George Petrolekas and Ferry de Kerckhove are co-authors of ‘The Strategic Outlook for Canada’ and are both directors of the CDA Institute. Mr. de Kerckhove was a former Ambassador to three countries and also served at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow. Mr. Petrolekas served in NATO, Afghanistan and Bosnia. The opinions in this article are their own.
Predicting geopolitical strategic outcomes is difficult at the best of times, however there are enough threads that a picture is emerging of how the Ukrainian crisis will likely end and what world the West will be facing at its conclusion.
Post-Geneva, discussions on de-escalation have produced few, if any, positive results. The reverse has occurred as centres of power are seized by pro-Russian militants in three provinces bordering on Russia and are further creating an unstable situation in the city of Odessa in the southwest. Russian incursions of Ukrainian airspace have confirmed that Ukraine is limited in its ability to respond.
Acting Ukrainan President Olexander Turchynov last week admitted his forces are “helpless” to quell unrest – confirming in words what actions on the ground have amply demonstrated. Although there has been some success by Ukrainian forces in taking back some government buildings, it has only been for short periods of time and the separatist insurgency is far from being quelled.
The result is twofold in its gravity. The all-important election slated for the end of May that could produce a unified Ukrainian federal state, even with eastern autonomy, seems less and less likely. Even such an outcome would eventually translate into Russia’s domination of the East. Secondly, Ukrainian efforts to impose order only provide fuel to Russia to intervene sooner rather than later if its demands for Ukrainian de-escalation are not met.
NATO’s reassurance package has been limited to the concerns of eastern NATO states and certainly has not been much of a deterrent. A series of targeted sanctions have provided little discernible effect. In contrast during the Cold War, escalation was met with robust response – it was never the collective security provisions of the alliance that provided trip lines but the credibility of the deterrence response. In the mid-1980’s, deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles was countered by deployment of intermediate-range Pershing II missiles coupled with an understanding that their removal was negotiable if Russia came to the table; and within five years both the SS-20’s and the Perishing’s were dismantled.
Instead of an air response which seems to have no purpose other than presence – “There is a lot of uncertainty about what we’re going to be doing over there,” Lieutenant-General Yvan Blondin, commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, told reporters as Canada’s warplanes left Bagotville – a more credible and decisive move would see ground troops positioned in NATO’s eastern states coupled with a clear understanding that if Russian forces head west NATO would march east and meet Russia on the Dnieper River. SACEUR in Ottawa acknowledged that the pre-positioning of ground forces might have yet to be considered.
That kind of response has been absolutely ruled out by key NATO members such as Germany, with Chancellor Angela Merkel clearly stating that a diplomatic resolution is the only outcome that can be considered. The U.S. has said as much as well. Some NATO allies have been remarkably silent, both in terms of the reassurance package and sanctions, indicating that solidarity is somewhat questionable. But negotiations imply that we have something to give, so clearly Russia will gain something at the end of this.
Limited options to react have led to targeted and graduated economic sanctions to bolster diplomatic pressure. However, even in the sanctions there is an à-la-carte approach as U.S. sanctions include some Russian companies and individuals that do not match up with EU or Canadian sanctions. One wonders how long EU sanctions will survive the onset of next winter when Russian gas will again be needed and alternate arrangements have not been put in place.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has completely read the West and its mood, employing a classic two-steps forward, one-step-back approach. He has the Crimea and a publically announced softer position now with unverified promises of troop withdrawal and promises of a delayed referendum to ease pressures in Western Europe to do something meaningful; accompanied by sighs of huge relief. We will overlook the fact he got away with the Crimea entirely and has infiltrated east Ukraine in ways that he can play on and off in coming weeks and months.
Meanwhile, Mr. Putin travels to China this month, where many expect that Beijing and Moscow will sign an energy accord, providing Russian with new and wider access to Chinese energy markets easily supplanting anything that might be lost in sales of gas to Western Europe. And it does not stop there, as last week China said it would conduct joint naval drills with Russia in the East China Sea off Shanghai in late May, in what it called a bid to deepen military co-operation.
But the key question becomes “What would the West fight for”? Doubts on this score is what really undermines alliances and western credibility everywhere, particularly that of the United States.
In the end, Eastern Ukraine will revert in some form to either direct Russian control or will certainly be within its sphere of influence, while Western Ukraine will become a Finlandized buffer in response to Russian demands. In the Pacific, a Russian/Chinese nexus will face the United States with the Japanese and Koreans questioning U.S. commitment. In the Middle East, the peace process is effectively dead as Israel will certainly not count on U.S. security assurances. NATO at best will be a regional security alliance and at worst a tiered alliance of a few willing nations hanging together on a shoe string.
For Canada, the F18’s will come home, we’ll have a parade, our leaders having talked a good fight, but in the end will have given Mr. Putin what he wants and a new world balance will have dawned. As policy makers discuss what the new Canada First Defence Strategy will look like, Ukraine reminds us that there are elements of preparedness that simply cannot be traded away.
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