February 20, 2015

Minsk 2: time to devise strategy


Hope springs eternal. In Ukrainian circles that cliché is no longer relevant when referring to Ukraine-Russia relations. Many in the West are still naive or, perhaps, idealistic enough to lend credence to promises made by Russian leaders or their henchmen. However, the list of the believers is diminishing.

Despite cynicism, lessons learned from the past and even current violations of Minsk 2, there may be a silver lining or perhaps an opportunity that should not be wasted. In most instances in the past Vladimir Putin’s play has been dominant in terms of outwitting the opposition. This time he struck an agreement on his terms when holding the better hand, having recently grabbed more land. Still, there will be a brief lull in the fighting.  Sporadic and systematic breaches by the Russians will never abate. Nevertheless, because the fighting will diminish, there will be a brief respite for all sides, including the West, to take inventory and devise strategy. Taking inventory must include a recognition that strategy thus far has done little to abate the aggression.

A glaring omission in the agreement is no specific mention of Nadiya Savchenko in paragraphs 5 or 6, which speaks of amnesty for individuals involved in activities in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as an exchange of hostages within five days from the implementation of the ceasefire. The Savchenko case should serve as an early indicator of Russian compliance.

The White House greeted the latest agreement with a perfunctory welcome, calling it “a potentially significant step toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict and the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty consistent with the Minsk agreements from last September,” yet added its concern about the escalation of fighting on the date of the agreement as being inconsistent with the spirit of the accord.

Secretary of State John Kerry likewise welcomed the news. However, Secretary Kerry felt compelled to gratuitously add: “As we have long said, the United States is prepared to consider rolling back sanctions on Russia when the Minsk agreements of September 2014, and now this agreement, are fully implemented.”

What about the hybrid war that continues, Russian enclaves within Ukrainian territory? What about Crimea annexed to the Russian Federation? The secretary misspoke.  What Secretary Kerry should have said regarding sanctions was that should Russia fail to abide by the ceasefire yet again, additional sanctions would be imposed. That would make the U.S. position meaningful.

Immediately, while the ceasefire is still largely in place, the United States should announce what it is prepared to do in the event of yet another Russian violation. Certainly among the most significant measures would be to work with our European partners to lock out Russia from the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications system, known as SWIFT. A lock-out would be crippling to the Russian economy. A warning about a possible lock would be a serious and tangible admonition to Russian banks and the oligarchs who rely upon them for the movement of their wealth, among them Mr. Putin, the oligarch-in-chief.

Additional less meaningful sanctions should be announced as well, which would include barring Russian companies currently actively doing business in the United States such as Lukoil and a plethora of Russian vodka manufacturing companies. These sanctions would gravely affect Russian industry, and Russian state coffers, and benefit U.S. energy producers, manufacturers and farmers.

Finally, President Barack Obama himself should announce that he and our NATO allies have thought long and hard about equipping Ukrainians with lethal arms, have been reluctant to do so given the glimmer of hope that all conflicts can be resolved diplomatically in good faith, but that a Russian breach will convince them irrevocably that Russia is not acting in good faith. The president should make it very clear to Mr. Putin that he sees the current ceasefire as not still another attempt to bring peace to Ukraine, but as the final test for Russia, which has systematically breached so many international treaties and agreements to date. If Russia fails to abide by the ceasefire, the United States and its NATO allies will begin arming Ukraine since, having exhausted diplomatic channels, helping to stop Russia on the Ukrainian battlefield will be perceived as the only way to stop the Russian scourge from spreading, guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial inviolability, and upholding the principles of international law. U.S. involvement in this regard may be only the beginning until such time as all borders are restored to their pre-February 2014 status.

This type of announcement would make the ceasefire agreement meaningful.  Otherwise, Minsk 2 will simply become another international agreement that Russia has signed and violated. More important strategically, it could be the West’s last chance to secure peace in Eastern Europe and, perhaps, prevent aggression from spreading beyond. Hope springs eternal. But, politically, even hope tinged with naiveté has limitations.