By Jack Corso
Despite the recent Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s eastern border, it is unfair to attribute the entire situation to Russian provocation.
Of course, corruption and pro-Russia politicians are to blame for the domestic circumstances in Ukraine that caused the Maidan revolution and the outbreak of conflict. However, at the same time, the United States bears some responsibility. Deep expansion into Eastern Europe by NATO to deter some perceived constant Russian threat has only further destabilized the region.
The United States and NATO must admit their responsibility for the conflict in the Donbas in order to recognize how both should act to de-escalate the situation.
Russia has responded predictably to what it views as encroachment by the West in the post-Cold War era. Any attempt by a neighboring state to stray outside of Russia’s sphere of influence is met with an invasion, as was the case in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. By staging an invasion, Russia can disrupt their neighboring state and prevent further attempts to ascend to membership in a Western-facing organization like the EU or NATO.
Although such a response is significant and Russia certainly bears responsibility for the outcomes of any invasion, the catalyst for the invasion is just as important as Russia’s response. In both 2008 and 2014, the respective invasions were responses to attempts by Georgia and Ukraine to intensify dialogues with NATO regarding membership.
At this point, the current catalyst for Russian disruption in eastern Europe is clear. Moscow will always view attempts to integrate bordering states into NATO as a significant security threat.
It should be no surprise to anyone in Washington when Russia invades or uses pro-Russian actors as proxies to prevent Western encroachment into its sphere. Over seven years removed from the annexation of Crimea, it is a fool’s errand to continually try to attribute blame to Russia when many actors are clearly responsible.
Since the conflict in the Donbas began, over ten thousand civilian casualties have been reported and over one million people have been internally displaced. The effects of the conflict have been catastrophic on residents in eastern Ukraine, and there is no reason to expect that things will improve so long as the war continues.
Previous American administrations have given Ukraine billions of dollars in lethal and non-lethal aid. Surely, this aid has been used to fund the war effort, while the lethal assistance has been used to inflict damage upon the separatists.
However, friendly fire and mistakenly firing upon civilians has happened. Thus, responsibility must be accounted for when soldiers misuse equipment that may not suit them.
With that in mind, it is time for the United States to admit its responsibility for what has happened. Naturally, it does not bear all the blame, but enough to acknowledge that its previous goals in Ukraine have caused significant damage.
The prudent thing is to admit failure and end any pursuit of Ukraine joining NATO. Such a decision would demonstrate to Moscow that the United States, and its NATO allies, are acting in good faith and that Moscow should, in turn, draw back its involvement in Ukraine and the buildup along the border.
De-escalation is possible, but both sides need to show that their commitment to a realistic peace is credible.
An additional decision that could make de-escalation in Ukraine more attainable would be to allow Ukraine to exist as a “non-aligned” state. However, this seems to be an unlikely outcome given the relationship the United States and Ukraine have developed since its independence.
Even at the minimum, Ukraine will be a “Western-inclined” state even if it does not join NATO. This may be the best plausible option. The ties between Washington and Kyiv cannot be overlooked.
Still, peace can be achieved if Ukraine is merely a “Western-inclined” state that does not participate in any Western military alliance. At least in this situation, there would be no legitimate reason for the United States or Russia to be concerned about the other’s intentions in Ukraine.
The reality is that for the United States to admit responsibility and do its part to de-escalate tensions with Russia, it must disengage militarily from the region, starting with Ukraine. Ukraine must be free to decide its political trajectory without American or Russian influence.
The conflict in the Donbas has left thousands dead and many more displaced, while a conclusion remains out of sight. Regardless of what Russia chooses to do, the United States can act rationally and advance the prospects of peace by leaving the region militarily.
The United States should exhaust all diplomatic outlets possible to de-escalate tensions with Russia. This approach would demonstrate good faith and a commitment to peace. In the meantime, though, a potential trajectory to peace is clear and any deviation from this realistic approach will only escalate the conflict.
Jack Corso is a regular contributor to the Realist Review. He is a recent graduate of the Master’s Program in Political Science at the University of Alabama.