Commentary from Colin Robertson

Why the West should listen to Merkel on Ukraine

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
February 17, 2015

Do we arm Ukraine? Economic sanctions have not dissuaded President Vladimir Putin from continuing Russian aggression.

At the Brisbane G20 summit in November, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Mr. Putin to “get out of Ukraine.” For Western leaders, the question is what do they do next.

How long will the new ceasefire endure? Few put much credence in Russian assurances. An earlier ceasefire unravelled as Mr. Putin’s “little green men”pushed forward.

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko wants Western help, specifically lethal arms. Brandishing captured Russian military IDs at the recent Munich Security Conference, Mr. Poroshenko asked what further evidence is required of Russian aggression.

The UN estimates the conflict has killed more than 5,000 and displaced a million. Mr. Putin has the escalatory advantage and he ruminates about the use of nuclear arms.

For Mr. Putin, the campaign is a “holy war’ protecting the Russian diaspora, as well as a development that rights the 1989 dismemberment of greater Mother Russia. While there have been some Russian protests over Ukraine, anti-Western attitudes there are at a 25-year high.

A recent report, authored by members of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, argues that the West’s strategy to restrain Mr. Putin has failed. They recommend significant military assistance: radar, drones and short range anti-armor weaponry to enable Ukraine to counter the Russian offensive.

They argue that “to deter and defend” will raise the cost of aggression and bring Mr. Putin back to the bargaining table. If Russia is not stopped now, they argue that the Kremlin will believe it can get away with this form of hybrid warfare. The next Russian intervention could be in Estonia or Latvia – NATO members with security guarantees.

NATO’s top commander is calling for the use of“all tools” and, at his recent confirmation hearing, U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter favoured arms for Ukraine. Non-intervention by the West during the Spanish Civil War, evocatively captured in Alan Furst’s novel Midnight in Europe, only advantaged Franco’s fascists.

But providing arms bring multiple challenges. It takes time to transport equipment and even more time to train Ukrainians in its use. There is the risk of escalation. Surveys in the United States are consistent: There is no appetite for American boots on the ground.

For now, the West negotiates. U.S. President Barack Obama preaches “strategic patience and persistence” in the newly updated U.S. National Security Strategy, but it is German Chancellor Angela Merkel who is demonstrating both qualities.

Ms. Merkel, who hosts the G7 summit in June, is leading the negotiations with Mr. Putin. Ms. Merkel has Mr. Putin’s number. Her leadership underlines Germany’s geopolitical re-emergence, the only silver lining in this crisis.

Ms. Merkel argues for continued engagement and, for now, she is against arms for Ukraine. This was her message at the recent Munich security conference and in meetings last week with Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper. Ms. Merkel deserves our continuing support.

Providing arms raises many questions:

How do we control for their distribution?

Who will be in charge of then?

Who will train the Ukrainians?

What and where are the firebreaks?

Will arms increase casualties and risk a proxy war?

Economic sanctions and the drop in oil revenues have been brutal on Russia; its GDP may fall 5 per cent this year. At some point the bite of sanctions will have to diminish Mr. Putin’s appeal to Russian patriotism.

Like it or not, Ukraine is not a NATO member and the reasons why we did not militarily intervene in Mr. Putin’s Crimean conquest still apply. We are already engaged in a widening conflict with the Islamist militants of ISIL. This week, world leaders convene for a White House summit on counterterrorism. Meanwhile, there are the negotiations with Iran, with Mr. Obama declaring that there must be a nuclear deal by the end of March.

Preserving Western consensus, within the European Union and between the EU and United States, is always difficult. But if Washington presses ahead with lethal arms, the Western consensus will crumble.

For now the West’s best choices are threefold:

With Ukraine: more economic support conditional on the country improving its governance. Ukraine is worse than Russia in Transparency International’s’ corruption index. As a start why not advise on Canadian-style federalism and language rights?

With Russia: continuing engagement with biting sanctions. As costs rise, Mr. Putin’s calculus of actions without consequences will change.

Within NATO: Honour the pledges made at the Wales summit to reverse defence cuts and make the alliance fitter, faster and more flexible.

Whatever the West does, we need to do it collectively, or Mr. Putin wins. Before adding more arms to the Ukraine crisis, trust Chancellor Merkel and double down on patience and diplomatic engagement.


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