Food for Thought: "A Western Dual Strategy for Ukraine"

How can the West strengthen its defence capabilities and support Ukraine, while cooperating constructively with Russia?, asks Wolfgang Ischinger in his latest Monthly Mind column.

Wolfgang Ischinger is Chairman of the Munich Security Conference (Photo: Kuhlmann / MSC).

The focus on the annexation of Crimea and the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine, on the conflict with Russia, has tended to obscure the view of the second, equally great or greater danger for Ukrainian stability, namely that of economic collapse. Ukraine is facing a twofold strategic challenge: that of partition, and that of bankruptcy.

The hard truth is that neither Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political and military security nor its long-term economic rehabilitation can be realized while the country is involved in a conflict with its big neighbor Russia. The case of Ukraine demonstrates the need for a more sustainable and more comprehensive security architecture in Europe – not against Russia, but with Russia. At the same time, however, defending against possible aggression from Russia is high on the agenda of many in the current crisis.

What needs to happen to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity and to consolidate the security architecture of the whole continent?

I propose a dual strategy , combining military strength and NATO reassurance policies on the one hand, with offers of comprehensive cooperation in the Euro-Atlantic region on the other – much as the original German Ostpolitik did in the 1970s.

Firstly, a clear military message remains essential. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and  ongoing Russian support – both overt and covert – for separatists in eastern Ukraine have led to very serious security concerns in Europe, particularly among our easternmost NATO partners, the Baltic States and Poland. NATO has rightly responded with a program of political and military reassurance. NATO’s external borders are inviolable and must remain so. And just as our NATO partners demonstrated their solidarity with West Germany for more than four decades, we must now demonstrate our solidarity with our Eastern allies.

This program needs to be backed up by a reversal in the downward trend in the defense budgets of many NATO partners.  The two-percent goal reendorsed at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales must be taken seriously. Equally important are steps towards a more credible and more capable EU security and defense policy. When, if not now, has the time come to introduce the principle of integration, of synergies, to defense and armament matters? That would not only strengthen the EU’s ability to act effectively, it would also send an unmistakable signal to Moscow. 

– what about delivering arms to the Ukrainian military? Military support for Kiev, supporting the rehabilitation and democratization of the Ukrainian armed forces would need to be part of a comprehensively coordinated political process – because no one will benefit from renewed escalation of the conflict. On the other hand, we should not make a taboo out of military aid to Ukraine – a defenseless Ukraine could also present a threat to European security.

Thirdly, the EU must advance the energy union, with the aim of greater diversification of oil and gas imports – and a strategic reduction of dependence on Russian fuel.

Fourthly, Ukraine needs much greater financial and economic help and backup. The aid that has been agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will not be enough. George Soros has lent his voice to the chorus pointing this out, and has rightly stressed that more aid from the West is of existential importance for Ukraine – far more important than punishing Russia with sanctions.

The "Draghi model" can help here. Just as the European Central Bank president was able to calm the markets with a single sentence, so the EU could make it clear that it will do everything it can to support Ukraine on its path to economic recovery. Such a public statement would create new confidence in Ukraine. But that alone would not suffice. If actions are to follow the words, it will cost money – a lot of money – which given the debate over Greece is not likely to be a popular suggestion anywhere in the EU.

But what is the alternative? Wouldn’t the follow-up costs – political, military and financial – of a collapse of Ukraine, the EU’s biggest eastern neighbor, be potentially far greater?

Of course, no such aid project can be permitted to let the Ukrainian government off the hook regarding the reform agenda, particularly in the area of fighting corruption. On the contrary, the project would need to be tied to clear progress in this area. A kind of "Troika" in Kiev, including an EU special envoy, could play an important role in this – and in the implementation of the Association Agreement (DCFTA).

this is about far more than getting Ukraine back on its financial feet – it is also about the country’s civil society. In this greatest security crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the EU can demonstrate the power of European values. We owe it to the young generation of Ukrainians who protested on Maidan Square not against Russia, but against a corrupt Ukrainian elite, which was robbing the country’s youth of its chance at a European future.

These people – young journalists reporting on fraud, junior politicians fighting nepotism, NGOs promoting understanding and reconciliation between the ethnic groups – are the hope for a better Ukraine, a European Ukraine. The EU can do far more here, for instance, by allowing visa-free travel, creating more grants for Ukrainian students, and by supporting NGOs in the country.

That is one side of the dual strategy – reassurance by NATO partners and comprehensive help for, and cooperation with, Ukraine. The other side of the strategy should focus more on Russia.

Firstly, the sanctions must remain in place – as far as and as long as Moscow and the separatists fail to comply comprehensively with the Minsk Protocol. But obviously Kiev must also throw its full weight into the implementation of the Minsk deal, or the sanctions will lose their political purpose. The EU has to continue to push both.

Secondly, the dispute over Ukraine’s prospects of joining NATO must be settled, in Ukraine’s own interests. To be honest, the question of NATO membership for Ukraine was essentially answered in the negative long ago. Only the government in Kiev is understandably still clinging onto the idea. Now, a courageous step is needed, a step which only Kiev can take.

The EU could tie the comprehensive aid package proposed above to expectations that Ukraine begin to more strongly define itself as a bridge between East and West – rather as Finland, Austria, and even Switzerland have done in the past. Of course only Ukrainians themselves can decide to embark on such a course - towards an independent, self-determined Ukraine with links to the West and the East.

Thirdly, we need an exit strategy from the politically unhelpful exclusion of Russia from the G-8. Given the annexation of Crimea, the exclusion cannot be reversed in the short to mid-term without a loss of face for the West. One possible way out could be to turn the "5 plus 1 format" – used for negotiations with Iran –  into a much broader  platform with Russia, which could address all kinds of global and regional issues , such as Ukraine and Syria.

That would have the additional benefit of making Washington a full partner again in crisis management efforts regarding Ukraine. Currently, the US is neither represented in the Normandy format nor in the Trilateral Contact Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). That is not in Ukraine’s interest – nor in the well-understood interests of the EU.

Fourthly, we need a collective effort by key OSCE members – including Russia – to search for ways to strengthen Europe’s security architecture. Conventional and nuclear arms control as well as crisis prevention and confidence-building measures must be put back on the agenda. There can be no place in Europe for military saber-rattling, given the ever-present nuclear threat. Both sides should be interested in reducing risks of miscalculation and escalation by accepting restraints on military overflights and related activities. And visions of strategic economic cooperation also deserve attention, going back to old ideas of an economic zone "from Lisbon to Vladivostok".

And finally, the OSCE – which had almost been pronounced dead – has demonstrated its unique usefulness in the crisis, particularly with its Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM), which works under the most difficult conditions. What could be more obvious than to build on the multilateral framework of the OSCE – the three "baskets" of the Helsinki Accords – in order to bring security and cooperation to the fore in Europe in the wake of the Ukraine disaster?

It was not impossible to get a diplomatic, political process going even during the Cold War. We should propose to Moscow to restart such a diplomatic process. This process should, however, not be allowed to undermine the Helsinki principles or the Paris Charter. It should be about whether we can work together to reaffirm and reinforce European security principles and where necessary, to add to them. Then it is up to Moscow to say yes or no – and perhaps, if the answer is no, to risk further isolating itself among the 57 participating states in the OSCE.

Wolfgang Ischinger was State Secretary of the German Foreign Office and German Ambassador to the United States. Today he is Chairman of the Munich Security Conference (MSC). An abridged German version of this column appeared in the July 2015 issue of the German news magazine "Cicero".

26 June 2015, by Wolfgang Ischinger