Last year’s unexpected Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea and its hybrid war in eastern Ukraine raise profound questions about the future of European security and the U.S. role in maintaining peace, says USIP Acting Executive Vice President Bill Taylor.

Pro-Russian rebel fighters at a front-line position in Gorlovka, Ukraine, Jan. 31, 2015. Pro-Russian rebels recently captured the airport in Donetsk, kicking off the fiercest round of combat in the region since last fall, and their mood on the front lines is upbeat these days.
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Brendan Hoffman

A former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Taylor addressed the issue in a speech to the Tulsa Committee on Foreign Relations on April 7. His analysis that follows here is based on those remarks.

Since 1991, we haven’t had to deal with violent conflict in the region where the Soviet Union used to be. Russia played by the rules of civilized international behavior for more than two decades.

“A Russian empire on the edge of Europe risks permanent conflict and war.”

That changed last year.

In the spring of 2014, Russia invaded its sovereign neighbor Ukraine, occupied Crimea and then proceeded to annex the peninsula. Not since World War II has one country invaded another in Europe. In the face of the Russian blitz into Crimea, Ukraine, Europe and the United States were caught completely off guard.

The U.S. and Europe responded with economic sanctions and travel restrictions on Russians responsible for the invasion.  

Yet, the Russians continued their aggression, sending troops, heavy weapons and special forces into southeastern Ukraine. More than 6,000 people have died and more than 1.5 million have fled their homes.  The West responded with harsher economic and diplomatic sanctions.

What do we make of this? Is this just a conflict in a distant country, of no real significance to the United States? I think not, and here’s why.

First, Ukraine is a country of 45 million people in the heart of Europe. It’s a country that wants to be sovereign and independent, democratic and European. We should support that.

Furthermore, as former President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has noted, an independent Ukraine stands as a vital bulwark between Russia and the re-establishment of empire. A subservient Ukraine is crucial to Russia’s ability to again threaten Europe, as it did during the Cold War. As an empire, Russia stood as a threat to all its neighbors – the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as to Poland, Southeastern Europe, the Republic of Georgia and on to Central Asia.

A Russian empire on the edge of Europe risks permanent conflict and war.  The conflict in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine.

Finally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine shreds a rules-based system of international standards that have ordered international relations in Europe for 70 years.  The Economist magazine characterized Russia as a greater threat to the West than at any time since World War II. That means greater than the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

So, what’s to be done?

Some argue we should negotiate with Russia. Others, however, recall 1939, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, invaded neighboring Czechoslovakia and then Poland, very much like the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of southeastern Ukraine last year.  After Hitler’s 1939 invasions, the British tried to negotiate with him. Appeasement didn’t work.

During the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the West devised strategies that ultimately prevailed – containment and deterrence. Today, this would entail strengthening Ukraine and other Russian neighbors against further aggression by providing financial and economic support, political backing, and military aid.

It also would require strengthening the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which this month marked the 66th anniversary of its founding in 1949. Steps would include reassuring allies of our commitment to their defense with measures such as rotating troops through the Baltic states and Eastern Europe, standing up a rapid-reaction force, and preparing for the kind of hybrid warfare that Putin is using.

The U.S. and Europe would also need to maintain current sanctions until the Russians withdraw from southeastern Ukraine, and impose additional penalties if Russia invades further.

Clearly Russia enjoys local military dominance in eastern Ukraine, wielding more armed forces and weapons than Ukraine can possibly muster. They can overwhelm even well-trained Ukrainian special forces. But Russia’s economy is already badly damaged, and it’s getting worse, with the help of last year’s plunge in the price of oil, which had for so long propped up Russia’s economy. Their international financial reserves are dropping, and they depend desperately on imports for technology, finance and future growth.

On the other hand, the U.S. has a much stronger hand across the board. We have strong alliances, rebounding economic strength and an unmatched military. We can successfully confront this serious challenge to international security if we show resolve, determination and patience. We have done it before.

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