Ukraine Deal Could Buy U.S. Time to Formulate Effective Russia Policy

Ukraine Deal Could Buy U.S. Time to Formulate Effective Russia Policy
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko attend a meeting during the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, Feb. 7, 2015 (AP photo by Matthias Schrader).

The fate of the latest cease-fire in Ukraine remains precarious, and even if the current truce unexpectedly endures, a lasting settlement to the Ukraine conflict will still prove elusive given the players’ conflicting strategic aims. Russia wants to keep Ukraine weak and divided, while the Ukrainian government—backed by the United States—wants to rule a reunified country, to include Russian-occupied Crimea. For their part, many Europeans would seem content with almost any settlement that ended the fighting and the sanctions they have imposed on Russia. But despite these differences, the truce might buy time for progress on other measures that would limit the risks of military escalation in Europe.

There is not a primarily military solution to the challenges posed by Russia’s interference in Ukraine, given Russia’s reliance on myriad nonmilitary tools for exerting influence in other countries and the imperative of avoiding a war between Russia and the West. However, any U.S. policy toward Russia will necessarily have a military component. Putting more NATO troops in the alliance’s more vulnerable eastern members bordering Russia is a way of bolstering the alliance’s credibility and discouraging Russian military actions against NATO members. It offers a good compromise between being provocative and looking weak, which invites further Russian probing. Conversely, this would be a bad time to remove more U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe, since Russia will not unilaterally match any U.S. reductions and has if anything been increasing its public brandishing of its nuclear arsenal.

Furthermore, the U.S. should make clear to Russia that violating its arms agreements will incur costs. For example, Washington should warn Russia that abandoning the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty could allow the U.S. to deploy intermediate-range missiles in the Middle East and East Asia to counter Iran and China’s growing missile threat—deployments that could also target Russia. However, Washington and its European allies should consider carefully the wisdom of offering NATO membership or other security guarantees to nonmember countries that are vulnerable to Russian pressure and Russia’s local military primacy. NATO’s strongest asset is its credibility—failing to uphold an Article 5 guarantee could rupture the alliance and undermine its many benefits for Europe, America and even Russia.

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