Washington's playing with a weak hand in the Ukraine crisis

Without question, the fact that the United States and Russia are meeting in Geneva as part of a series of conversations aimed at resolving the crisis in Ukraine is to be welcomed. As Winston Churchill once said, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”  

The problem lies in the fact that the United States and indeed NATO are coming to the table with a decidedly weak strategic hand and that does not presage a successful dialogue.  

Starting from the first principles, this is a wholly Russia-manufactured crisis, the reasons behind which still remain unclear. Moscow’s articulation of security fears from NATO enlargement, Ukrainian aggression in Donbas, or the latest reason du jour do not pass muster from a Western point of view, but what matters is that this is, arguably, how Moscow views the world and that is alarming in and of itself.   

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Russia holds the stronger hand regardless of what the White House may think or say publicly. This is not just a function of the fact that Moscow mobilized over 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border, that the Kremlin has presented a pair of “agreements” (the line items of which are non-starters and entirely unrealistic, even if the underlying conditions they seek to address may appear sensible), or that it controls the speed and pace of the crisis.  

These factors place the West on the back foot. However, it is the patently weak position the West finds itself in vis-à-vis Russia writ large that should cause even more concern. To be clear, the stakes are high: Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, warned, “We need to figure out quite rapidly whether there is a basis to work on some of those issues … Our military will be there, and then we will see whether there is any basis to continue on a diplomatic track.” 

The immediate crisis in Ukraine is absolutely the result of Moscow’s actions. Yet, it is also a reflection of the United States’ failure to articulate what it wants the relationship with Russia to be, or even a realistic appreciation of what that relationship could be. It’s not enough for Washington to want it to be one way, Moscow has to want it to be that way, too. 

So much of the Russia-related narrative remains fixated on the “post-Cold War” world or yet another reset, neither of which are instructive. Saying something is “post” tells us what it is not, not what it is, and another reset will achieve precisely nothing if nothing actually changes.  

As a result, the policy toolkit (both carrots and sticks) is alarmingly bare. Sanctions have not achieved the desired effect. The West’s failure to push back against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014 (to say nothing of its 2008 annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and Russia’s continent-wide campaign of political warfare have only emboldened Moscow. The West also continues to fail to appreciate the importance of hard power and conventional deterrence — to borrow a turn of phrase from London-based lecturer Mark Galeotti, negotiation without deterrence is merely an exercise in semantics and dialogue; deterrence without negotiation is a recipe for conflict.  

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This latest crisis has exposed alarming disunity between the United States and Europe on what the future security architecture of the continent could or should look like.  

While Washington and its European counterparts agree that an expanded invasion of Ukraine is to be avoided, that is about as far as the consensus goes. The Baltic states are rightfully pointing to the present crisis as evidence of that which they have been confronting for nearly 20 years. France, for its part, appears more concerned about the EU’s role in the crisis (not surprising given its new responsibilities surrounding the EU presidency), while Germany is in the midst of a leadership change after the stability (and perhaps too much acquiescence) of the Merkel-era. This is to say nothing of the fact that Ukraine is still clamoring for its own voice to be heard: Kyiv seems to have been subsumed into the very spheres of influence some suggest Putin wants to establish.   

Were the United States and Europe in alignment about what the West wants the relationship with Russia to be and had it aligned its policies, resources and positions accordingly, the present crisis may not have developed in the first place and, even if it had, the hand Washington would have going into Geneva would be far stronger.   

Not that the signals coming out of Washington are confidence-inspiring. Over the weekend, rumors emerged that the United States would put troop levels in Europe on the table, something the National Security Council swiftly denied. Whether or not this was hearsay or an intentional leak of a straw person matters less than what it signals to Europe and Russia — an administration that is not fully in command of itself or its tools of national power. Moreover pairing legitimate and necessary conversations on arms control with the present crisis muddies the former with the latter and risks undermining productive strategic conversations.   

Is it any wonder then that Moscow feels emboldened to set the stage in its favor, create a crisis, drive the United States to the negotiating table and make demands? This week’s negotiations are certainly an opportunity to push back against Moscow. However, given the fact that the West has a weak hand, doesn’t understand the game that Russia is playing (a game where Putin has set things in motion, placed the pieces and controls the timeline) and has few cards to play, the possible positive outcomes are limited.   

Joshua C. Huminski is director of the Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersWashington's playing with a weak hand in the Ukraine crisis House GOP members introduce legislation targeting Russia over Ukraine Corporations seek to rebuild bridges with GOP objectors ahead of midterms MORE Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Visiting Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.