How the U.S. Should Respond to Russia’s New Escalation in Ukraine

For the better part of six years since Russia and Ukraine signed the Minsk II cease-fire accord for the disputed eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass, one question has loomed: How will the U.S. and NATO respond if Russian troops again cross back over the so-called Line of Contact, dividing Ukrainian forces from Russian-backed separatists? With reports now trickling in of a buildup of Russian military forces along the border and in Crimea, Washington and Brussels may need quick answers soon.

In response to those reports, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke this week with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, called top Russian and Ukrainian military officials. The State Department said Blinken reaffirmed U.S. support for Ukraine “in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression” and “expressed concern about the security situation in eastern Ukraine.” The commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, Ruslan Khomchak, and his Russian counterpart, Valery Gerasimov, traded accusations about the escalation of clashes in the Donetsk area of Donbass that has led to a number of deaths. Social media posts on Twitter showing Russian tanks being transported by train across Crimean territory and near the Russian city of Krasnodar have not yet been verified. Nonetheless, Gen. Tod D. Wolters, the head of the U.S. European Command, told The New York Times that it has placed American troops on heightened alert.

Few conflict hotspots have been as vexing for American foreign policy—or, indeed, American domestic politics—as Ukraine. Ever since Russian troops invaded Crimea in February 2014 and sent covert special operators to spearhead a pro-Russian separatist uprising in Donbass, the clash between Ukraine and Russia has seeped into every aspect of American politics. The aftermath of the Euromaidan protests, which led to the ouster of Ukraine’s former president, Kremlin favorite Viktor Yanukovych, and sparked the separatist conflict in the east, has not been confined to Ukraine. Even as it caused political upheaval in Kyiv, Ukraine’s crisis also warped American presidential politics, starting with Donald Trump’s first impeachment, over his attempt to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up damaging information about Joe Biden. It also nearly broke the State Department’s senior diplomatic corps, which had witnessed Trump’s abuse of power firsthand.

Even after all that, Russia waged an unrelenting disinformation campaign against Biden during last year’s presidential race, essentially continuing Trump’s effort to smear Biden with lies about his son Hunter’s business dealings in Ukraine. Moscow was targeting Joe Biden, no doubt, because of the ongoing U.S. and NATO support to the Ukrainian military that he promised to continue as president, as well as European and American sanctions against Russian businesses and Kremlin insiders. Last month, in its assessment of the 2020 presidential elections, the National Intelligence Council went so far in fact as to call out Andriy Derkach, a former Ukrainian prosecutor who conspired with Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to spread false information about Biden’s doings in Ukraine. Meanwhile, casualties have continued to mount in eastern Ukraine, along with severe economic damage to the Donbass region, in a conflict that the Ukrainian government says has killed about 14,000 people.

Despite all of this, neither the U.S. nor its NATO allies have hit on a sound strategy for confronting Russia’s multifaceted proxy war for control of Ukraine—itself a battleground for Russian influence in Europe and access to the coveted warm water sea routes to the oil- and gas-rich Mediterranean. Germany and France have tried to act as brokers between Washington, Moscow and Kyiv, but their efforts have led to a stalemate, in which neither side appears to feel it has reached a breaking point. Quite the contrary, in fact. From one White House administration to the next, for very different reasons, Ukraine has been at the center of an escalating cycle of Russian-American tensions.

In early March, the Pentagon announced an additional $125 million in military aid to Ukraine, the first under the Biden administration. The package includes anti-missile radars, enhanced satellite imagery capabilities and support for medical aid and evacuations. It also augments the supply of Javelin anti-tank missiles that featured prominently in the infamous phone call between Trump and Zelensky that was central to Trump’s first impeachment. (After Zelensky told Trump that Ukraine was “ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes,” Trump replied, “I would like you to do us a favor though.”)

Neither the U.S. nor its NATO allies have hit on a sound strategy for confronting Russia’s multifaceted proxy war for control of Ukraine.

Soon after the Biden administration’s military aid was announced, Biden and Putin had their diplomatic tit-for-tat over Moscow’s formal integration of Crimea and its port city of Sevastopol into the Russian Federation. It was all but a foregone conclusion, then, that Moscow would feel compelled to respond further by upping the ante along the border with Donbass.

There will probably be more U.S. and EU sanctions now, and even more in the future. Biden has already said as much, and Putin appears to be laying the groundwork for Russia’s next response by promoting the line that the White House is seeking to foment a “fifth column” insurgency within Russia’s borders. So where does that really leave the situation? And what can NATO really do in the middle of a pandemic with a sizable number of alliance troops still mired in the war in Afghanistan and struggling to mount a sensible, unified response to Russia’s other proxy wars in Syria and Libya?

The answer, again, is not much—at least militarily. Putin knows it, and that is why he and the hawks in Russia’s Ministry of Defense and intelligence services continue to probe the limits of U.S. and NATO tolerance. But there are some past lessons that the U.S. and its NATO allies could reapply to these present and future dangers.

Consider the situation in November 2018, when a Russian warship rammed a Ukrainian navy patrol squadron in the Kerch Strait in the Sea of Azov and detained 24 Ukrainian sailors. The Russian show trial of the sailors in Moscow was a clear violation of the laws of war and became a flashpoint in Ukraine’s presidential race at the time. The U.S. issued more sanctions in response and beefed up its naval patrols with NATO in the Black Sea, but that did not break the logjam over the sailors’ status. It was only later, in May 2019, that things started to shift—when the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg ultimately ruled in favor of a claim brought by Ukraine against Russia calling for the return of the damaged Ukrainian patrol boats. Six months after that, Ukraine successfully bargained for the sailors’ release. Although Russia still insists to this day that it does not recognize any jurisdiction outside its own in the Kerch Strait, the resolution of that crisis underscored the value of a full court diplomatic press when trying to contain and push back against Russian aggression.

Sanctions and saber-rattling are to be expected all around. But the U.S. and Europe could do more to engage international tribunals, break through Moscow’s so-called plausible deniability and force it to answer more directly for its peculiar interpretations of international law. It is not enough for Biden to swing hard rhetorically from the presidential podium. The White House and State Department need to map out a strategy that assesses where Russia’s breaches of international law could leave it open to greater liability.

It may not seem as satisfying to build an argument around Russian treaty breaches and human rights abuses in Strasbourg, Hamburg or The Hague, but it does force Moscow to make declarative statements in response to facts on the ground. Whether those statements are truthful or not, or whether they comport with international norms, is almost immaterial. What matters is that the U.S. and NATO will have checked all the boxes about the need to reinforce a rules-based order when it comes to Ukraine. That kind of assurance will be doubly valuable for America’s European allies if and when Russia forces NATO to act.

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