As I discussed in an op-ed published at Al Jazeera America last week, it seems as though the Ukraine crisis is slowly solidifying into a ‘frozen conflict.’ This is bad for everyone:
Allowing the Ukraine crisis to metastasize into a frozen conflict effectively guarantees future conflict in the region. It leaves the government in Kiev with a long-term insurgency within its borders, costing it dearly and inhibiting the greatly needed reform of the Ukrainian state. In addition, it keeps Russia and the West locked in a diplomatic stalemate and sanctions war which benefits no one.
The intrinsic uncertainty of the situation in Eastern Ukraine continues to pose the very real threat of escalation. Last week saw tensions ratchet up as the OSCE reported large convoys of weapon and armor crossing the border, but fears of a new offensive by separatists proved unfounded. Such periods of heightened tension are likely to continue, along with consistent low-level violence which has become the hallmark of the conflict.
Some parts of the U.S. government are also keen to escalate the conflict by providing Ukraine with lethal aid. There is strong pressure from Congress to do so, and Sen. John McCain, widely expected to be the next chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, has promised to work closely with his colleagues on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees to arm Ukraine. Although the Obama administration has thus far limited aid to non-lethal and humanitarian supplies, there may be some support for lethal aid within the administration too. Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, during his confirmation hearings for Deputy Secretary of State, divulged that the White House is considering lethal aid to Ukraine, and that he believed such aid would discourage further Russian aggression.
Even ignoring the potential of such aid to escalate the situation, it is unlikely to help. Ukraine’s armed forces are weak, requiring substantial reform and retraining. Lethal aid to Ukraine will antagonize Russia while doing nothing to win back the separatist regions.
Ukraine’s other problems are myriad: The country is in major economic trouble, and the Ukrainian political system is characteristically dysfunctional. A high-profile visit to Kiev last week by Vice President Biden was turbulent, with American officials reportedly irate that competing factions cannot agree on the formation of a new government a month after Ukraine’s parliamentary elections. Ukrainian leaders also recently announced that they would hold a referendum on NATO membership, a move which is both asinine (NATO member states determine membership, not voters) and inflammatory.
At this point, there are few good solutions to the Ukraine crisis. The longer the current ‘ceasefire’ continues, the more likely we are to see escalation. It is increasingly baffling, therefore, that American and European leaders aren’t seeking a political solution to the crisis. No progress was made at the G20 summit in Australia, though leaders employed harsh rhetoric towards Russia. Nor does Ukraine appear to be a priority for the Obama administration, with reports indicating that one reason for Chuck Hagel’s departure as Secretary of Defense was his strong insistence that the White House pay more attention to Russia, which he considers a larger threat than ISIS. But the Wall Street Journal reports that such comments were not well received by the White House, with one official noting: “I can’t imagine us focusing more on Russia.”
Such thinking is short-sighted. As I argue in the article, we must seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Delay will only lead to escalation and further conflict.