Lessons learned from Ukraine

In 1994, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurance in which the first three signatories pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In return, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. To become a non-nuclear nation, Ukraine sent an arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons, which in the early 1990s was the third largest in the world, to Russia for dismantling. There had been more nuclear warheads on Ukrainian soil than in Britain, France, and China combined.

At the time, some voices warned that giving up its nuclear weapons might cause Ukraine some trouble in the future. Read today, one of them by John J. Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago, may prove to be tragically true.

“A nuclear Ukraine makes sense. First, it is imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine. That means ensuring that the Russians, who have a history of bad relations with Ukraine, do not move to reconquer it. Ukraine cannot defend itself against a nuclear-armed Russia with conventional weapons, and no state, including the US, is going to extend to it a meaningful security guarantee.” (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993)

Far from trying to promote nuclear deterrence, today’s crisis in Crimea sends a very important message to the Middle East. Similarly to Libya, Ukraine gave up its nuclear program and was invaded/attacked by foreign troops. What is happening today in the Ukraine is certainly being closely watched first and foremost in Iran. The ayatollahs in Teheran have always distrusted the West and deep in their minds they remain convinced that regime change in Iran is the West’s ultimate goal. From the Iranian perspective, to prevent the West from implementing regime change, Iran must rely only on itself. As such, an arsenal of unconventional weapons, including nuclear weapons, is believed to be Iran’s best and only guarantee that Iran will not follow after Libya and now Ukraine.

There is also a lesson to be learned for Eastern and Central Europe. Putin’s aggressive behavior toward Ukraine must be understood in the context of Russian thinking. Russia has always had a problem defining its western borders. The post-Cold War arrangement of Central and Eastern Europe never limited Russia’s ambition to extend its influence over the countries of the former Soviet empire. In some countries, like the Czech Republic, Russia mainly uses economic diplomacy. In others, like Ukraine, the Russian pressure in much more based on hard power.

By occupying Crimea under the pretext of “normalization” of the situation and the “protection” of the Russian-speaking minority, Russia brought back still vivid memories of many people in Central and Eastern Europe, and especially in the Czech Republic. In order to suppress the Prague Spring, Moscow sent troops of the Warsaw Pact to Czechoslovakia in 1968 under the pretext of  “normalization” of the situation. The Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland, a western border area of Czechoslovakia, in 1938 was perpetrated under the pretext of the protection of the German-speaking citizens.

One would like to believe that Russia today is a different country than the Soviet Russia of the 20th century. Similarly, one would hope that the international community of the 21st century is better equipped to deal with countries that apply aggressive policies vis-à-vis their neighbors. But the latest development in Crimea has proved otherwise. The Cold War tactics and thinking are slowly coming back to life, and Eastern Europe is caught in the middle again.

Many very reasonable arguments are circulating among the White House, NATO, Berlin, Brussels, and others about how the West should react to the Russian aggression in Crimea. Yet, as these debates continue, the following seem to be clear:

–        NATO and the US were caught off-guard by the events in Eastern Europe and have no well-developed strategy for how to deal with a nuclear-armed Russia, which is still entrenched in the Cold War ideology and military tactics of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

–        The EU is, even in its own neighborhood, as irrelevant as ever. The decision of the ousted president Yanukovych not to sign a trade agreement with the EU sparked the protests in Ukraine. But as the situation developed, with Russia becoming the main external player, the EU resorted to its well-known and secure role of an actor which “condemns,” “demands,” and “urges” but does not act. Dependency on Russian gas and millions of dollars invested by Russian companies and oligarchs in the cities all over Europe seem to be strong enough obstacle for imposition of meaningful sanctions.

–        The KGB-educated Putin is a hard partner for a sophisticated president Obama. For Putin, power and action matter. Obama’s foreign policy, which relies so much on dialogue, cooperation and leading from behind, is seen in the Kremlin as weak and indecisive. Obama’s flexibility over his red line in Syria, when he pulled back from plans to conduct an airstrike in retaliation for a chemical-weapons attack on civilians, gave an especial boost to Putin’s confidence.

The events in Crimea will have consequences reaching far beyond the borders of Ukraine. The West underestimated the Russian desire and ability to control the situation in its neighborhood. For a long time, the United States as well as most of the European countries, tended to believe that Russia was weak and struggling for its own socio-economic revival. Russia is, without any doubt, facing many problems. Nonetheless, Russia is willing and able to impose its will on others, which makes it a formidable power. So far we can only speculate what its goals really are.  However, superpower ambitions should not be ruled out. The sooner the West gets this message, the better.

About the Author
Irena Kalhousová is from Prague, Czech Republic. She is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Between 2014-15 she worked as a Research Fellow at the Institute for the National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Israel. Between 2010-13 sheworked as a Chief Analyst at the Prague Security Studies Institute, Czech Republic. Irena focuses on the contemporary Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Central Europe-Israel relations. She regularly contributes to Czech and international newspapers and journals and makes livecommentaries for Czech TV and radio. Irena holds an M.Phil. degree in Contemporary European Studies from University of Cambridge and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.