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US Response to Russian Resurging Power in Ukraine

Executive Summary

The transitional changes in Ukrainian government at the end of 2013 have led to the annexation of Crimean peninsula and an escalation of an armed conflict between Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatist movements in the eastern regions of Ukraine. Russia has been recently acting as an aggressor, providing continuous inflow of military aid to destabilize the situation, violating Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Over the course of conflict, Ukraine and its supporters have developed a strategy to terminate it. The supporters of peace in Ukraine developed own policies to address the conflict targeted at Russian aggressor. However, currently existing means are not effective since the ongoing conflict lasts for about two years. The United States should support Ukrainian intensions to join NATO because it will help to establish long-term international peace and security in the region and on a global scale.

Conflict Overview

The initiative of the President of Ukraine was to solve the issue with the neighboring country by political means only. However, the existing approaches to addressing the issue are ineffective. Ukraine has launched anti-terrorist operation (ATO) to react to the aggression, daily spending around $50 million. The capacity to support ATO is reaching its bottom as e state has recently begun the sixth wave of mobilization, which was filled by 60% of citizens. The military force mainly consists of volunteers and unprofessional and/or poorly trained military staff. Therefore, Ukraine needs support from international partners and donors.

The reaction from international community was prompt. Starting from March 2015, the United States, European Union and other key political leaders imposed economic sanctions targeted at Russian priority sectors and decision-makers. The list of sanctioned entities has been expanded. However, political and economic isolation of Russia does not contribute to the resolution of the conflict. The recent attempts to solve the conflict through peace talks in Minsk in September 2014 and February 2015 failed since Russia has been constantly violating points of agreement.

The existing situation proves that there is a need for more efficient mechanisms for conflict resolution in Ukraine, taking into account its hybrid origin. The United States should reconsider its current policy of not intervening into the conflict and supporting Ukraine and its partners in order to achieve peace.

Conflict Background

The situation at the Ukrainian border with Russian Federation is known as Ukrainian-Russian conflict. Nevertheless, few countries acknowledge the regime of war. The escalation of existing conflict was preceded by Crimean crisis. In February 2014, Russian military troops known as “little green men” took over a number of strategic objects at Crimean peninsula that has had an autonomous right within Ukrainian territory. The occupation of the Crimean parliament by “little green men” followed by the referendum on its secession from Ukraine in March 2014. As a result, 95.5% ballots showed that the majority of people voted in favor of reuniting with Russia (Harding & Walker, 2014).

The referendum was not recognized as legal and most of world leaders have been accusing Russia and its President Putin of violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity by signing the decree that acknowledged Crimea as an independent state.

The wave of pro-Russian sentiment echoed in Ukrainian Donbas, the territory of Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine. The separatist authorities consisted of Russian citizens who declared self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples Republic. Such self-proclamation caused an armed conflict between newly proclaimed republics and Ukrainian government. Russia constantly supplied both specially trained military personnel and specialized equipment to the region. An undeniable evidence of Russian presence on the territory of Ukraine was proved by a number of foreign missions and top officials, among which were Jen Psaki, US Department Spokesperson (Damon & Pearson, 2014), John Kerry, US Secretary of State (Richter, 2014), and Samantha Power, US Ambassador to United Nations (Walsh & Lister 2014). However, Russian president denied the presence of his military forces in Ukraine in an interview for French media on April 2014.

At the beginning of July, one of Russian politicians Sergey Kurginyan admitted Russian military support for separatists. After the release of the statement on July 14, Ukrainian cargo plane was shot down near the Ukrainian-Russian border. Within the next three days, another plane of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed over the territory of the conflict by a missile. Russian-backed separatists, trying to conceal the evidence of their implication, isolated the territory in order to make the aircraft’s debris accessible to foreign inspectors and investigators.

In the middle of August 2014, Russian military troops were caught on the territory close to the border. However, according to Russian official representatives, these troops lost their way and accidentally ended up in Ukraine. On August 27, 2014, Ukrainian authorities proclaimed the conflict as invasion by Russian military forces. The escalation of the conflict is constantly fueled up by Russian equipment support crossing the border of territories uncontrolled by Ukraine. Nonetheless, Ukraine never acknowledged the state of war and it launched anti-terrorist operation against Russian-backed separatists with continuous military mobilization. As of now, it is the sixth wave of mobilization.

As of September 29, 2015, the number of casualties of the conflict has reached 8,050 people (Simonovic, 2015). Moreover, millions of people, including those from Crimea, have status of internally displaced persons.

Existing Policies

The political ambitions of Barack Obama and his administration are reflected in the idea of multi-polarity of the world and its reserved relations with key partners and geopolitical opponents. The key policy-makers are keen to seek various mechanisms of international interaction as opposed to direct intervention. This approach finds recognition in addressing Ukrainian conflict. The annexation of Crimea and subsequent conflict in Donbas region made international community led by the United States impose sanctions against Russian leaders as well as Ukrainian ones, who contributed to annexation of peninsula and escalation of the conflict. The first batch of sanctions against Russia was effective from March 17, 2014. It was preceded by Barack Obama’s executive order on March 6. The first batch of sanctions were imposed against the people who were involved in the conflict or at least related to it. Those sanction consisted in travel bans and assets freezing within the territory of the USA.

Indirect pressure tools have been among key methods used by the White House to tackle arising issues. Economic dominance and subsequent economic sanctions have been among priority mechanisms. Russian economy has not been an exception as its main economic sectors – energy, agriculture, military equipment, and financial institutions, have been severely affected by the sanctions. In addition, Russian oligarchs and those close to Putin are on the sanction list. As of now, with the intensive escalation of the conflict, there was the third batch of sanctions imposed jointly by G7, US, EU and a number of other countries against Russian authorities and companies that threaten or may pose a potential threat to the sovereignty of Ukraine. The list was expanded by two big Russian banks and two energy giants. These three waves of sanctions create political and economic isolation, favorably preparing the ground for unofficial Cold War II environment.

The resonance of the conflict in Donbas and Crimean annexation led to joint efforts of international community, which emphasizes the importance of termination of the conflict by political means exclusively. As a result, the Minsk Protocol or Minsk Agreements were signed on September 2014, and Minsk II Protocol was signed on February 2015 due to the collapse of ceasefire agreement as the main point in the previous Minsk Protocol.

Alternatives for Conflict Resolution

The first option to solve the conflict owes it to the recent escalation of conflict in Syria, where both the United States and Russia are interested parties. It may be a turning point in resolution of the hybrid war in Ukraine. Obama and Putin can share the area of interest, allowing Russia to pursue its interest in Syria, while supporting Ukraine’s European intentions on the part of the United States.

The second possible option is to let separatists take over occupied territories. Neither Ukraine nor any other country in the world, except Russia, would recognize it as geopolitical or sovereign formation. Potentially, it would be an unofficial recognition of Russian dominance in the region. In addition, the White House of Russia can recognize as an equal partner.

The third option is related to Ukraine’s ambitions to join NATO. Thus, the United States can provide all essential support. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been always afraid to lose Ukraine, trying to restrict possibilities to join NATO. The joining process would be lengthy; however, NATO membership would allow deploying large-scale military operation against an aggressor. The ‘aggressor-aggressor’ relationship built during the conflict in eastern Ukraine created favorable possibilities for Ukraine to join NATO membership. The “aggressor-aggressor” relationship means that Russia sees the United States as potential aggressor who locates military bases around Russian border and threatens Russian reputation of military giant. Meanwhile, the United States perceives Russia as an aggressor against its own neighbors.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Existing Policies

Syria, as the sphere of interest, can be used to solve Ukrainian-Russian conflict. The White House can reach a compromise, taking control of its strategic area of interest in Ukraine while Russia will be pursuing its military interest in Syria. For the United States, it is a fair deal. Ukraine and its pro-western intentions and desire to get rid of residual soviet heritage boost American foreign policy aimed to reinstate and to build American-style democracy. From this perspective, Ukraine is a purely American project that can serve as a role model for other countries. The similar approaches were applied in Iraq where the United States helped to overthrow the dictatorship and establish democracy. An analogous pattern echoes in Ukraine. Pro-Russian president Yanukovych was replaced with proactive government. The conflict was resolved and neighboring aggressor was turned away. Unlike Iraq, Ukraine is Christian country. That is why the scenario is quite different there.

Under this scenario, Russia will bargain for full control over Syria. However, Russia tries to attract attention from international community towards Putin’s readiness to compromise, to cancel the sanctions as they significantly affect Russia, rather than to provide support for Syrians. Economic isolation and strict sanctions tend to show low efficiency. Russia, as Cuban strategic partner, can employ similar strategy of adjustment. Cuba learnt to adjust to imposed sanctions and build its activity around it. Similar situation is in Russia. It might take time to redirect economy to a new path, but it is possible to make the shift and adjust to the situation, which is the way each economy operates.

Nonetheless, the possibility of this scenario implementation is far from reality. The United States expressed its genuine intentions to resolve the conflict in Ukraine during the meeting between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin on September 28, 2015 in New York.

The second possible solution to the conflict is to allow separatists take control over territories that they have managed to occupy over the course of the conflict. Then, they will establish their previously proclaimed Republics of Donbas and Lugansk, resembling the situation in Prednistrovya on the border with Moldova. Both countries will withdraw its military resources from the border, freezing the conflict. The territories will go through a specific process of becoming Russian, which will be similar to annexation of Crimea. However, international community would not recognize them as sovereign states. These territories will pose potential risk to national security of Ukraine. The conservation of the conflict by these means will imply that it can be escalated any time with much more severe consequences as Russia would have permission to place its military equipment within newly proclaimed separatist formations.

For the United States, this scenario is unacceptable as it threatens security in the region, which consequently affects international security. Acceptance of this scenario means that the course of American policy of weighed political instruments in conflict resolution is ineffective. It would mean that the United States allowed a delayed action bomb to be resting in Ukrainian East. The current Minsk Protocols create the potential to realize this scenario. The Minsk Protocol is ruled by Normandy format meetings of top officials from Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France. To avoid the development of this scenario, the United States has to take an active part in negotiations as an equal party, but not as an advisor or an observer.

The third possible scenario can be assumed to be deployed over the next couple of years. Ukraine paved its way towards West after the separation from Russia in 1991, after the collapse of superior state of Soviet Union. The possibilities to build democracy and to join NATO in the future faded away due to election of pro-Russian president Yanukovych. The military naval base in Crimea disabled Ukraine to join NATO, and Russia ensured its presence in Crimea for another decade.

The annexation of Crimea means that there are no obstacles for Ukraine to become NATO member-state. The United States can provide all necessary assistance for Ukraine. The latter seeks possibilities to find an ally in the face of NATO. In addition, this is not a suggestion from the United States; this is an intentional support from the United States. NATO membership will help to enhance current Ukrainian legislation and ease the process of European integration, which are more global objectives chased by international community.

Another proof of this policy to be deployed is continuous military support for Ukraine from the United States and NATO, who plan to contribute $75 million to replace outdated Soviet equipment. (Foster, 2015). This support does not predetermine heavy military equipment or lethal aid supply yet; however, proper personnel trainings are ongoing. Over the course of summer 2015, NATO increased its military presence in Eastern Europe and close to the area (Barnes, 2015).

Ukraine, being in the state of hybrid war, can receive an assistance and support from both the US and NATO to acquire the membership status by simplified procedures. The increased presence and justified military support will help to react to external threat from Russia efficiently. On October 7, the US Senate passed a bill for defense expenses to ensure aid to Ukraine.

Recommendations

The role of the United States as a peacekeeper and an advocate for stability is to maintain its key policies. The 21st century requires more transparent and effective means of addressing arising conflicts. There are no mechanisms that will help immediately to resolve the conflict. Therefore, all potential threats should be addressed and tackled with minimal effects. The United States should continue to provide assistance to those countries that strive for peace and are threatened by an aggressor. In case of Ukraine, the conflict was unavoidable, starting from the corrupt election of pro-Russian president and following up a number of controversial decisions where Russian interests were favored.

The United States should advocate for another wave of sanctions to be imposed against Russia by its partners. The application of new sanctions can lead to escalation of conflict and failure for ceasefire regime. Russian-backed separatists fail to adhere to any official agreements. Therefore, the United States should continue to support Ukrainian intentions to join NATO. It will allow reacting to separatists’ provocation effectively. The conflict itself is a hybrid war, which requires hybrid solutions. Economic isolation, combined with political isolation of Russia as a key player in the global arena, and democratic strengthening of Ukraine will contribute to effective resolution of the conflict.

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