In The Media

How can we avoid a shooting war in Ukraine? 

by David Carment

March 31, 2014

With the crisis in Crimea receding, Russia’s troops continue to mass on the border with Eastern Ukraine, their numbers estimated at between 30,000 and 100,000. Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stated recently that Russia reserves the right to protect Russian minorities in Ukraine — though he insists Russia has no intention of “invading Ukraine”.

The crisis over Ukraine may have entered a new and far more dangerous phase — one in which regional influences and geopolitics take priority over the maintenance of a global balance of power and international norms of non-intervention. So far, NATO has indicated it is willing to pay the relatively small price of winking at Crimea’s annexation in order to maintain stable relations with Russia. But if tensions in Eastern Ukraine continue to rise, that transformation may be large enough to tip the regional military balance in Russia’s favour.

Russia’s stated concern is that, due to political strife and unfulfilled economic expectations, Ukraine’s experiment in democratization will result in the suppression of minority rights. Ukraine’s minority groups require protection from both state institutions and external ‘protectors’. But when state institutions are weak, external security guarantees are essential for protecting minority rights.

Even though the true purpose of Russia’s military moves on Ukraine’s eastern border is not known, the stated purpose is Vladimir Putin’s desire to extend security guarantees to Russian minorities. NATO’s goal should be to take away Putin’s fig-leaf for military intervention, through lasting collective arrangements more suitable to the region’s unique problems.

We’re looking at two possible scenarios. The first would see Russian forces move pre-emptively into Ukraine territory in an effort to drive a wedge between Russian-dominated zones and the rest of Ukraine. In a repeat of the Crimea takeover, Russia would then proceed to annex territories loyal to Russia. A second scenario would see Russia intervening only after the government in Kiev proved either unwilling or unable to manage unrest and violence in Eastern Ukraine. The goal would be to separate out Russian minorities from forces loyal to Ukraine.

The reaction from NATO member states would be quite predictable. Ukraine’s neighbours Hungary and Poland would be faced with a serious threat to regional stability and respond accordingly. Both nations have sizeable minority populations in Ukraine and therefore a stake in Ukraine’s stability. NATO’s air assets would be drawn in to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity through the imposition of a no-fly zone and an embargo. This response would open up a perilous prospect: a direct confrontation with Russian forces by a military alliance that has no appetite for a another ‘boots on the ground’ intervention in another ‘out-of-area’ conflict.

NATO isn’t really equipped to respond to low-intensity violence. It works well as a deterrent against the territorial invasion of one of its members, but when it comes to extending security guarantees to minorities at risk in non-member states, NATO is sluggish and archaic. It would have to turn to other organizations better equipped for de-escalating sporadic violence involving Russian minorities wanting to break away from Ukraine.

Still, there are tools available to NATO that could allow it, in partnership with key regional organizations, to monitor minority security issues and strengthen security in Eastern Ukraine quickly and effectively. A good start would be for NATO to endorse and support the enforcement of a robust minority rights policy for Ukraine that builds on existing ones, such as the European Convention on Human Rights.

NATO also should work more closely with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s High Commissioner for National Minorities to monitor escalating violence in the lead-up to Ukraine’s general election later this spring. Together with specific NATO member states such as Poland and Hungary, a large-scale monitoring mission should be mandated to address and de-escalate ethnic tensions in Eastern Ukraine. Simultaneous oversight measures mandated by the OSCE and the UN must ensure Ukraine’s commitment to minority rights across the country. Russia should be encouraged to participate in the development of this monitoring and oversight architecture as a regional confidence-building measure.

The ultimate goal must be to persuade the Russian nation to play a constructive and secure role in broader European society generally, and in Ukraine’s security in particular. The strategic imperative for NATO is to recognize that regional solutions are the way forward. As a regional power, Russia and its armed forces will continue to solve problems on its periphery with or without Western sanction — so a confrontational posture on the part of NATO remains counterproductive.

The West’s aim must be to strengthen those regional organs of collective security in which Russia can play an important role. Until the West understands that, it will continue allowing Russia to present itself as a guarantor of minority rights abroad. That’s not good for Western interests, or for our collective security.

David Carment is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and of NATO. He is the author, with Frank Harvey, of Using Force to Prevent Ethnic Violence and editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal. He blogs at

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