Stockholm Free World Forum: A Strategy for Sustainable Peace in Europe

2023-12-12 | Expert publications, Political initiatives, Geopolitical analysis

By Anders Åslund and Andrius Kubilius.

The Absence of Western Strategy on Ukraine

Richard Haass and Charles Kupchan are ready to declare defeat for Ukraine, claiming that “Kyiv’s war aims – the expulsion of Russian forces from Ukrainian land and the full restoration of its territorial integrity, including Crimea – …are out of reach…” They claim that “The time has come for Washington to lead efforts to forge a new policy that sets attainable goals and brings means and ends into alignment.” That means, that the United States should force Ukraine to give up to Russia, violating the prior principle of nothing without Ukraine. Haass and Kupchan do not call for more Western military support for Ukraine.

Thomas Graham, who was the senior director for Russia at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007 and encouraged George W. Bush to be kind to Putin, goes even further in support of Russia. He argues that “Total victory in Ukraine through Russia’s crushing defeat would create strategic problems for the United States elsewhere…Washington will still need a Russia strong enough to effectively control its own territory and to create regional balances of power in Asia that favor Washington.” Really? Why would you like to have a strong destabilizing power?

These three former US top policy advisors, Haass, Kupchan and Graham, consulted with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last spring, after he had been sanctioned by the U.S. government. Unfortunately, President Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan appears to be listening to their flawed ideas.

Sullivan’s own theses can be summarized in the negative: Don’t provoke Putin! Don’t provoke a nuclear war! Don’t provoke World War III! That the West is afraid of Russia’s nuclear blackmail is a new phenomenon. The West should forget it and return to its old mutual deterrent policy. Only Berlin and Washington appear take the Russian nuclear threat seriously, while Central Europeans are used to brush off empty Russian threats. Writing about the war in Ukraine in this journal, Sullivan is as vague as he can be: “Our approach in Ukraine is sustainable.” “American support for Ukraine is broad and deep, and it will endure.” What does that mean? It is laudable that Sullivan speaks up often, but he never states the actual goal of the US support for Ukraine. It is usually that the United States “will support Ukraine for as long as it takes.” If you don’t know your goal, you are not likely to achieve it.

 Frederick Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War offers a more plausible conclusion. “If the West Cuts Aid to Ukraine, Russia Will Win. If the West Leans in, Ukraine Can Win.” He argues that the “positional war in Ukraine is not a stable stalemate.” It can swing either way. It results from “self-imposed limitations on the technologies the West has been willing to provide Ukraine and constraints on the Russian defense industrial base largely stemming from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unwillingness so far to commit Russia fully to the war.” Kagan’s conclusion is that the West needs to deliver more air defense and a modern air force, better long-range missiles, and more modern tanks and armored vehicles to Ukraine. Then, Ukraine can win. Otherwise, Russia might recover military strength in the longer run.

We would also concur with Nona Mikhelidze and Nathalie Tocci, who conclude that “The West has indeed reached the limits of its current strategy…[which] has centered on ensuring Ukraine’s survival without enabling it to achieve a decisive victory….The choice facing the West is not between war and compromise but between defeat and victory.”

U.S. and UK intelligence did impressive work before the war, clearly stating from October 2021 that Russia was going to attack Ukraine, while the German and French intelligence agencies insisted that Russia was not going to attack until Russia actually did. The United States, the UK, and Canada laudably started training Ukrainian soldiers and delivering relevant arms long before the invasion. Later on, however, the U.S. policy has been more problematic. It has amounted to drip-feeding the Ukrainian military, making it able to survive but hindering its victory.

Already in April 2021, when Russia started its mobilization around Ukraine, the White House called back two U.S. destroyers on their way to the Black Sea, apparently because such a perfectly legal action was perceived as provocative to Russia. More bravely, the UK and the Netherlands sent in naval ships in June 2021, but the U.S. refusal to participate effectively gave up free navigation in the Black Sea, although that has been a fundamental U.S. principle since the early 19th Century. The United States allowed Russia to turn the Black Sea into a Russian domestic sea for no good reason. From early 2022, Russia blockaded all Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to great economic damage to Ukraine and the West did nothing.

Fortunately, Ukraine, which has no navy, has taken out about half of the Russian Black Sea fleet and its radars in Crimea with cruise missiles and drones on its own. The remnants of the Russian Black Sea have escaped to the most distant corner of the Black Sea, Russian-occupied Abkhazia. In September, substantial Ukrainian merchant shipping has started again on the Black Sea, along the coasts of the NATO countries Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey. The West should never have allowed merchant shipping to be disrupted in the Black Sea and now it should support Ukraine to maintain its commercial shipping.

For the last two years, Ukraine has asked for all kinds of arms. Eventually, most have been delivered, but all with great delays, and each delay costs Ukrainian lives. Ukraine’s three big remaining shortfalls today are a modern air force (F-16 or similar), many modern battle tanks (Abrams), and effective long-distance missiles (ATACMS from the United States or German Taurus). The UK has delivered Storm Shadow and France SPAC missiles, of which Ukraine has made good use, but they do not have as long a reach as the US ATACMS, and Ukraine needs many more long-distance missiles.

Ukraine’s closest friends – the Baltic states and Poland – have delivered almost all they could to Ukraine. The UK has been the leader in delivering many advanced arms, such as Storm Shadow, but most European countries have far too few arms, while the United States has enormous amounts of almost all relevant advanced arms. Moreover, nearly all advanced Western arms contain U.S. patents, requiring explicit permission from the Pentagon, which it held back for F-16 deliveries and even training.

These lines of argument are problematic. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin denied the existence of a Ukrainian nation in his article, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” on July 12, 2021. He wrote: “the wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy.” He claimed: “Russians and Ukrainians [are] one people – a single whole.”

His article read like a declaration of war, which it apparently was. By denying the existence of a Ukrainian nation, Putin made clear that he wanted the whole of Ukraine, not only the southern and eastern half, “Novorossiya”, as he had stopped at in April 2014. Apart from one single meeting including President Volodymyr Zelensky in France in December 2019, Putin has refused to have any contact with Zelensky, because Putin does not acknowledge the existence of Ukraine. He persistently argues that Russia is combatting NATO and the collective West in Ukraine. Moreover, Putin has violated every relevant agreement he has concluded and lies persistently. Why talk to such a person? He has made clear that he only respects power. Show him power! For Putin a bad peace is worse than a bad war that may continue forever, because a war facilitates domestic repression, which is essential for Putin’s rule and offers him some sense of legitimacy.

Therefore, the outcome of the war in Ukraine depends overwhelmingly on U.S. policy. The United States needs to adopt a clear strategy on Ukraine. It should call for Ukraine’s victory and deliver all that Ukraine needs to win the war and defeat Russia. Several NATO countries have already done so. Unless Ukraine wins, its existence remains in danger, and time is not on Ukraine’s side, since the West, especially the United States, tends to get tired.

Ukraine Has a Strategy

The Ukrainian government under President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership is impressively clear on its aims.

First of all, it wants to defeat Russia in Ukraine and restore Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty within the borders of 1991 recognized by all, including Russia until 2014. This means that Crimea must be returned to Ukraine. It is strategically essential. Without Crimea, Ukraine’s commercially vital Black Sea shipping cannot be safe. In multiple opinion polls, about 90 percent of Ukrainians throughout the country concur with this aim.

Second, Ukraine wants all its citizens who have been deported to Russia to be repatriated. According to Russian sources, this includes more than 700,000 Ukrainian children.

Third, Russia must pay war reparations for all the damage it has caused Ukraine. Last March, the World Bank assessed the damage at $411 billion. The United States and other Western countries should confiscate all Russian sovereign assets in the West and pass them on to Ukraine. The US Congress is currently considering such legislation, the REPO Act. It should adopt it.

Fourth, Ukraine demands security, which can only mean membership of NATO. After having given up its large nuclear arsenal to Russia in 1994 in exchange for “security assurances” from the United States, the UK and Russia, the Ukrainians understands that nothing less can grant them security.

Fifth, the International Criminal Court indicted Putin for his kidnapping of Ukrainian children. He and more than 100,000 Russians suspect of war crimes should be prosecuted wherever court capacity is available.

Finally, Ukrainians want their country to become a member of the European Union. It might take until 2030, but it is vital that the accession negotiations start as soon as possible, because the negotiations and the required legislation will take at least three years.

The Ukrainian nation is more united around these demands than ever. The Ukrainians will insist on these demands regardless of who their leader is. Professor Charles Tilly concluded famously that nations are forged by war (“war made the state”), and that is certainly true of Ukraine.

Russia Must Be Defeated

The united Ukrainians see things clearly, because they know that their existence as a nation is at play, whereas much of the West is confused, especially the two most important Western countries, the United States and Germany, though most European states have come to sound conclusions. The United States and Germany have most and the best arms and the biggest Western economies. Without their support Ukraine will find it much more difficult to win the war.

The big Western governments have got stuck with the confusing claim that they will support Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” carefully avoiding to state their goal. Strangely, some important people in Washington appear to be afraid of Russia’s defeat. Thomas Graham is an outspoken example. They don’t want Russia to be destabilized, while that should be the U.S. aim. Like George H.W. Bush in his infamous Chicken Kiev speech in the Ukrainian Parliament in August 1991, they abhor instability in Russia and fear loose nukes. Today it appears incredible that the United States compelled all former Soviet republics to give up all their nuclear arms to Russia. In their Budapest Memorandum of December 1994, the United States, the UK and Russia granted “security assurances” to Ukraine as it promised to give up its very substantial nuclear arsenal to Russia, but Russia violated it all by invading Ukraine. In reality, the United States reinforced Russia’s nuclear and military superiority, which greatly facilitated its wars against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and in 2022

The West needs to rethink. Its goal should be Ukraine’s military victory and a crushing defeat of Russia, because Putin’s regime poses a persistent risk of war, just as Adolf Hitler’s regime did. Putin is far more similar to Hitler than most Westerners have realized. He has started one war after the other and found that each war increases his domestic popularity and enhances his possibilities to increase repression. The main difference between Putin and Hitler is that Putin is more deliberate, taking longer time to start each new war.

In January 1943, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt met in Casablanca. They agreed that there would be no negotiations with Hitler “for peace and ceasefire.” Their aim was Hitler’s “unconditional surrender”, as the only way to ensure postwar peace. Similarly, today’s Western objective should be the unconditional defeat of Russia and Putin. That does not require the occupation of Russia or any march on Moscow. It suffices that Russia is defeated on the battlefield in Ukraine and is being forced to evacuate Ukraine.

After the West has clarified that its goal is Ukraine’s victory and the defeat of Russia, the rest follows. Then, the West would deliver all the arms Ukraine needs to defeat Russia as fast as possible. Time is vital. The faster potent arms are delivered, the fewer Ukrainians, as well as Russians, will have to die, and the sooner peace may be established in Europe. Millions of Ukrainians live under Russian terror and need liberation. Furthermore, the financial and military cost will be less if the West delivers more arms faster. It is cruel, costly, and dysfunctional to drip-feed the Ukrainian Armed Forces as is currently being done. It is not a strategy, but the absence of strategy.

NATO Should Guarantee Ukraine Security through Membership

At present, Ukraine has by far the strongest military forces in Europe, 800,000 men and women under arms, and they have outstanding battle experience. Next year, Ukraine is intent on spending $47 billion or 22 percent of its GDP on defense, while NATO as a whole barely reaches 2 percent of GDP.

Rather than asking the Ukrainians to be grateful for all the Western support, the West should thank the Ukrainians for stopping the Russian threat against the West. While spending only three percent of the US defense budget, the eminent Ukrainian military has taken out half Russia’s conventional military force! No Pentagon expenditures have been that effective. Why doesn’t the United States optimize its most effective military expenditures?

The Kiel Institute for World Economy has a very useful Ukraine Support Tracker for all commitments to Ukraine since the start of the war in February 2022. The total support committed by the EU and its members amounts to €132 billion (of which €27 billion for military assistance), while the US commitment is €69  billion (of which €42 billion military assistance). Other important donors are the UK, Norway, Japan, and Canada. These sums are minuscule when considering that Putin considers that he is pursuing a war against these countries, and surely will if he wins in Ukraine. Given that the total EU GDP in 2022 was €15.8 trillion, the total EU support for Ukraine was only 0.8 percent of GDP spread over three years and not necessarily delivered. The US GDP for 2023 is assessed at $26.2 trillion, rendering the US support even less.

Russia, by contrast, has a tiny GDP of currently $1.6 trillion, though it swings with the very unstable ruble exchange rate. Russia devotes $100-$160 billion to its military next year, that is 6-10 percent of GDP. The uncertainty depends on a large share of the Russian budget expenditures having been classified, and our assumption is that almost all of it goes to the military. In this perspective, the Western support to Ukraine is a pittance and could easily be multiplied with minimal impact on the standard of living. The West needs to wake up and start devoting real resources to Ukraine and its endeavors – as the Baltic countries already do.

NATO and Ukraine need one another. NATO needs Ukraine for its defense against Russia, and Ukraine needs NATO as its future security guarantee. Since Putin does not claim that he is fighting Ukraine but NATO, Ukraine defends not only itself but NATO. Only full membership of NATO can guarantee Ukraine national security. All the other options (bilateral friendship treaty with Russia, OSCE agreements, the Budapest memorandum of 1994 with security assurances, etc.) have been tried and they did not work. Russia does not respect any international agreement, only evident military strength, which NATO possesses thanks to the United States.

At its summit in Bucharest in April 2008, NATO promised Ukraine membership:

“NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO.  We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO…MAP [Membership Action Plan] is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership.  Today we make clear that we support these countries’ applications for MAP.  Therefore we will now begin a period of intensive engagement with both at a high political level to address the questions still outstanding pertaining to their MAP applications.” 

Deviously, NATO did nothing to fulfill its promise because of opposition from Germany and France. NATO offered no road forward, effectively putting Ukraine and Georgia in a dead end, exposing them to new dangers. As if to make matters worse, NATO invited Putin to that summit and he candidly denied that Ukraine was a state, indicating that he would eventually invade, as he did in Georgia in August 2008.

At the NATO summit in Vilnius in June 2023, a large majority of the NATO members wanted to invite Ukraine to become a member, but this time the two opponents were the United States and Germany, while France was on board. No progress was achieved. Next summer, the United States will host the 75th anniversary summit of NATO. At the top of its agenda should be an invitation to Ukraine to become a member of NATO.

Great confusion reigns around Ukraine’s possible NATO accession. An invitation to become a member of NATO is not the same as offering an immediate membership of NATO. Usually there is some – sometimes considerable – time between these two steps. Thus, NATO can invite Ukraine to become a member but wait to admit it until certain conditions have been fulfilled.

Another argument against Ukraine is that it does not control its whole territory and is in war with Russia. But Germany did not control all its territory in 1955 when it became a member of NATO, since Eastern Germany was occupied by the Soviets, and no peace treaty had been concluded. Pragmatically, NATO ruled that the Article 5 defense applied only to West Germany. That should be done also for Ukraine.

Some argue that Ukraine is not sufficiently democratic, but Portugal, one of the founding members of NATO in 1949, became democratic only in 1968. Greece was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1967-74. Turkey is a member of NATO but not very democratic. The same is true of Hungary.

A prominent argument in Washington and Berlin, however, appears to be that NATO membership for Ukraine would cross Putin’s red line, prompting him to launch a nuclear war, which suggests that they don’t understand that Putin’s red lines mean nothing. Only power matters to Putin. Ukraine and the West have crossed one red line after the other in Ukraine, and not much happened, because Putin respects power. Militarily, Russia is down on its knees. Russian official spokesmen and television threaten one country after the other of a nuclear attack literally every day, but a nuclear attack would be disastrous for Russia. Yet, this propaganda successfully scares confused minds in Washington and Berlin.

Ukraine’s accession to NATO is a precondition for peace, not only in Eastern Europe, but in the whole of Europe. After Ukraine has joined NATO, Russia will no longer dare to attack Ukraine, finally granting peace in this large region.

EU Accession

During the Revolution of Dignity in early 2014, more than 100 Ukrainians died for their European aspirations. Never before or after have so many people died for the EU. Fortunately, the EU has honored their sacrifice by offering Ukraine membership prospects and candidate status.

Impressively, in the midst of the war, the Ukrainian government has carried out substantial reforms. On November 8, 2023, the European Commission established that Ukraine had fulfilled four of its key demands for candidate status set in June 2022, primarily on rule of law, and was in the process of fulfilling the three remaining conditions. Therefore, the Commission recommended that the EU Council of the heads of government decide that the EU start membership negotiations with Ukraine. Hopefully, this will soon come to fruition.

If carried out effectively without political impediments, negotiations to become a member of the EU should take three years. Ukraine benefits from already having carried out most of the reforms the EU requires within the framework of its EU Association Agreement from 2016. It already enjoys visa freedom with the EU and the EU should offer it full access to its Single Market, the finest EU asset.

The war has united the Ukrainian nation. Millions of Ukrainians have spent substantial time in Europe and learned new skills and values. They will bring their new insights back to Ukraine and transform their native land. The establishment of proper rule of law is already well on its way.

For the EU, Ukraine’s accession in the late 2020s could be a major stimulus as the big enlargement in 2004, which heralded half a decade of superior EU growth. Ukraine will be integrated into the European supply chain and it is already astounding with excellent growth in 2023 in spite of the war. Ukraine’s EU membership will also bring about democratic and legal stability.

War Crimes and Reparations

Russia has caused Ukraine horrendous damage. One element is material damage. The February 2023 assessment by the World Bank amounts to $411 billion. Another element is war crimes, of which the Ukrainians have recorded and documented more than 100,000. Increasingly, two statements are being made by Western politicians: “Russia must be held accountable” and “Russia must pay.” The question is how that will be done and how fast.

In May 2023, the G7 leaders made this statement:

“We will continue our efforts to ensure that Russia pays for the long-term reconstruction of Ukraine… we will continue to take measures available within our domestic frameworks to find, restrain, freeze, seize, and, where appropriate, confiscate or forfeit the assets of those individuals and entities that have been sanctioned in connection with Russia’s aggression…We reaffirm that, consistent with our respective legal systems, Russia’s sovereign assets in our jurisdictions will remain immobilized until Russia pays for the damage it has caused to Ukraine.”

Altogether, the G7 has found $280 billion of Russian sovereign assets. A substantial literature exists claiming that these sovereign assets should be confiscated and passed on to Ukraine as war reparations. Given that Russia has abandoned all its international legal obligations and even confiscates private companies in Russia, the only ethical approach must be to seize Russian state property in the West and transfer it to Ukraine. This is one of the big issues that the West needs to resolve in the course of 2014. As Martin Sandbu has pointed out, these reserves have no immediate impact on the Russian economy since they are anyhow held abroad as reserves, presumably to facilitate Putin’s war.

The International Criminal Court has already issued an arrest warrant for Putin for the kidnapping of Ukrainian children. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General is registering the thousands of war crimes and Ukrainian courts have already sentenced many Russian culprits. When the war ends, the many war crimes need to be pursued in an effective manner.

The Western Aim Must Be Democracy in Russia

Western policy on Ukraine must be seen in a wider context. The aim is not only to salvage Ukraine from Putin barbary, but to secure peace and democracy to Europe. Europe will not be safe until Russia becomes a normal, democratic state. Therefore, Western policy must aim to transform Russia into a democratic state.

This requires that the West believes that Russia can say farewell to Putin and his authoritarian regime and become a normal state. After Ukraine has defeated Russia on the battlefield, a window of opportunity will open up for such a transformation in Russia. The West must not miss it, as it unfortunately did in the 1990s.

As Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder has explained so well, Russia is the last European imperialist country. Zbigniew Brzezinski famously stated in this journal in 1994 that “Russia can be either an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both…. without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” One European country after the other has lost its imperial ambitions after losing a war. The last remnant is Russia. If Russia loses its war of aggression against Ukraine, it might finally get rid of its obsolete imperialist bug. Russia’s defeat is not only in the interest of the West and Ukraine but also of Russia, as Russian liberals now in exile, such as Leonid Gozman and Viktor Shenderovich, have pointed out.

While the West cannot hope to oust Putin on its own, it should isolate Putin and render him as vulnerable as possible. There is no worse Russian leader than Putin in the wings. While the West hardly can instigate his ouster, it should welcome it.

Since Putin runs a personal authoritarian regime without any real ideology, party, or monarchy, it is likely to collapse with his demise. Russia can only benefit from such a destabilization of the regime, which might bring about democratization or at least substantial liberalization. 

Russia is a developed country with an educated population. Such a country can become a democracy, as Seymour Martin Lipset taught us. A strong authoritarian and imperial tradition are obstacles, but they can be overcome as so many other countries (Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan) have shown. Russia can become a democracy. Therefore, the West should support democratic forces in Russia.

Toward a Western Strategy

Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022 woke up the West and united it, but the Zeitenwende that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared has not arrived as yet. The West is still in the search of a geopolitical strategy.

To begin with, the West needs to establish its goal. To support Ukraine “for as long as it takes” is no goal. The first goal must be Ukraine’s victory, which means that Russia must be defeated militarily.

Second, the West should do whatever it can to speed up Ukraine’s victory. It must realize that Ukraine’s cause is ours. The Ukrainian soldiers are fighting for us. Therefore, the collective West needs to accelerate its arms deliveries to Ukraine and provide the necessary financial support for the Ukrainian state budget. The faster Ukraine wins, the fewer lives will be lost on both sides and the less the cost of reconstruction will be.

If Russia would win, it would not stop for long but continue its aggression against the West, possibly after some time. Moldova appears most vulnerable, being a small and poor state outside of NATO. Next, Russia could move in Western Balkans or into the Baltics. Remember that Russia claims to fight NATO and not Ukraine. Therefore, we should not ask Ukrainians to be grateful for the assistance we provide them with, but we should be grateful to the Ukrainians for them defending us against Russia’s aggression and give the Ukrainians everything we can.

Third, the Western aim should be to put an end to Russia’s aggressive, authoritarian and kleptocratic regime. As long as Putin and his ilk rule Russia, it is likely to start new wars. A democratic regime in Russia is the best hope for peace. A Western strategy must include not only Ukraine, but also Russia and Belarus. The Western policy on Russa should be “Democracy first!” A major tool to achieve that should be global financial transparency so that the ill-gained fortunes of Putin and other kleptocrats are laid open.

To achieve this all the Western countries should adopt legislation allowing them to seize the Russian Central Bank reserves that have been immobilized in the West and use them for Ukrainian reconstruction. NATO should invite Ukraine to become a member of the organization at its 75th anniversary summit in Washington in 2024. The EU has already offered Ukraine a candidate status and it should start accession negotiations as fast as possible, offering early entry to the EU Single Market.

The ultimate Western aim should be to go back to the old formula of George H.W. Bush in May 1989: “Europe whole and free and in peace.”

Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum.
Andrius Kubilius is a member of the European Parliament. He served as prime minister of Lithuania, 1999-2000 and 2008-2012.

Originally published on the Stockholm Free World Forum: Frivärld website.