Ukraine Prepares for War

By Alexander J. Motyl


When Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu stated that the Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders were only conducting “training exercises” and have no “intention to cross Ukraine’s borders or to engage in any aggressive actions,” Ukrainians rolled their eyes. And when President Vladimir Putin told Ukrainians “Don’t believe those who terrify you with Russia, who shout that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want Ukraine’s division. ... We want Ukraine to be a strong, sovereign, and self-sufficient state,” Ukrainians shrugged. The problem is, even if Putin and Shoigu were being sincere, Moscow has lost all credibility among most Ukrainians and the international community. After three weeks of aggressive Russian behavior and the possibility of existential annihilation, Ukrainians, like Israelis, prefer to think in terms of worst-case scenarios. After all, they blithely assumed Russia would never attack -- and then Russia seized Crimea.

They never imagined that Russian officials would treat their country as an object of abject scorn. They never suspected that thousands of Russians would chant anti-Ukrainian war slogans in the streets of Moscow. In each instance, Ukrainians’ working assumption of a friendly Russia proved dead wrong.

They also never imagined that the Yanukovych regime had so thoroughly permitted Ukraine’s defensive capacity to deteriorate, by sacrificing Ukrainian security on the altar of the Yanukovych family’s untrammeled accumulation of power and embezzlement of state funds.

In many parts of the country, Ukrainians have taken to preparing little suitcases with all the necessities -- just in case they have to flee at a moment’s notice. Ukrainians’ jitters are perfectly understandable. Because of Russia’s occupation of Crimea and Putin’s militarist rhetoric, many Ukrainians are certain that war is inevitable. Prime Minister Arsenii Yatseniuk warned Moscow on March 20 that Ukraine’s response to a Russian invasion would be vigorous.

Thinking in more long-term categories, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Volodymyr Ohryzko has even suggested that Ukraine exit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and initiate the “process of uranium enrichment.” American provision of non-lethal military equipment and advisers would also go a long way to improving Ukraine’s deterrent capacity. Kyiv’s defensive efforts may or may not be enough to stop a possible Russian attack, but they would certainly make it far more difficult, risky, and bloody -- which may be enough to deter Moscow.

Although Ukraine appears to have the capacity to neutralize internal threats, a concerted long-term Russian effort at stoking instability could lay the groundwork for a later invasion or, at the very least, divert Kyiv’s attention from the pressing cause of economic and political reform.

While Ukraine’s security may or may not be enhanced by most of these measures, the irony is that Russia’s definitely will not be -- at least in the medium to long term. Putin’s seizure of Crimea may have provided him with the opportunity to beat his chest before adoring Russian crowds, but it will eventually undermine Russian security.

Ukraine is and will remain too weak to be a threat. And on its own, no country in Russia’s “near abroad” can pose a threat. Even taken together, the non-Russians will be weaker than Russia. But Putin’s land grab will make all of them inclined to regard Russia as a potentially land-grabbing foe and to promote their own security independently of Russia and outside of any Russian-led blocs or unions. Expect the Central Asians and Azerbaijanis to turn increasingly to China and Turkey, and the Georgians, Moldovans, Ukrainians, and even the Belarusians to head for the West. Also expect the Russian Federation’s non-Russian autonomous republics and regions to press for greater autonomy from Moscow.

If Putin could just put aside his hypernationalist neo-imperialism and think straight about what’s good for Russia, he’d try to nip the problem in the bud. A sober Russia would then withdraw all the forces that are engaged in “exercises” along Ukraine’s borders and agree to a significant force reduction in Crimea.

A sober Russia would also explicitly state that it recognizes the Budapest Memorandum and the current Ukrainian government. That last point is essential. As long as the Kremlin insists that the Kyiv government is illegitimate, it will always be able to claim that its behavior toward Ukraine’s Russian minority is also illegitimate and, hence, liable to correction by means of Russian intervention.

Seen in this light, annexing Crimea has to be one of Putin’s worst strategic blunders. Had the province become “independent,” there would still have been a theoretical possibility of finding some accommodation with Kyiv. After annexation, any dialogue with the Ukrainian government -- and, thus, any resolution of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict -- becomes significantly more difficult. It’s perfectly possible that Putin wants the conflict to remain unresolved, on the assumption that it will undermine Ukraine. The problem is that an unresolved conflict will also undermine Russia.

As Ukraine and Russia’s other non-Russian neighbors are compelled by Moscow’s aggression to enhance their security, Russia may soon face a nightmare of its own creation -- non-Russian encirclement. When Russians wake up to the reality after the euphoria of Crimea’s annexation wears off, Putin may very well discover that his own security and stability as President are in danger.