Ukraine is an intractable problem, made worse by a lack of strategy

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As Russia continues to mass military troops and equipment at Ukraine’s border while deflecting blame on so-called Ukrainian aggressions, the West’s response has been slow and hesitant. As has been the case for many decades, it will be up to the United States to draw red lines in Eastern Europe. 

The Biden administration is undoubtedly managing competing priorities. But avoiding confrontation with Russia must also stay at the top of the agenda. To do this, the U.S. will need to develop a strategy that securely safeguards Eastern Europe from Russia while minimizing Western involvement. 

Ukraine has become an intractable problem for the West, made worse by an absence of strategy toward the Kremlin. Russia has so far been allowed to blame Ukrainian or NATO aggressions for its military buildup along NATO’s Eastern Flank. The West should be vocal in calling out these Russian lies. 

We must also realize that Russia is threatened by Ukraine’s independence, integrity and Western orientation. Ukraine, which has been fighting occupation for more than seven years, is vital to Western and U.S. interests and to European security and stability. 

There are three clear steps the Biden administration must take if it hopes to de-escalate the crisis with Russia in Eastern Europe without being drawn into conflict. First, recognize that the Normandy Format has failed. Second, take the lead on peace negotiations with Russia. And third, shape a strategy for the Black Sea region.

 Ukrainian Volodymyr President Zelensky was right to accuse France and Germany of lukewarm commitment to the Minsk agreements. The agreements have not progressed in seven years and are now effectively dead. Worse still, the Normandy Format is at risk of threatening regional security amid rising German-U.S. tensions over Nord Stream 2, the end of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tenure and French President Emmanuel Macron calling for greater lenience for Russia. 

A new negotiation platform is desperately needed. While it is impossible to find an effective short-term solution to the conflict in Ukraine without Russia, the U.S. should put its weight behind an alternative format that serves Eastern European security interests. The Crimea Platform is a strong place to start, as is Biden’s proposed meeting with Putin in the coming weeks. The Budapest Memorandum, which secured Ukraine’s integrity and independence in 1994, could also be used as a guide in framing future negotiations. This format would offer the United Kingdom a more substantial role in negotiations.  

The international community must also acknowledge that peace in Ukraine cannot be achieved with Russia at the negotiating table but the U.S. absent. For 30 years, Ukraine has borne the brunt of a series of Russian-instigated (and still unresolved) conflicts around the Black Sea. Russia has long been granted the right to sit across from its neighbor – a neighbor it has repeatedly stolen from only to argue that the theft was justified – without being held to account. Moscow has then been allowed to draw on the support of powerful economic allies in negotiation formats like the Normandy Format. 

The same can be said for the intractable conflicts in Georgia, Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh. Eastern Europe’s Western integration, as well as reasonable solutions for all Black Sea conflicts, will progress only if Washington is willing to counter Russia’s illegal and unfair territorial and political claims.  

Finally, a comprehensive Black Sea strategy is critical if the Biden administration wants to prevent escalation and deter Russia long-term. Russia’s troop movements at the Ukrainian border should not be viewed in isolation from Russian maritime movement in the Black Sea. Russian aggression extends far beyond Ukraine to encompass the entire Eastern European region. 

The military foundations of a Black Sea strategy have already been laid. With the support of its Allies, the U.S. has built NATO deterrence on the Eastern Flank, although there is much still to be achieved militarily. The Black Sea remains dominated by Russia aggression. NATO maritime deterrence and cooperation with non-NATO Georgia and Ukraine is the next step in reducing Russian dominance. 

President Biden has from the outset signaled a sharper focus on corruption. But Western deterrence against Russia hybrid warfare has so far been limited to cyber, election interference and disinformation. A Black Sea strategy will only succeed in defending against Russia if the Biden administration prioritizes anti-corruption in the region, not least in Ukraine, where corruption has long opened the door to Russian influence. 

The Biden administration has a unique opportunity to mitigate the risk of protracted insecurity in the Black Sea and military escalation with Russia, as well as to manage the inevitable long-term costs for the U.S. A free and secure Eastern Europe will be possible only if the U.S. offers its support in finding a peaceful solution for Ukraine, demands accountability and predictability in its relations with Russia and develops a comprehensive Black Sea strategy that addresses the full spectrum of hybrid deterrence. 

On the other hand, if no action is taken and the West limits itself to statements of disapproval, there is a very real risk of the destruction of Ukraine. The first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 led to thousands of fallen Ukrainians, millions displaced and NATO’s reluctant strategic reorientation toward territorial defense and Russia’s deterrence. A second Russian invasion of Ukraine could put the country’s existence in question. Ultimately, it would reveal the West’s failure to deter Russia and an end to the dream of an Eastern Europe whole and free.

Iulia Joja is a senior fellow for the Middle East Institute’s Frontier Europe Initiative and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Her research and teachings focus on European and Black Sea security.

Tags Emmanuel Macron Foreign policy of Vladimir Putin Joe Biden NATO Russia Russian irredentism Russia–NATO relations Russia–Ukraine relations Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine

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