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The Russia-Ukraine conflict: lessons for Europeans

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict: 'little green men'

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict: ‘little green men’

By Dominik P. Jankowski and Col. Dr. Tomasz K. Kowalik

The current Russian-Ukrainian conflict is a game changer for European security. The entire European security architecture has trembled as the eastern flank of the continent has been destabilized. From a European perspective, four fundamental lessons-learned can already be drawn.

Firstly, this conflict has confirmed that Eastern Europe remains a volatile space. In fact, Europe received its first wake-up call in 2008 during the Russian-Georgian war. However, the negative trends stemming from the Middle East and North Africa – being both direct and indirect consequences of the Arab Spring – have led many Western countries to simply forget about Eastern Europe. In reality, the belt of instability stretching from the Caucasus to Transnistria never disappeared. The protracted conflicts in Georgia (the Russian occupation of about one-fifth of Georgian territory), Azerbaijan and Armenia (the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region), as well as Moldova – the illegal stationing of a Russian contingent in Transnistria with neither a United Nations mandate nor Moldovan consent – render the current strategic situation even more fragile.

Secondly, Russia has unfortunately confirmed its status of a revisionist power. Its principal foreign policy goal is to maintain Eastern Europe in Russia’s sphere of influence by stopping, or at least hampering, the political aspirations of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to strengthen their ties with both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The other goal is to influence or even intimidate some EU and NATO members and to put into question the Western political system based on democracy and the rule of law. To reach these ends, Moscow has reached for hybrid warfare. In fact, the tools thus far applied by Russia in its conflict with Ukraine come from different centuries: the use of pure military force: the nineteenth century; breach of international law and the use of propaganda: the twentieth century; and, finally, political and economic pressure, combined with new instruments such as cyber-attacks: twenty-first century.

The Russian hybrid approach to conflicts has become even more prominent with an extensive use of their special operations forces (“little green men”), security forces and intelligence agencies, as well as Russian-speaking minorities, as tools. Furthermore, Russia as a revisionist power, seeks to secure its military might and signals its readiness to use conventional forces just as easily as it does other, softer means. In the past decade its military capability significantly rose and its defense budget is to grow even further. A creeping militarization of the Kaliningrad Oblast, the Crimean Peninsula and areas near the borders of the Baltic states, as well as forward basing in Belarus, poses a major threat to the stability of the vicinity of the EU and NATO. Finally, in recent years, Russia has constantly challenged the West’s global geopolitical interests by establishing a close cooperation with other authoritarian regimes (especially Syria and Belarus) and therefore further destabilizing the world order (e.g., by fueling the war in Syria).

Thirdly, defense still matters. Until very recently, one of the best deterrents for small- and medium-sized states – provided they could not join NATO, the EU, or both – was embedded in international law and diplomatic tools. However, the erosion or even the blatant breach of international legal commitments (the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, the 1999 adapted CFE Treaty) has severely undermined their deterrent character. Therefore, military instruments still remain valid in the twenty-first century and the effective diplomatic tools that European countries have had at their disposal need to be strengthened by necessary military potential. Europe should once-again be able to negotiate out of a position of strength. The well-known phrase “trust but verify” needs to apply again.

Fourthly, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict created a pivotal moment for European security. The security conditions in Central and Eastern Europe have considerably worsened. The European security architecture, which was inclusive and in fact co-created by Russia, has been changed. Therefore, a revisionist Russia can hardly be treated as a “strategic partner” anymore, at least for the foreseeable future. This privilege should be reserved only for those countries which do not put at risk the health of the liberal international order based on democracy, self-determination, the rule of law, market economy, free trade, respect for human rights and effectively on mutual trust. In fact, over the next months and years the West’s unity will likely be tested and undermined by Russia. Only by holding the line in this test can Europeans protect their vision of world order.

At this stage, and in response to the current crisis, four recommendations for Europeans come to the fore:

1) Europeans must embrace a “Ukraine first” policy. The stabilization of eastern and southern Ukraine, based on the fifteen-point plan for the peaceful settlement of the crisis presented by President Petro Poroshenko, remains a prerequisite for any further steps. Russia must stop fueling the conflict by withdrawing its forces from Ukraine and from the Russian-Ukrainian border, as well as by stopping financial and military support to the separatists. Simultaneously, the EU and the United States, along with the International Monetary Fund, should continue to support Ukraine economically, which could constitute the best incentive for Kyiv to implement the necessary reforms (monetary and fiscal policy, energy market, financial and security sectors). Moreover, the importance of the driving force that could change the long-term fate of Ukraine – its politically conscious and proactive civil society – should not be overlooked. Finally, Crimea needs to be returned to Ukraine. Some may argue that this geographic peninsula is practically gone, but not by international legal standards. If it is not returned, the Ukrainian government – with the necessary support from the West – should prepare a detailed account of what property has been seized and present this case at an international court (e.g. the International Court of Justice; the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea). Individual Ukrainians, who lost their property in Crimea, should also go to the court. In fact, a creation of a special tribunal ‒ based on the experiences gathered by the still existing Iran-United States Claims Tribunal ‒ should also not be excluded.

2) Europeans must understand that there can be “no business as usual” with Russia. Should this lesson already have not been learnt following the Russia-Georgia war in 2008? Russia has become an unreliable, irresponsible and a revisionist power. Therefore, the Western community should be ready to impose additional sanctions if further destabilization occurs. Furthermore, the European countries should stop all transfer of military technology to Russia, including those ongoing, as well as reduce Russian dominance over European energy markets. Finally, as in the Ukrainian case, the prime mover of the necessary transformation of Russia might stem from its civil society. Therefore, its strength could be reinvigorated by promoting an independent Russian-speaking media.

3) NATO must be strategically enhanced: This could be reached both by conducting regular military exercises, which encompass all possible scenarios, as well as by transforming the NATO Response Force into a more accessible and agile instrument with a robust delivery capability. Moreover, a credible allied response to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict should include a strategic reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank. In practice, it should cover both infrastructure (including a proper high readiness command) as well as “boots on the ground.” Finally, European should be more responsive to the ongoing U.S. requests to reverse the negative trends in military spending. (Two percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) needs to remain not only a rule of thumb, but stricter roadmaps to reach that should be developed.)

4) Europeans need to consider rearmament. And luckily there seem to be a few good harbingers on the horizon with Estonia, Lithuania, Poland or Norway, to name a few, where military expenditures are set to grow. Particularly Poland, being a responsible ally, has recently given a constructive example. Based on a solid financial foundation, i.e. a legal obligation to spend 1.95 percent of GDP on defense, Poland has paved the way towards a robust modernization program, with particular emphasis on air and missile defense, naval forces, information technology and helicopters. Indeed, with an objective to spend at least twenty percent of its growing budget on procurements, and thanks to the recent announcement of its military budget increase to at least two percent of GDP in 2015–16, Poland is fast becoming one of the frontrunners of European military strength.

In conclusion, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has proven that most Europeans have been proven wrong in their assessments as they have become intellectually and emotionally dependent on wishful thinking, namely that they no longer had to worry about their own security and Moscow’s actions, even if Russia fell far short of European democratic standards. In 2014, Europe received a second wake-up call – a chance that must not be missed. Anyone who fails to see this is strategically blind.

This article was originally published by European Geostrategy.

Dominik P. Jankowski is Head of the International Analyses Division at the National Security Bureau in Poland. Col. Dr. Tomasz K. Kowalik is Special Assistant to the Chairman of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s Military Committee.

The opinions, findings and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Security Bureau of the Republic of Poland or NATO.



Dominik P. Jankowski

Dominik P. Jankowski is a security policy expert, diplomat, and think-tanker. Currently he serves as Political Adviser and Head of the Political Section at the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Poland to NATO.