A report published on Wednesday offers a way out of the crisis between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s future if all sides are willing to settle for less than their maximum demands.
In “Murky Waters – the Black Sea and European security”, Paul Taylor, senior fellow at the Brussels think-tank Friends of Europe, outlines a series of steps that Ukraine, Georgia, Russia, NATO, the EU and the US should take to reduce tension, build confidence and seek areas for cooperation while setting aside the most contested issue of NATO membership.
“If an armed conflict is to be avoided in the coming decade, and perhaps even in the coming months, all sides will have to accept less than their preferred option,” Taylor writes. “The contest between Russia and the West over Ukraine and the former Soviet space cannot be resolved by some formal diplomatic grand bargain on neutrality … and it must not be resolved by war. It can only be managed by a mixture of deterrence, dialogue and risk reduction.”
By promising Ukraine and Georgia eventual membership without saying when or how—ignoring Russian security interests—NATO shares responsibility for 15 years of instability though that does not justify Moscow’s illegal seizure and annexation of Crimea and its military support for Russian-speaking rebels in the eastern Donbas region, or its military backing for separatists in Georgia.
In the latest crisis, the US and its European allies have declared their unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity but have stopped short of promising military retaliation if Russia should launch another offensive. The uncomfortable truth is that no one in the West is ready to send soldiers to die for Donbas.
Taylor argues that Ukraine and Georgia should recognise the reality that they are unlikely to join NATO or the EU for the foreseeable future. Not just because they do not meet the criteria in terms of political stability and rule of law, but also because they do not have full control of their territory and It is not clear how the alliance’s mutual defence clause could apply to them. Public support in Western Europe for further enlargement is also lacking.
The report recommends a series of practical steps that NATO, individual allies and the EU can take in the near term to bolster democracy, independence, resilience and economic development in the so-called Associated Trio (Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova), including military capacity-building and developing a “hedgehog” defence stray to deter Russian aggression.
The study draws on more than 30 interviews with senior officials, military commanders, diplomats, politicians, business executives and civil society activists across the region. It paints the historical backdrop and the strategic context of today’s stand-off and analyses the risks of incidents and potential escalation while sketching on off-ramp if all sides are willing to avoid an armed conflict.
Taylor is a former Reuters foreign correspondent and editor. He writes the “Europe at Large” column for Politico.
This is the ninth in a series of studies on European security issues he has written for Friends of Europe. Previous reports have covered the Sahel, the Arctic, the Mediterranean and all the major European military powers as well as Transatlantic defence cooperation. (Link here to FoE website page aggregating all European defence studies)