Unavoidable Elements of the Ukraine Crisis | Charles Duelfer

Unavoidable Elements of the Ukraine Crisis

Western policy to prevent further Russian aggression in Ukraine is hobbled by a few inescapable problems.

The government in Ukraine is weak from the top down. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is no Vladimir Putin.  While they both stand about 5 foot seven inches tall, Zelensky is not a tough driven individual running a country that is clearly under his control. Zelensky is a former actor and comedian, not a former KGB officer. The government structures under him are wobbly at best.  Ukraine has not yet matured into a cohesive democracy.  Corruption is widespread.  Key institutions—like the security service—have yet to develop into reliable functioning organizations. This does not reflect a lack of will on the part of Ukrainians to defend their independence, but does limit capacity.

If Putin successfully neutralizes the leadership of Ukraine, it will certainly impede our ability to provide aid.  Whose request will we respond to for assistance?  Who will we recognize as the legitimate leader of a disintegrating leadership structure?  Zelensky must be a target of Russian strategy.  He can be undermined, influenced, or removed in a variety of ways.  Russia can find lots of ways of throwing sand in the eyes of its opponents. The West may want to support Ukraine, but if there is no clear leadership this will be a challenge.

Russian influence operations in Kiev are long standing.  Corruption and weak judiciary are familiar operational territory.  “Facts” are whatever gets repeated enough or are most convenient to believe.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is long-practiced in shaping creative narratives.  He was Russian ambassador to the UN from 1994 to 2004 (I knew him when I was the deputy head of the UN Iraq inspection group UNSCOM in the 1990’s.) Frankly, he was the sharpest (both smart and prickly) ambassador in the UN Security Council.  His presentations could easily confuse droopy members in post-lunch meetings that up is down and left is right.  Coincidentally, Lavrov was the Russian representative who signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 assuring Ukraine that in exchange for giving up its Soviet era nuclear weapons stocks, Russia would not threaten its independence or territorial integrity.  Lavrov would have no problem stating that Russia was in complete compliance with the Budapest agreement according to some convoluted rationale.  It is also important to bear in mind that in the mid-to late 90’s the US and NATO (and especially Madeleine Albright) ran roughshod over Russian concerns raised in the UN when dealing with the conflict in Kosovo.  NATO began bombing without UN Security Council agreement.  Russia was weaker then.  Lavrov has a long memory and, in my opinion, will relish any opportunity to stick it to the US representatives as payback.   

Consider the following:  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s daughter, Ekaterina (bright Columbia University graduate, enjoyed New York during 1990’s), married Alexander Vinokurov, a Cambridge University graduate and very successful Russian businessman.  What do Alexander Vinokurov and President Zelensky have in common?  According to the Pandora financial documents released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, they both have offshore accounts in the British Virgin Islands. 

NATO is an alliance of 30 members.  This is both a source of strength and a weakness. Decisions occur by consensus, including agreement on new members. Even if Ukraine one day meets NATO membership standards, President Putin needs only persuade one member to object and he can block Ukraine NATO membership.  Recall some of the current NATO members: Turkey (which purchased Russian S-400 air defense missiles), Hungary, whose Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, was just warmly received by Putin in Moscow, Montenegro (find that on a map) which has a population of about 600,000 and a GDP (est. $13 B in 2020) that is much less than Mark Zuckerberg is reported to have lost this week ($24B) when Facebook stock dropped, or Iceland, also about 600,000 population and new good friend of China.  Others include Albania, Slovenia, North Macedonia, and Croatia.  It requires no wild stretch of imagination to consider Putin obtaining some confidential commitment to oppose Ukrainian membership.

The best goal for US policy is a solid defense of all NATO members and prepare for a long-lasting, relatively low-level war in Ukraine.  Enough to bleed Russia without causing them to escalate via war widening moves either geographically, or up the escalation ladder.  Russia has sufficient missile capability (conventional as well as tactical nuclear weapons) to threaten targets throughout Europe.[i]  No NATO member wants that to happen.  So designing for an outcome that just sustains an expensive war for Russia may be the best we can realistically accomplish.  Of course, President Putin may make his decisions based avoiding this.

The sad truth is that none of this bodes well for Ukraine.  But if Russia pursues its aggression, it will be clear Moscow has chosen to be an enemy outside the western economic system.  Russian citizens will pay a heavy economic cost for the foreseeable future.  And, those off-shore accounts will be blocked.   China can help Putin, but does he really want to be dependent on Beijing? 

There may not be a “solution” for the Ukraine problem, but some processes and policies are better than others.

[i] Including from the non-contiguous piece of Russia called Kaliningrad that until the end of World War II was Königsberg, Prussia.  The Germans were expelled and Russians imported.  Now it sits nestled in the midst of NATO on the Baltic between Lithuania and Poland.

This entry was posted in Allies, China, NATO, nuclear weapons, Russia, Ukraine, United Nations and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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