There are four Western scenarios on the Ukraine crisis competing to explain where we stand: the McCain, Mearsheimer, Motyl, and Merkel theses. Which is right? (Part 2 of 2)
Analysis of the Ukraine crisis by Ukrainian-American historian Alexander Motyl and German Chancellor Angela Merkel differs sharply from that of John McCain and John Mearsheimer in that it regards Russia as the loser rather than the winner so far. This view by no means belittles the dangers in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s zero-sum adventurism, but it sees a glimmer of hope that diplomacy could help deescalate Putin’s aggression. Such hope is conspicuously absent in McCain’s drive to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons, and in Mearsheimer’s appeal to let Moscow rule unchallenged in its own sphere of influence.
Beyond the role of diplomacy, there are some areas of overlap between the four views. In part, Motyl, Merkel, and McCain implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) heed the constraints of Mearsheimer’s realpolitik. Motyl argues that, pragmatically, Kiev should cede to Moscow both of the “two economic sinkholes – Crimea and the Donbass” that Russian troops and local separatists already control physically, the better to transform and modernize the remaining nine-tenths of Ukraine. The West as a whole has tacitly accepted Russian control of Crimea, and even McCain, by rejecting the risky deployment of Western boots on the ground, has implicitly endorsed the consensus fear that Russia’s 771,000-strong armed forces and 20,000 tanks could quickly trump a tiny Western augmentation of Ukraine’s 121,000 servicemen and 2000 tanks. In an era with fewer agreed taboos on state violence than existed during the Cold War, all want to avoid sleepwalking into tit-for-tat escalation that could unwittingly build momentum toward a nuclear showdown.
In today’s most urgent policy debate, Motyl and McCain both support arming Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons. Both Merkel and Mearsheimer oppose this move, the former because of the danger of uncontrolled escalation, the latter because the West shouldn’t meddle in Russia’s hegemonic “near abroad.”
The Motyl View
Motyl builds his case on the premise that Russia no longer possesses the “escalation dominance” it enjoyed in Ukraine a year ago from its regional military superiority, its fierce perceived national interest in subduing a neighbor, its ability to export heavy weapons and soldiers at will across Ukraine’s unprotected eastern border, and Kiev’s lack of allies. What may by now be making even Putin rethink a new offensive – one that NATO commanders believe to have already been planned – is the unexpected cost, in blood and treasure, of Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine.
The Russian president never dreamed that the fractious West could agree on financial sanctions that would lead Russia to a projected GDP drop of some 4 percent this year and block key new investments from the West. Or that the weak interim government in Kiev would survive. Or that Russian-speaking peasants in eastern Ukraine would decline to rally to the secessionist cause, even after Russian Spetsnatz officers lit the fuse of rebellion. Or that the Russian army would be overstretched by the intervention. Or that Russia’s incursion would prove counterproductive in accelerating the formation of a distinctive Ukrainian identity unified against Russian aggression, resuscitating the NATO alliance, sparking closer Scandinavian defense coordination with NATO and the formation of a joint Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian brigade, and condemning the Russian economy to stagnation at the level of mineral extraction.
Above all, Putin never guessed that the ragtag Ukrainian army and volunteer militias would take up a doomed fight against the Russian behemoth and kill an embarrassing number of Russian soldiers. In fact, the Ukrainian forces would actually have defeated Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine last summer, had Putin not sent Russian paratroopers with devastating firepower to rescue the insurgents. And although the “cyborg” Ukrainians who held out for months at the Donetsk airport and the Debaltseve salient failed to stop the final fall of those enclaves to insurgents under clandestine Russian command in January and February 2015, they took a heavy toll on Russian combatants. If Putin were to escalate from mere seizure of Ukrainian territory to a far more demanding occupation, he would have to expect high casualties from guerrilla forces, similar to those inflicted by western Ukraine’s two-year underground resistance to Soviet takeover after 1945. This (despite official denials that any Russian troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine) would make it impossible for the Russian populace to remain ignorant of the combat deaths of Russians, which the Russian army is doggedly hiding from the mothers and wives of the dead at the moment.
Motyl does not by any means think that the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian forces could win set battles against the mix of Russian regulars, local mercenaries, and criminal gangs in eastern Ukraine by themselves. What he argues instead is that if the Ukrainians and their Western supporters can hold Putin to a stalemate, they will have won the war. Motyl summarizes: “Anything short of such a victory amounts to a defeat for Russia. Having destroyed the Russian economy, transformed Russia into a rogue state, and alienated Russia’s allies in the ‘near abroad,’ Vladimir Putin loses if he doesn’t win big. In contrast, Ukraine wins as long as it does not lose big. If Ukraine can contain the aggression, it will demonstrate that it possesses the will and the military capacity to deter the Kremlin, stop Putin and his proxies, and survive as an independent democratic state.”
Former US presidential security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski agrees, saying the West should offer Russia “genuine accommodation, and at the same time convince Russia that crossing certain lines is prohibitively expensive for Russia itself.” He sees an “analogy here between the German general staff after Anschluss, warning Hitler that if he pursues the efforts against Czechoslovakia too energetically, he will plunge the Germans into a war for which it is not yet ready but will be ready in about four years.”
The Merkel View
Chancellor Merkel’s approach is less an analytical school than a psychological reading of Vladimir Putin and a pragmatic guideline to the crisis diplomacy that she is leading. She is the Western head of government best equipped to talk with Putin, and she has stuck with the need to do so, no matter how fruitless the dialogue has been.
As a Russian speaker who grew up in the Soviet client state of East Germany, she understands Putin’s bitterness at the abrupt loss of Moscow’s empire in 1989 and the loss of all of Ukraine last year through the political failure of Viktor Yanukovych. She sees the Russian president’s fury at a Ukraine that gutted his pet project of a Eurasian Union by not joining it. She famously warned President Barack Obama early on that Putin was living “in another world.” She declined to elaborate, but Western pundits take this as meaning a poisonous paranoia that regards Russia as all-powerful militarily in its own neighborhood, but simultaneously as the greatest victim of Western exploitation when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to withdraw Moscow’s armed forces from Berlin and Central Europe a thousand miles to the east.
Merkel’s diplomatic goal might best be described as operationalizing, incrementally, what Brzezinski defines as the “balance between deterrence and accommodation.” Her method is to maintain contact so as to be available for compromise whenever Putin finally realizes that the costs of his present belligerence – including being forced to accept a junior role in a new partnership with China, rising jihadism among Russia’s Chechens and other Muslims, Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s tentative moves to put more distance between Belarus and Moscow, and continued capital flight and brain drain from Russia – far outweigh the benefits. Her mantra is that there is no military solution in Ukraine. For her this truism excludes delivery to eastern Ukraine of Western lethal weapons, which could be matched and surpassed instantly by Russia’s heavy weapons anyway and risk pushing Putin to up the military ante and blame the West when he feels cornered. But it also requires Putin to keep his own military and the trigger-happy proxies he has empowered in the Donbas on a short leash.
Thus, in May and June of last year, she played the West’s weak geopolitical hand to get Russia’s signature on a Geneva agreement, however ambiguous, that she could measure Putin’s future actions against – and to win time for the fledgling Ukrainian government to pull itself together. Simultaneously, she successfully rallied support for financial sanctions on Russia from businessmen in the pro-Russian German industrial lobby, and achieved the required unanimous approval of all 28 members of the European Union. In September, after Putin revealed his red line – he would not let client insurgents in eastern Ukraine be routed – she choreographed a truce that at least deescalated the violence. Last February she renewed the imperfect truce to provide a three-month relative lull, one that the United States and Britain – soon to be joined by Canada and Poland – are now using to send a modest few hundred trainers to western Ukraine to drill Ukrainian troops. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also used the lull to get NATO and the Russian military to reintroduce a hotline for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
If Chancellor Merkel’s instincts are right, President Putin might play the peace card and roll over today’s uneasy ceasefire for another few months to encourage dissenting European Union members to peel off at the EU’s next decision rounds in July and December. If Senator McCain’s instincts are right, the truce could explode into a heavy battle in eastern Ukraine within weeks.