Lately much has been written about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions toward Ukraine and how the West should respond. The answer is very simple. The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of 1994 was signed by Ukraine specifically to avoid the current situation that is taking place at this very moment in the east of the country.
After the break up of the Soviet Union, Ukraine gave up the world’s third largest nuclear stockpile (a physical guarantee of its independence) in exchange for a sworn agreement between the West and Russia to respect its territorial sovereignty. This puts into question many issues one of which is the quality of the West’s assurances and promises. If the United States does not stand up for Ukraine today will it stand up for Taiwan or even South Korea? The moment Russian soldiers and equipment took over the Crimea should have automatically triggered a response from the United States and Europe.
NATO is not only unwilling but also unable to directly confront Russia. However, NATO and American advisers could have immediately begun to advise Ukraine on how to stop the Russian encroachment and coordinated the beefing up of Ukraine’s armed forces. This certainly would have been very welcome by Kiev as Ukraine’s President Poroshenko has repeatedly pleaded for “lethal aid” and “a financial pillow” attempting to morally link Ukraine and the West by stating “We are fighting for European security. We are fighting for European values” in a recent speech. A program similar to this is still doable as the Ukrainians are still unable to defeat Russian backed separatists alone.
On Wednesday, Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top military commander, told U.S. lawmakers that Ukraine’s military is in a precarious position. “In the current configuration I do not think that Ukrainian forces can stop a Russian advance in Eastern Ukraine,” Breedlove said. “And to the degree that we can supply help, I’m not sure that they could stop a Russian advance in Eastern Ukraine even if we supply aid…but what we’re doing now is not changing the results on the ground.”
Putin’s doubling down and refusal to withdraw and disengage from eastern Ukraine is an opportunity that can be turned to the West’s advantage by using shrewd maneuvering. By arming the Ukrainian military and helping to buildup nationalist militias inside Ukraine the West can combat the Russian backed separatists thereby forcing Putin to overplay his hand as he is forced to send more and more Russian soldiers into Ukraine.
The Russian people are willing to sacrifice for the motherland but not much for foreign adventures. Putin is currently downplaying his involvement and allowing the brunt of the fighting to be on the backs of the Russian backed separatists. At this point, Putin will be ensnared in a foreign conflict that he can neither back out of without losing face nor win without risking domestic backlash.
Putin invaded Ukraine for two reasons. The first which is partly the result of being threatened by NATO enlargement by the West and the second which is to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit and in the process scare the Baltic states and realize his dream of a strengthened and powerful New Russia. As Putin himself has said “The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.”
Putin will use every opportunity to humiliate the West and increase Russia’s sphere of influence regardless of what the international community thinks. The current situation should not be taken lightly because Putin’s actions and the West’s inaction in Ukraine are reverberating throughout the world.