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Josef Korbel School of International StudiesSié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security & Diplomacy

Campus Painting




Rachel Epstein
 for  Denver Dialogues 

It’s been well over a year since Russia annexed Crimea, and the cease-fire agreed at Minsk for the fate of war-torn Eastern Ukraine from February 2015 is in tatters. With the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day having just passed and Western-Russian relations at a post-Cold War nadir, this symposium examines the politics behind the crisis in Ukraine and the implications for international security.

Our contributors include: Valerie Bunce, the Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies and Professor of Government at Cornell University; Donald Abenheim, Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and a long-standing advisor on democratic civil-military relations to central European nations seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; and Steven Pifer, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from 1998-2000 and who is currently a Senior Fellow in the Bookings Institution.

EPSTEIN: Weak state capacity and corruption have long been problems in Ukraine, which arguably contributed to the country’s vulnerability to Russian intervention and destabilization. There have been recent reports that President Poroshenko, in addition to Prime Minister Yatseniuk, are 1) challenging the oligarchs and 2) pushing for anti-corruption reform. Are these steps likely to help stabilize the country and ward off Russian aggression? Or will these measures exact costs on the government, at least in the short term, by undermining critical support for the regime?

STEVEN PIFER: Over the past 25 years, oligarchs have played an out-sized role in the political and economic life of Ukraine.  That has not been healthy for the country.  Reducing their political influence is an important part of building a modern European democracy and will also aid the anti-corruption effort.  President Poroshenko’s decision to fire Ihor Kolomoisky as governor of Dnipropetrovsk in March should be seen as a welcome step in this regard—a politically necessary step, particularly after armed men associated with Kolomoisky occupied the Kyiv Ukrtransnafta office.

The government needs to make clear that all have to play by the rules.  The political risk for Poroshenko is that oligarchs may well push back against efforts to curb their influence, adding another headache for a Ukrainian government that already faces a long list of reform and political challenges, on top of dealing with Russian aggression in the east.  It will be important that the government move—and be seen to move—in an even-handed way when dealing with the oligarchs.  They have a role in Ukraine’s economy as business people but need to end the old ways of doing political business if Ukraine is going to solidify its democratic institutions.

VALERIE BUNCE: No doubt, there will be broad popular support for challenging the oligarchs and pushing for anti-corruption reform.  Most Ukrainians agree that these are serious problems, and they help explain the abysmal performance of the Ukrainian economy since Ukraine became an independent state on January 1, 1992.  Moreover, because Poroshenko is himself an oligarch, he is signaling with such actions that he is breaking with his past and is committed to changing the way politics and economics have been conducted in Ukraine. While these actions will help stabilize Ukraine, they are likely viewed by some citizens, especially in pockets in the eastern half of the country, as threatening their economic livelihood.  

However, in my view, such reforms will not translate very quickly into better economic performance.  This is a problem, since public expectations will be raised by these actions and since part of the receptivity in pockets of the east to Russian intervention (especially since the Russians have made, as they did in Crimea, big economic promises) reflects the significant economic concerns of the population. Moreover, it is important to recognize that Russian aggression grows out of Russian interests in destabilizing Ukraine and thereby undermining its transition to authentic democracy and closer relations with the West.  Thus, Russia wants Poroshenko’s government to fail.  In this sense, the more successful Ukraine is in dealing with its domestic problems, the more incentives Russia has to continue its aggressive policies.

EPSTEIN: Russia has never acknowledged that it has a military role in eastern Ukraine. At the same time, it has accused the U.S. of deploying military trainers to eastern Ukraine. Who is winning this information war, and how do people in the region—that is, in Ukraine, Russia and neighboring countries—interpret the competing claims?

STEVEN PIFER: The Russian denial of its military role in eastern Europe simply is not credible.  Even if one discounts NATO and Ukrainian reports about the presence of Russian military personnel in the Donbas and the influx of Russian military equipment, there are ample other reports.  In February, for example, a pro-Russian journalist reported on the fighting around Debaltseve with several “separatist” tanks in the background.  Those tanks could only have come from the Russian military, as they had reactive armor and other equipment that is only known to be in the Russian army’s inventory.

Russia nevertheless is doing well in the information war.  It has several advantages.  State-sponsored outlets such as RT and Sputnik receive considerable funding from the government, do not appear constrained by normal rules and practices of journalism, and seek to create smoke and confusion rather than offer a coherent story.  Witness the effort that Russian media put into theories regarding the MH-17 shootdown:  it was downed by a Ukrainian fighter; it was shot down by Ukrainians believing they were shooting down President Putin’s plane; it was a CIA special mission to damage Russia’s image, using a plane full of dead bodies.  All of these aimed to discredit the most likely explanation:  Russian-backed separatists used a Russian-provided surface-to-air missile to down the plane (a key separatist leader claimed credit on social media for downing a Ukrainian An-26 aircraft at the same time and location as the MH-17 shootdown … apparently, they made a horrific mistake).

Ukraine and the West are making belated efforts to improve their information campaigns.  More needs to be done.  The Russian public largely buys the Kremlin’s line, and it appears to have made in-roads in Europe, where some accept the argument that Russian action in Ukraine is defensive, triggered by NATO and EU enlargement.  Kyiv needs to do better in making its case in eastern Ukraine, particularly if it hopes to achieve some kind of political reconciliation.

VALERIE BUNCE: Russia has lost its information war with neighboring countries, including not just those neighbors that are members of the EU and NATO, but also neighboring countries that are part of the European neighborhood, such as Georgia and Moldova.  In addition, Russian allies, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, are resisting adhering to Russia’s line on this conflict, because of their fear that Russia could do similar covert interventions in their countries.

The one exception to this generalization is Russians themselves who live in Russia.  Here, it is important to recognize that Putin controls the media (more so than was the case prior to the onset of this conflict); his annexation of Crimea in March, 2014 has been extremely popular at home and boosted his popular support; but a majority of Russians, however, do not and would not support military intervention in Ukraine.  In this sense, the domestic benefits of this war for Putin depend upon his ability to engage in covert, not overt aggression in Ukraine.

DONALD ABENHEIM: The Russians have very effectively waged a propaganda campaign in Ukraine that began with the hacking of the Victorian Nuland telephone call that was a psychological operations coup de main of the first order. This propaganda offensive had unfolded with a special operations campaign which has or has not used fifth column fighters on the classical pattern one knows from irregular conflict in the 20th century. While it is politically incorrect for some in the year 2015 to say so, I am especially reminded of German irregular conflict attempts to undermine the Dollfuss/Schuschnigg regime in Austria in 1934-1938 as well as the campaign against the Czechs at the same time.   From there, the Russian side along with its sympathizers elsewhere in the world have put the Ukrainians, the western European EU powers, and NATO on their back foot with a remorseless propaganda offensive, complete with the reincarnation of the Ukrainian Waffen SS, the revival of strategic bombers with the blazing red star in the skies of western Europe and the legions of digital bloggers at work in nearly every possible online article of interest about the Ukrainian crisis.  The US forces and other NATO allies via Partnership for Peace have had a security assistance/security cooperation relationship with the Ukrainians since the early 1990s, in which I have taken part, which has been all too easily been mischaracterized by its critics and opponents here and elsewhere as a reincarnation of the bad old days.  Such security cooperation between the US and the Ukrainians, as well as offered by, say, the NATO allies in Warsaw, Riga and elsewhere is no such thing in my view. This  US Ukrainian military cooperation in the present naturally takes place in an altered strategic landscape of grave crisis and has taken on a factor of escalation that makers of policy must keep in mind at all times. The US troops of which I am aware in Ukraine exercise with their Ukrainian counterparts far from the crisis region adjacent to separatist forces.”

EPSTEIN: Further on the same theme, with Russia as a party to the Minsk 2 cease-fire agreement from February, which called for the evacuation of “foreign forces,” how can Putin then convince his public that Russian forces are not involved? That is to say, are Russians as credulous as the high public approval ratings for Putin would suggest they are?

STEVEN PIFER: President Putin and the Kremlin continue to deny the presence of Russian military personnel—except for “volunteers” on “leave”—in eastern Ukraine, despite the evidence, including statements by Russian soldiers that they fought and were injured in Ukraine.   The Russian government has gone to extraordinary lengths to hide the fact from its people that Russian military units have operated in the Donbas and that Russian soldiers have died there—likely out of concern that public support for the Kremlin’s policy toward Ukraine (and for Putin) would erode if they knew the truth.

More Russians seem to understand what’s going on, but it is not clear that a majority do.  As for the credulity of the Russian public, that is an interesting question.  In Soviet times, the general public was hugely skeptical about what they saw on television or read in the newspapers.  The Russian public today appears to be far more accepting and far less questioning of what they see, particularly on television—even though, by some accounts, the propaganda on Russian domestic media is worse than it was during the Soviet period.

VALERIE BUNCE: The Russian media has portrayed political change in Ukraine as not just the work of Ukrainian fascists (a trope that plays especially well in Russia), but also the work of the West in general and the United States in particular. Thus, to refer to the evacuation of ‘foreign forces’ in that agreement is merely to reinforce not just the official characterization of the conflict in Russia, but also Putin’s recent claims to rule—for example, his appeals to Russian nationalism, his recognition of Russian exceptionalism, his commitment to expanding Russian influence in the international system, and his criticisms of the West as a decadent culture and a major force for instability in the international system.  Central to all these arguments is the claim that the West has repeatedly violated the international norm of state sovereignty.  As a result, just as Western criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine merely expand Putin’s popular support, so they provide a particular definition of what ‘foreign forces’ in the Minsk 2 cease-first mean.

DONALD ABENHEIM: Putin has more or less now admitted that he and his security and special operation forces put the Crimean operation in hand in a kind of strategic improvisation as part of a general revision of the European order under the banner of Eurasianism or not.  This operation will go down in the history of conflict as something spectacular, and one which put NATO very much on the defensive as in the crises of the past.  Surely there remain critical and informed Russians at home who are skeptical of this neo imperialist undertaking, and its ill effects on life and treasure, but I am also sure that, with the recent murder of Nemtsov, opposition is much more problematic.

EPSTEIN: Recently in the Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau wrote that “a failed Ukrainian state or further annexation of its territory by Russia. . .would signal to the world that the EU is chronically incapable of defending its common interests.” Münchau was arguing, therefore, that the crisis in Ukraine represents a much more dangerous threat to Europe, and one imagines also to NATO, than the ongoing economic crisis in Greece. Is Münchau correct?

STEVEN PIFERThese are two very different challenges.  The ongoing economic crisis in Greece presents a test of Europe’s ability to maintain its economic (and perhaps political) unity, though the consequences of failure and a Greek exit from the euro appear, in the eyes of many EU leaders, to be manageable.

The crisis over Ukraine poses more of a security challenge.  The first question is whether Europe, the United States and other Western partners such as Canada can help Ukraine get its internal house in order, which will require a series of painful economic reforms, and at the same time dissuade the Kremlin from further military action in eastern Ukraine.  The West needs to help Kyiv solve both halves of that equation:  Ukraine needs to make progress toward a normal market economy AND needs a degree of stability in eastern Ukraine, if not a settlement, than at least a stable frozen conflict.  It remains to be seen whether the West can succeed, or more accurately, whether Ukraine can, with Western help, succeed on these two counts.

The second security question goes beyond Ukraine and is the critical issue for Europe’s ability to defend its common interests.  Vladimir Putin has shown a readiness to challenge the post-Cold War European security order, violating the cardinal rule of no use of force to change borders or take territory.  Do his ambitions go beyond Ukraine?  Europe and the West have to assume that they might, and they need to be prepared to fend off a possible Russian security challenge.  If Russia makes that challenge—say, a little green men incident in Estonia—and Europe does not respond adequately, that will be a greater disaster than a Greek exit from the euro or even a failed Ukrainian state.

VALERIE BUNCEOn the one hand, Ukraine is not a member of the EU and NATO, while Greece is.  This means that the Greek crisis constitutes by definition a more fundamental threat. On the other hand, there are also good reasons to agree with Münchau.  The economic and political difficulties of Greece are not equal to the existential threats posed to Europe by Russian actions in Ukraine; that is, its invasion and then annexation of Crimea, followed by its aiding and abetting popular rebellion in eastern Ukraine.  Moreover, Greece’s economic problems can, at least in theory, be solved with painful economic reforms.  By contrast, the crisis in Ukraine does not lend itself to such a straight-forward solution. Just as Ukraine’s economic and political problems are much deeper than those of Greece, so Russia has a strong domestic and international interest in continuing its policies of de-stabilizing the country.  Finally, it is unclear how the Europeans can deter Russian aggression without encouraging more aggression, boosting Putin’s domestic support and undermining both the political and economic reforms in Ukraine and the Poroshenko government.

DONALD ABENHEIMThe vitality of the EU in crisis scarcely hinges on either the wealth of Greece or the security of Ukraine in 2015. The crisis arises from both disasters together at the same time in which the vain hope of isolating one crisis from other is a chimaera. The problems of economy and European institutions can easily become issues of war and peace. The union of French and German coal and steel in 1950, whence came the EU, did arise from this insight, which is no less valid now, even if populist terrible simplifiers in their number in the AFD, UKIP and the Le Pen party want to junk it. If both Greece and Ukraine become failed states within Europe, they can well emulate the experience of ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s or something worse from the epoch 1919-1939.  There is no luxury of choice between the two nations for the makers of policy, or even for those whose sole focus is political economy, with little consideration to what today is called “geopolitical” as a euphemism for war and peace.  When I reflect on the fate of Greece in Europe, I recall its unhappy history in the inter war period, to say nothing of its martyrdom in the second war itself, and the aftermath until 1974.  In the same way, the fate of Ukraine as a nation that must overcome its past poses a challenge for the EU that is indeed as grave as the author in the Financial Times article suggest, if not more so. And both crises must be mastered by makers of policy at the same time, while the Middle East goes up in flames, and instability in Africa threatens peace and security in Europe, as well.

EPSTEIN:  Critics of NATO enlargement in the 1990s and early 2000s argued that “encroachment” of the alliance would inflame Russian nationalism and heighten the country’s sense of victimhood and vulnerability. Given Russian actions in Ukraine, have those critics been affirmed?

DONALD ABENHEIMAs the risk of going against the Zeitgeist, I have been an active participant in, and advocate of, the enlargement of NATO since German unification and an eye witness to most of its events and issues from 1989 until now. The process actually began with German unity, where much of the myth making also began to operate, and has come and gone in phases. We are now in a very intense phase of legend mongering on this account.   The tendentious assumption by some that central and eastern Europe should have been left in a neutral posture completely was and is at odds with the wishes of Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Slovaks and others as to their security and the well-being of central Europe. Moreover, enlargement of the EU and NATO  came to be seen in Bonn, Washington and elsewhere as a necessity of prosperity and security, in part because of the break-up of ex-Yugoslavia, the violence of which has drifted out of memory since the Iraq war. In this process during the 1990s, the Russian side actually cooperated either by commission or omission far more than the most recent crisis would indicate.  At the time, the Russians did not like the entry of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into NATO in 1999, but they hardly stopped it by some diplomatic revolution or the kinds of organized violence we have recently seen. The work of the late Ron Asmus reminds us that the triad of Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl, and Boris Yeltsin made for an era of entente in the middle 1990s, which is a distant memory now.  The real issue of the further progress of Article X and a post 2004 round of enlargement arose in crisis with the fate of the Caucasus, with Georgia in 2008, when the Russians more or less stopped the enlargement of NATO with their Blitzkrieg against Georgia in the wake of the very assertive position of the US side for a Georgian membership action plan step toward accession.

This moment was when the Russians began to act aggressively against enlargement, and, in my view, not before. As a student of war and peace in Europe, I am not at all surprised that the Russians now strike at Ukraine at this moment, when they rightly or wrongly believe that Germany can be detached from its Euro Atlantic orientation and be made to swing between East and West as in the Bismarck epoch while the enfeebled US are so ensnarled in the Middle East amid their aspirations for an Asian pivot that the time has come for a rearrangement of the post- Soviet order.  Russian nationalism arises as much from its domestic political sources, what in German is called der Primat der Innenpolitik,  as it does from the international system.  I think this generalization applies to other countries and other times, but is germane to Russia in the last decade and more.

EPSTEIN:  Again referring back to the 1990s and the early 2000s, NATO encouraged East Central European states that wanted to join the alliance to move away from territorial defense and toward out-of-area capabilities, with much smaller, professionalized forces. Not surprisingly, some ECE states were skeptical of this strategy. In retrospect, was NATO mistaken in its strategy?

DONALD ABENHEIMHindsight is golden and the US along with NATO have neglected the possibility of war in Europe for the last two decades, but for reasons that were or were not compelling at the time and guided the makers of policy.  The two plus four negotiations over German unity compelled a broad disarmament in Central Europe that actually can be said to have begun with the INF treaty in 1987 and the CFE treaty that followed it. The record of fighting and armies in the 1990-1991 Kuwait war put a premium on expeditionary forces, which have been light and deployable on the model of the US Marine Corps, versus forward defense echelons of the old NATO layer cake juggernaut as of the year 1980 with multiple armored divisions and combat air. This trend of reform in the order of battle was reinforced in its own way by the Stabilization Force in Bosnia in the middle 1990s and the way that the NATO strategy adjusted from 1991 until 1999 and beyond. These operations unfolded amid the peace dividend reduction in force of the cold war armies in western and central Europe, as well as in the US forces.  The central and eastern European forces, compelled to shrink in size to adjust to new budget strictures, joined NATO between 1999 and 2004 also served with ISAF in Afghanistan, where the experience of war in continental Europe of the old stripe was said to be more than irrelevant. The imperative to finance the re-equipment of forces in ISAF further degraded what has been left of military units needed for the defense of continental Europe, the famous example being the barely 250 tanks left in the German army. The fighting in Ukraine has turned this experience on its head, the most startling development of which is the revival of classical Polish partisan militias, Baltic and Scandinavian total defense levees en masse, to say nothing of the end of the draw down US ground in central Europe.  I am certain that the Russian side paid close attention to the degree to which NATO stripped out its forces for the Afghan mission, and such a fact surely has played a role in the advent of what is today called Russian hybrid warfare and its deployment in Ukraine.