In the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, one thing is certain and Americans will have to live with it: no military solution is possible and the best way forward for the United States and its allies – meaning those in both the European Union and NATO – is to try and stabilize the situation by diplomatic means.
Unfortunately, in the high stakes chess game that the U.S. is playing with President Putin, it is Russia that holds the strategic advantage. The main reason is that while the Russian president is able to respond quickly to the events on the ground, with no opposition whatsoever at home, the Western alliance is divided over strategy and tactics for a series of reasons that have a great deal to do with differing economic interests.
The U.S. and its allies find themselves in a war of nerves over Ukraine and unable to assess the real intentions of the Russian president. Lacking any strategy for a strong action, the primary objective of the United States is to de-escalate the tensions in the hope that the situation in Kiev and Eastern Ukraine will allow for discussions and negotiations with Moscow.
There is always the temptation of flexing the military muscle: in fact, the Pentagon is sending a missile cruiser to the Black Sea, and various military exercises and forward deployments of military assets are planned for Eastern Europe. The analysts from some conservative think thanks are talking tough, asking for land forces to be moved into Poland and the Balkan states. Americans should ask themselves what good could come out of bellicose maneuvers to “protect” a country that is not a NATO member.
The problem in Ukraine is not the specter of a Russian invasion but the political future of Ukraine’s government. The interim government in Kiev has yet to qualify as a legitimate authority. It was born out of a revolution and in order to establish itself it needs the support of the broader population and must demonstrate its ability to control and limit violence in the nation.
The focus of the strategy has to be how to guarantee the survival of a government that arose from a revolution to become the center of a geopolitical game of chess between the East and the West. The fights that erupted on the floor of the Ukrainian parliament are evidence of the internal problems that must be brought under control before the elections. In other words, it is imperative that the Kiev government proves itself, with all the support that Washington can muster, over and above whatever the slow moving policies of the European Union can contribute.
There are many questions to be answered about Russia’s behavior and the uncertainty that surrounds them is another advantage that Putin has. The main question is whether Russia has a national interest in recovering the Donbass basin in Ukraine, an area that comprises coal reserves that are the fourth largest in Europe and contribute more than 20 percent of the Ukrainian gross national product. This region, where half the population speaks Russian, used to be the stronghold of Russia’s military – industrial system.
It may be that rather than trying to repossess this area Putin is thinking of destabilizing Ukraine in order not to let it fall into the Western alliance strategic realm. The aim to western diplomacy then is to smoke out Putin and his strategic design.
In short, the United States and the European Union are now playing for time because time is of the essence in making sure that the Ukrainians will express their right to determine their own future. This is the most important, and perhaps the only objective that the West can achieve at this time.