they agreed on percentage-of-influence figures for each country in the region. Among critics of a confrontational approach to the Ukrainian crisis, there appears to be a nostalgia for great-power accommodation and top-down imposition of geopolitical 'solutions' to local problems. Ukraine is not only in Russia's background; it plays a critical role in the history of the Russian nation and its present shape is the product of assimilation and structuring within the Russian empire in its traditional and Soviet forms. The West, dragged by the European Union and its mission of eastward creep, misstepped by imposing on Russian interests, and Putin's response is therefore legitimate in some respects. The world should take these interests into account in formulating a proportionate protest, this camp argues.
Essentially, it is the fate of a single country (and, really, one peninsula) at stake. The United States has no vital interests in Ukraine; indeed, neither does the EU. The NATO members bordering Ukraine certainly have an interest in not spotting Russian divisions stationed in Lviv from their porches, but that currently appears to be an unlikely possibility.
This 'no interests' view is a misrepresentation of the true stakes. To the contrary, the invasion of Ukraine could well have profound geopolitical implications that define future limits on U.S. action and security. For Russia, Ukraine is not simply a test-case for the willingness of the international community to stand up to aggression. Rather, it is a test-case of the world's willingness to accept Russia as a great power--an essential, embedded, and consistent part of the country's national identity.
From almost the very first days of the post-Cold War Russia, management of the near abroad has been a domestic test case for the legitimacy of each and every Russian leader (see Clunan 2009, p 111, and Allison 2013, p 123). Consistently, senior Russian officials have made the case that the country deserves special rights within its sphere of influence (see Allison 2013, 103, 125, 161, 216, Clunan 2009, 136, and Tsygankov 2012, 34-35). The logic operates as follows: Russia is a great power; great powers have spheres of influence; spheres of influence entail certain rights; the enforcement of great power rights in their backyard requires a modification of norms on the use of force. This is not an innovation--it is a relapse to a 19th century world of great power impunity.
The United States has (or, should have) a strong interest in insisting that rising states become peaceful great powers. It must make the case that in the post-Charter world, territorial aggrandizement is not an accepted marker of status and that spheres of interest must be maintained without the overt reliance on force. To a certain extent, the United States has led by example in the Americas, relying largely on subversion and diplomacy to maintain its preferences, the occasional invasion notwithstanding. Again, the case has to be made that these underhanded methods are not morally or normatively equivalent to overt conquest.
Far from Russia's near abroad, the United States should also be concerned that the other rising power in the global system--China--understands the precedent and the message. Given that the Asian juggernaut has adopted a provocative and dangerous approach to asserting its regional maritime claims, clear lines of behaviour are a necessity. As in East Asia, the same is true for the United States elsewhere. If it must balance great powers militarily, the international system's "indispensable nation" will incur larger costs than if it succeeds in channeling competition into more peaceful modes. Enforcing a universal norm against territorial aggrandizement will be cheaper in the long term than tolerating its fracturing and eventual regression.
A Tour of the Chocolate Factory
Upon his inauguration, new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko offered a mixed agenda: negotiations, a possible cease-fire, and limited amnesties one the one hand, rejection of the Crimean annexation, denouncement of Russian propaganda on the other. Whichever hand he offers first, Poroshenko knows both are tied by pervasive corruption, a debilitated military, a trust deficit, and, most importantly, the thread of Russian invasion.
In his inaugural speech, Poroshenko said that he will seek to guide Ukraine into the EU. Setting aside the rather important question of whether the EU will want Ukraine, it is rather unlikely that Poroshenko will be able to emerge from negotiations with that option intact. Russia's intervention in Ukraine was triggered by the threat of a westwards drift and it is likely that in ongoing negotiations to end the fighting, the pro-Russian militants will seek terms that give them a way to prevent that drift. This is, of course, a little bit of guesswork but it seems to me to be the most likely framing of Putin's end goal. The pro-Russian faction will always have the alternative to invite in more troops and create a de facto independent state in eastern Ukraine--another Transdniestra, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia. As long as the Russian military is poised to intervene, the Ukrainian army will not be able to secure the country's border and end the insurgency by force. Under these conditions, Poroshenko's negotiating position will remain extremely weak.
The presence of NATO troops in eastern Ukraine would radically alter this picture. As I argued at the outset, the Russian leadership should be as wary of the escalatory potential of a direct clash as the United States and its allies. There is a false equivalency implied in most knee-jerk reactions to the option: that sending troops to Ukraine would be the same thing as going to war with Russia. While a war could certainly break out, there are strong reasons, mutual nuclear-induced caution being foremost, to believe that possibility would be quite low.
Rather, the main risk would be of NATO troops being dragged into an anti-insurgency campaign, for which there is no popular appetite in the United States after the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are two ways this could be avoided: outsourcing of the front-line presence in eastern Ukraine to more willing NATO allies, with U.S. troops stationed in the center of the country, or a partition of labour with the Ukrainian army where large U.S. units take up temporary residence in strategic locations that are distant from population centers while the Ukrainian army fights the pro-Russian uprising.
Another common objection to a NATO presence in Ukraine is that the deployment would naturally become an extended commitment. Bringing Ukraine into the Western fold militarily would likely imply propping up the economy for the long term--it is possible that many policymakers would prefer a return to the status quo ante with a non-aligned Ukraine rather than paying Kiev's bills. A military deployment on Russia's borders would also change the strategic balance in Eastern Europe and cause Moscow to respond in unpredictable ways. However, this objection does not take into consideration the negotiating upside of a deployment: the withdrawal of NATO troops could be a powerful bargaining chip. Under current conditions, time is on the side of the pro-Russian separatists, who can continue to bring in troops while the Ukrainian army is immobilized for fear of an overt invasion. With NATO troops present, the calculus would be swapped with the Ukrainian army gaining in strength and increasingly capable of ending the fighting. At the negotiating table, a withdrawal timetable could serve as the clincher for a deal that Moscow would make sooner rather than later.
From Here to Where?
I am not making the case that a NATO troop deployment is the best option; I am making the case for an open and thorough discussion of the possibility. It has been extremely disconcerting that the starting point for most discussion on the Ukrainian issue has been that a troop deployment would be bad and should not even be considered. Instead, I would suggest that a troop deployment, if properly designed and executed, could be the best option for ending the Ukraine crisis with the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country relatively intact. While I am not a military analyst and cannot begin to sketch out the feasibility of the suggestions above, it has been frustrating that more qualified individuals haven't stepped up to the plate.
A few parting thoughts:
1.) The primary conclusion I want to emphasize as an extension of the "Why?" argument outlined above is that the Ukrainian intervention is the most important militarized crisis of the last twenty-five years. This is a war worth mobilizing for, and it is a war worth fighting--more so than any of the humanitarian or terrorist crises since the end of the Cold War.
2.) The persistent threat of nuclear war means that direct conflicts between the great powers, such as Russia and the United States, will largely be settled by who is on the ground first. With the possibility of an actual ground conflict rather low, barring the ever-present risk of human error, NATO should make sure that its troops are in eastern Ukraine first, before Russian regulars deploy in force. Obviously, the opening stages of the Crimean infiltration would have been the best time for such an insertion. It is not clear anymore whether such an insertion would still be possible.
3.) Even if a low-risk deployment into eastern Ukraine would now be impossible, NATO troops in central and western Ukraine could still be a potent bargaining chip at the negotiating table.
Starting with "no" is the wrong way to go about troubleshooting the most important geostrategic problem of the new century. The lack of a debate on military options, and the inevitable conclusion one can thereby make about the world's priorities, has been almost as concerning to me as the crisis itself.