Andreas Umland
January 2017

Can Kyiv Defend Itself? Illusions About and Options for Securing Ukraine’s Future

When and how will Ukraine become secure in the wake of continuing threats from Moscow? There is an idea – widely held in Ukraine and also popular with many in the West – that Ukraine can and should become militarily, economically, and politically strong enough to deter further Russian aggression. A combination of smart modernization, resolute reform, and deep transformation is seen by many as a panacea to Ukraine's many problems, including its fundamental security issue. Throughout 2014-2016, Ukraine’s army has shown that it can fight. What the Ukrainian state needs to do now, however, is to generally reinvent itself and make its military, in particular, more solid, better trained, and truly combative in order to be able to contain Russian imperialism on its own.

None of these prescriptions are wrong by themselves. Yet, the assumed effects of their implementation may be grossly overestimated. Such narrowly focused planning could even result in a form of geopolitical escapism. The laudable efforts to turn Ukraine into a more militarily potent power could counter-productively distract Ukrainian and Western politicians from other equally urgent tasks, such as embedding Kyiv into a greater international security structure. To be sure, Ukrainians and their Western friends need to do everything to advance and expedite Ukraine’s reforms and modernization – including those in the military. Ultimately, however, it is an illusion that this support alone will solve Ukraine’s security issue. Focusing exclusively on the question of rapid Ukrainian reforms and deeper economic cooperation could instead function as a political sedative – a convenient excuse for subconscious unwillingness and psychological inability to prevent thinking about the future of Eastern Europe in  strategic terms.   

Imagine a worst-case scenario in which Moscow one day decides to use its full arsenal of conventional weaponry – including air as well as maritime power, advanced tanks, cyber-warfare arsenal and ballistic missiles – against Ukraine. In that case, the Ukrainian army – underequipped with insufficient weapons and technology – would be done within a couple of weeks. Whether well-trained or not, many, if not most, Ukrainian soldiers would be quickly killed, wounded, or demoralized.  In the case of a full-scale war with Russia, the Ukrainian state would likely collapse altogether, as foreign and domestic capital from businesses and investors would start leaving the country en masse.

Many young, mobile, and industrious Ukrainians would decide to flee the country once it becomes clear that their state cannot sufficiently defend them when faced with a heavily armed aggressor. For them there would be  no prospects for a decent life in Ukraine in the near future. As there are few geological hindrances between Ukraine and the EU, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Ukrainians would simply cross the border to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, and move further towards Italy, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, et cetera.

A somewhat similar, also widely held yet grave misjudgment, relates to the hope among many Ukrainian politicians, diplomats, and experts regarding Ukraine’s future relations with NATO. Here the ideas is that if Kyiv keeps knocking at NATO's door loud enough and prepares itself for entry more rigorously, then the Alliance will eventually have to open itself to Kyiv. Ukraine should be – according to the plan – more actively introducing NATO standards, aggressively lobbying its accession to the Alliance in Western capitals, and conducting a referendum on becoming a NATO member. Then – one day – NATO will be forced to let Ukraine in. Or, at least, Brussels may be pushed towards designing some sort of "NATO Plus" program for Kyiv. That scenario may not give Ukraine full membership, but would presumably still provide adequate protection to Ukraine via a sufficiently substantive security guarantee and respective military engagement by NATO.

Visions such as these are popular among many Ukrainian opinion-shapers and decision-makers. They are also implicitly or explicitly held by many friends of the Ukrainian nation in the West. Yet they do not sufficiently acknowledge that as long as Ukraine is in conflict with Russia, several, if not most, Western European countries  in the North Atlantic Council would vote against both a Ukrainian accession and NATO’s active support for Kyiv in its confrontation with Moscow. For better or worse, NATO is not a supranational, but an intergovernmental organization. Some nations of continental Europe would use their veto power in a hypothetical accession vote – whether Ukraine is formally ready for entry or not. For similar reasons, Kyiv also cannot hope for any meaningful security guarantees from NATO – and even less so from the EU – as long as it is in conflict with Russia. Neither will  reforms solve Ukraine’s security issue, nor will NATO take care of it any time soon.

What can Kyiv and the West then do? Ukraine should, instead of nurturing the above illusions, work in the following four directions to increase its security. Kyiv should:

(a) insist, in its international diplomacy, on getting advanced defensive weaponry of sufficient quality and quantity either by importing them from the West (or other countries), or by producing such weapons in Western-Ukrainian joint ventures;  

(b) continue negotiating with the two Western Budapest Memorandum signatory states, the USA and the UK, on a regeneration, specification, and elaboration of the "security assurances" that these countries gave to Kyiv in 1994, in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty;

(c) try to build a regional coalition of the willing (“Intermarium”) with such countries as Poland and Romania which, out of their basic national interest, have a fundamental stake in the stability, defense, and survival of the Ukrainian state; and

(d) persuade the EU and its member states to signal to the Kremlin what kind of additional economic and individual sanctions Brussels would impose in the case of renewed Russian military advances in, or hybrid attacks on, Ukraine.

The Ukrainian state needs to achieve at least some modicum of security, as a political entity and as an investment destination. This security will only be achieved when Russia’s leadership and wider elite circles are made fully and publicly aware of the whole battery of serious challenges that their own country would face in the case of another escalation in Ukraine. The West and other friends of Ukraine need to start thinking beyond the confines of supporting Ukrainian domestic reforms and advocating for elusive  NATO membership. Only, a Ukrainian state equipped with high-tech defensive weapons, supported by the US and the UK on the basis of the Budapest Memorandum, embedded in an East European security structure, and in alliance with an EU ready to impose far more substantive sanctions against Russia will have a real chance to become a successful countermodel to the Putin System.

Article edited by Grace Mahoney.

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