Three Reasons Why the United States Needs to Pay Closer Attention to What is Happening in Ukraine
In late February 2014, following three months of Euromaidan protests in Kyiv’s Independence Square, a pro-Western government was elected in Ukraine. As we approach the five-year anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising, the United States must refocus its attention on the events unfolding in Ukraine. Developments in Ukraine are important to the U.S. for three primary reasons: 1) Russia’s pattern of aggression has the potential to further embroil the U.S. in Eastern Europe, 2) Russia’s outright violations of international law cannot be left unaddressed, and 3) the conflict may be ripe for negotiations again soon.
The conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine has been ongoing since April 2014. The humanitarian crisis continues to deteriorate with a death toll of over 10,000 people and over 1.6 million internally displaced persons. The conflict began in February 2014, when Russia mounted a military operation in Crimea, with heavily armed Russian-speaking forces seizing airports and other key locations throughout the peninsula. After the invasion in February 2014, Crimea was annexed as a permanent part of Russia in March. In early April 2014, pro-Russian separatists in the eastern region of Ukraine, known as the Donbas, began to seize government facilities and territory. There have been multiple attempts at peace, however, the Minsk Protocol and Minsk-2 agreements have both failed to achieve peace.
The conflict in Ukraine has been heating up once again after simmering over the last few years as Russia has sought to assert its authority in the Sea of Azov. In late November of 2018, Ukrainian sailors were captured by Russia near the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea. This represented yet another instance of Russian violation of international law and Ukrainian sovereignty. The United States must demonstrate to the international community and its allies, especially those in Eastern Europe, that it condemns and rejects violations of international law and sovereignty. Thus far, Russia has violated three international treaties through its actions in Ukraine: 1) the Helsinki Final Act (1975), 2) Budapest Memorandum (1994), and 3) the Minsk Agreements (2014, 2015). Russia is in violation of many of the OSCE principles outlined in the agreements, including territorial integrity, inviolability of borders, and sovereignty. The U.S. has an interest in ensuring and protecting respect for international law and international norms such as national sovereignty, which Russia has blatantly violated without severe repercussions. It is therefore prudent and necessary that the U.S. signals to Russia that there are consequences for these outright violations.
Ukraine sits at a strategic geographic position connecting Europe to Eurasia which serves as a buffer between Russia and NATO member states in Eastern Europe. Russia has been utilizing and further developing a pattern of aggression across Eastern Europe in former Soviet bloc countries, including in Georgia in 2008. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are NATO allies in Eastern Europe with sizable Russian ethnic minority populations, with 219,789 in Lithuania, 25.6 percent of the population in Latvia, and 25.6 percent of the total population in Estonia. Given that Russian ethnic minorities comprise 17.3% of Ukraine’s population, it is quite possible that Russia can use similar tactics in Latvia, Estonia, or Lithuania. If Russia decides to invade any of these countries, under the premise of protecting its ethnic minorities or by covertly using Russian volunteer forces, then the U.S. will be embroiled in a conflict in Eastern Europe due to its commitments under Article 5 of NATO. Ultimately, Russia’s actions threaten the post-Cold War security order in Eastern Europe and the status quo between Western Europe, the United States, and Russia.
While it is useful for the U.S. to pay closer attention to the conflict in Ukraine, it must also push its Ukrainian ally to go back to the negotiating table and seek peace. Utilizing the Minsk-2 framework, the parties to the conflict must be encouraged to seek peace. There are three primary conditions which support a new round of negotiations: the increased involvement of the United States, the recent tomos by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence from Moscow, and he expressed openness to a UN peacekeeping operation by all the parties to the conflict. If the next round of peace negotiations are to be successful, they must address the shortcomings of previous attempts at peace. There is little popular support among the Ukrainian people for the Minsk-2 agreement, thus one of the ways forward in the peace process is to involve civil society organizations. Ukrainian civil society organizations are the key actors driving the creation of stable democratic institutions and fighting the corruption that limits the democratic capacity and legitimacy of the Ukrainian government. Thus far, the attempts at peace in the Donbas have relied on Track-1 diplomacy. However, there is a need to involve different actors in the peace process in order to foster greater support for the efforts. The approach to peacemaking in this conflict must involve inclusivity and engagement of civil society groups, as there needs to be “buy-in” from those on both sides of the conflict.
The United States has increasingly been forced to adjust to the new multipolar system that dominates the international system with a rising China and a resurgent Russia. While foreign policymakers and the public are focused, justifiably, on Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, as well as its role in Syria, Russia’s actions in Ukraine cannot be overlooked. The developments in Ukraine directly impact U.S. interests and thus require greater attention from the U.S. It is not enough for the U.S. to pay close attention to what is happening in Ukraine, it must also encourage its allies to return to the negotiating table. Following the presidential elections in Ukraine in the spring of 2019, there may be an opportunity for the U.S. to push the parties back to the table. The U.S. must continue to watch the developments in Ukraine as it does not want to pass up this important opportunity to achieve peace when the conflict is ripe for negotiation.