NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron welcome Barack Obama, President of the United States, to the NATO Summit in Wales (Source: NATO)
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron welcome Barack Obama, President of the United States, to the NATO Summit in Wales (Source: NATO)

By Harry C. Blaney III

As this is written there appear to be contradictory statements and reports from the field on whether there is a viable cease-fire in Ukraine after President Vladimir Putin called for one while his office provided a rough framework of seven points that were needed to make it work. All of this came after Putin spoke with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko earlier in the week. Afterward the Ukrainian government put out an optimistic press statement that implied a true agreement.  Soon after Putin said their views on ending the violence were “very close.”  But on the ground, fighting seems to be ongoing and recently more negative statements were put out by both sides. An agreement could be reached on Friday during planned talks in Minsk between Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists.  

But both sides of this conflict have since issued contradictory statements about how much was indeed agreed. Also the points outlined by Putin seem to be almost entirely consisting of terms that would be largely a surrender by the Ukrainian government of its authority over its own territory as it would require the Ukrainian forces to pull back from their present positions and other actions including the right of Russia to send in supplies and possibly more military support.  This would put Ukraine at a serious disadvantage. On the other hand the Ukrainians are in some distress in the field against Russia led and supplied forces. Ukrainian officials, specifically their Prime Minister, have also been more negative and tentative in new recent statements about this possible “cease-fire.”

One can also surmise that this was an effort by Putin to blunt any possible added sanctions or action by NATO at the Wales summit scheduled for later this week. The “cease-fire” proposal he likely hoped for would have given some credence to those in the EU and NATO who do not want to take any serious action against Russia or in support of Ukraine.

Should there, in the end, be a balanced and legitimate cease-fire, it might provide a context for some kind of broad agreement on fundamental issues. But at the moment, both sides seem on substance to be far apart on the key issues of Ukrainian integrity and independence. The key issues remain, namely the degree of autonomy or “independence” of Eastern Ukraine, Ukraine’s right to join the EU over time, and whether it has the right to at some point to join NATO. The latter may be moot for the moment since several NATO states are likely to oppose membership of Ukraine given Russian occupation of parts of that nation. Much of any outcome will depend on how much Putin wants the ability to claim victory for his military actions. On the other side is how much of a brutal struggle Ukrainians are willing to risk for their full independence.

That also will be determined by how much NATO and the EU are willing to support a largely independent Ukraine. There is possibly also room, if Putin is willing to give a bit, for a middle compromise. The Ukrainian president  Petro Poroshenko will find out more in his visit to Wales at the NATO summit when the future of his country will be discussed both in the joint NATO-Ukraine meeting, but more importantly when he meets on the sidelines with key NATO leaders and finds out if he will get any real financial and military assitance from the West. Just what will be done will be determined by an EU meeting and America’s own stance.

President Obama, who spoke this week from Tallinn, Estonia, urged NATO to help strengthen Ukraine’s military capability in order to counter Russian aggression. In his speech Obama said that “NATO must make concrete commitments to help Ukraine modernize and strengthen its security forces. We must do more to help other NATO partners, including Georgia and Moldova, strengthen their defenses as well.” With these statements it is apparent that Obama will seek to bolster support for Ukraine from his NATO partners at the Wales summit. President Obama reemphasized his commitment to the Baltic countries, which are all alarmed by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, by pledging that “We’ll be here for Estonia. We’ll be here for Latvia. We’ll be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you’ll never lose it again.”

President Obama’s situation is not an easy one given that whatever option he and our allies decide will require a degree of risk and cost. A “soft option” of little real support for Ukraine and few if any additional sanctions might result in a bolder and more brutal approach by Putin towards his “Near Abroad,” i.e. former USSR entities and Warsaw Pact members, and may generally embolden him to use his energy leverage and threats which could create a very unstable European environment. On the other side there is a “hard option” of tough sanctions and providing military supplies, equipment, and intelligence to Ukraine. That also has some risk depending on Putin’s appetite for more war and deaths of Slavic people.

As I have tried to point out, there are some middle range options and using the “energy” lever and creating for Europe a more modern and cleaner energy landscape will take revenue away from Putin’s government, and thus its military. In turn this will re-energize the European economy. Yet the question remains, how much does Europe value its own energy independence and not least Ukrainian independence for its 46 million citizens and their hopes to be part of a free world rather than the dark and brutal Putin empire. Yet we need to keep in mind that we want Russia to eventually be a more democratic and responsible state and be part of a more peaceful world. That will take a continued dialogue with the Russian leadership and its and people. Not to mention a lot of long-range thinking.   

It is important to watch Putin’s next moves, Ukraine’s next moves, Obama’s actions and words in Wales, and the NATO summit outcome. A key question to keep in mind as these events unfold is: can the West, despite its own economic and energy weaknesses, remain united and strong in its efforts to deal with Putin? We will be reporting next week from Europe on these and other developments.

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