Minsk is shorthand for a diplomatic process established in 2014 and early 2015. The formal deadline for completing Minsk was December 2015, a deadline that long since passed without its first phase — a ceasefire — going into effect. The next two phases — decentralization and a political process for the Donbas — have never progressed beyond the hypothetical. As of this winter, the line of contact between the Ukrainian and the Russian-backed forces remains bloody and volatile. At this stage, declaring Minsk dead might be an acceptance of a self-evident reality. Consigning Minsk to history might allow everyone to move forward along a different track.
In this spirit, the Trump administration’s recent decision to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons could appear not only wise but necessary. The details of the deal announced by the State Department on December 22 have not been made public. According to reporting, the deal entails the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles and small arms. Congressional approval for these arms sales has not been announced but is assumed to be forthcoming. The argument for providing lethal weapons goes as follows: Russia has not lived up to its end of the bargain. Ukraine is merely defending its sovereignty. With the Maidan revolution of 2013 to 2014, Ukraine declared itself a part of the West — a strategic choice that was its sovereign right. In an atmosphere of tension between the West and Russia, sending lethal weapons to Ukraine signals toughness to an adversary predisposed to exploit the weakness of others. Perhaps these weapons, and the implied threat of more to come, will be a salutary shock to the stalled Minsk diplomatic process. Sanctions plus weapons give the West greater bargaining power. They could compel Russia to back down. They are, at any rate, the consequence of Russian perfidy.
If this is the Trump administration’s thinking, it is wrong-headed. Provision of lethal aid to Ukraine, in tandem with the additional sanctions imposed on Russia in July 2016 by Congress, amount to the death of Minsk. Military action has displaced diplomatic action, with diplomacy sacrificed for a marginal military gain. Whether applied before or after the Russian presidential elections in March 2018, Western pressure will be insufficient to force the Kremlin to comply with Minsk’s provisions. Yet the way in which the pressure is being applied will surely increase Russian intransigence where Ukraine is concerned. Minsk had been faltering for a long time. Now Russia will use the announcement of Western military assistance to absolve itself of any need to comply with Minsk or even to make a pretense of doing so. In a change that will have serious regional consequences, the Minsk diplomatic process has become a relic of the past. But instead of clearing the way to a plausible and well-thought-through alternative, providing lethal weapons unravels what remains of the diplomatic process without changing the military dynamic on the ground. The American announcement of its new policy sheds light on a transatlantic alliance that is out of synch. Russia is almost certain to rely even more heavily on military means to pursue its interests in Ukraine. This was, in short, an emphatically counter-productive decision.
What was Minsk?
The origins of Minsk illuminate the treacherous terrain of a post-Minsk Europe. Minsk was negotiated by France, Germany, and Ukraine on one side and Russia and Ukrainian separatists on the other. Minsk diplomacy followed a series of battlefield defeats for Ukraine. When the Russian military drove into the Donbas in August 2014, the Ukrainian armed forces could not keep pace. Signed at gunpoint in February 2015, the second iteration of Minsk was a terrible deal for Ukraine, committing Kyiv, for example, to an amnesty for the separatists and to special status of some kind for the Donbas. Kyiv needed a reprieve from the battles it was losing. The Europeans wanted to diminish, not increase, fighting of which they wanted no part: There was no way for Ukraine to escape its own military weakness and its lack of allies. Once Minsk kicked in, combat dropped to a steady simmer, with occasional flare ups here and there. Kyiv was buying time, hoping for material Western support or for the crack-up or exhaustion of Putin’s Russia.
Western objectives for Ukraine, and the methods of achieving them, were never clear. Some Western nations sought to work with Russia and some sought to punish Russia. The common objective was a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty. This was something Russia itself had endorsed, on paper, by agreeing to Minsk. This deal gave the West a standard — ceasefire, political process, the withdrawal of weapons and troops — to which Russian conduct could be held. European and American sanctions fashioned in the summer of 2014 (before Minsk) became tied to Minsk by 2015. Sanctions would be lifted, Russia was repeatedly told, only when Minsk was fully implemented.
The Baltic republics believed in the necessity of a military response. They wanted more American troops and hardware in the region; this they would receive; Lithuania went so far as to supply Ukraine with lethal military aid, starting in 2014. But Minsk was valued, especially by Germany, as a non-military mechanism for de-escalating the conflict: better an imperfect mechanism than no mechanism at all; and better no hint of war than the prospect of going head to head with Russia. For Germany and France, de-escalation meant stabilization and peace, and not reacting militarily to Russia. The pursuit of Ukrainian sovereignty divided into separate and conflicting strategies in the West. The strategy of greater regional stability peacefully achieved (popular in Western Europe) conflicted with the strategy of achieving genuine sovereignty for Ukraine through military force and pressure (popular in Eastern Europe). Washington was somewhere between these two positions.
The provision of lethal weapons outlines four challenges for the region and for the West. First, public provision of lethal weapons will foreclose rather than open diplomatic options for Russia. Second, the West’s strategic objectives in Ukraine have been complicated by a deeper military involvement in the conflict. The United States has had a military relationship with Ukraine since 1991. Since 2014, the United States has offered technical assistance to Ukraine and has helped to train the Ukrainian military, with American advisors on Ukrainian soil. Under the Obama administration, this was construed as help for Ukraine, but a line was drawn at being directly involved in Ukraine’s war with Russia, which explains the semantic importance of distinguishing lethal from non-lethal assistance. This was, admittedly, a symbolic difference, but it is a difference that, with the sale of lethal weapons, has been erased. The West has crossed the line into direct involvement. Chancellor Merkel, for one, was adamant about not crossing this line, and transatlantic unity — at one time the West’s cardinal asset in its conflict with Russia — will now diminish further.
Third, because of a hobbled diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia, whatever fallout there is from the lethal weapons decision will be difficult to manage. Fourth, the prize of lethal weapons, for which the Poroshenko government has been energetically lobbying, is one that Kyiv has not done enough to earn. Perversely, the West’s provision of lethal weapons is a domestic political boon to the Poroshenko and Putin governments alike. Both can embrace a harder line and in doing so posture before their more nationalist domestic constituencies. The line of contact will shade into a de facto border, and a peaceful resolution to this conflict will be delayed indefinitely. The price for a frozen conflict will be paid by the Ukrainian economy and polity.
The Trump administration has emphasized the “defensive” nature of the weapons they are supplying to Ukraine. These limited weapons are meant to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine that would extend beyond the Donbas — an attack, for example, on Mariupol, or Kharkiv, or on Kyiv itself. They are not intended to inspire a Ukrainian incursion into the Donbas. Nor will they do anything to alter the military balance of power between Russia and Ukraine. For this reason, the Kremlin could conceivably do nothing in response to the arrival of lethal weapons. Had the weapons been given covertly, the option of doing nothing would have been more plausible for Russia. By contrast, an openly widening military relationship between Washington and Kyiv will not be contemplated with disinterest in Moscow.
A virtuoso of worst-case scenarios, the Kremlin is likely to gauge the provision of lethal weapons as an instance of mission creep. The mission began long ago. Military logic and military history suggest that the mission is destined to grow. Indeed, for Russia the role of the United States has long structured its Ukraine policy. The grievances started with alleged American support for color revolutions in Ukraine and elsewhere. They continued with the declaration, at the 2008 Bucharest summit, that Ukraine will one day be a member of NATO. In the Russian view, Washington has not sought the role of an honest broker in Ukraine. To the contrary, Washington’s ulterior motive is to possess Ukraine as a tool for weakening or antagonizing Russia, the purest expression of the divide-and-conquer approach the West has been pursuing in Eastern Europe since the Cold War.
The American decision in favor of lethal weapons will be fit seamlessly into this narrative. Putin first offered this narrative of the West at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. It saturates Russian media and is widely accepted as the gospel truth in Russia. Whether it is sincerely or cynically endorsed by the Kremlin, it is a narrative on which Russia has acted many times: in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014, in Syria in 2015 (where Russia depicted itself as valiantly putting down another failed, American-led colored revolution). For as long as Putin is president, Russia will continue to act on this narrative, and for the Russian public Ukraine is the place where the narrative of Western aggression and encroachment matters most.
Science fiction in the West, this narrative resonates in Russia. It has come to define Putin’s entire tenure as Russia’s president. The West believes that Russia has no right to interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs; Russia believes otherwise. That lethal weapons will change Putin’s mind on this point is impossible. The Kremlin will undoubtedly present American lethal weapons as yet another Western military move toward Russia, and as a logical continuation of NATO’s expansion across Eastern Europe. Putin will respond to lethal weapons by attempting to raise the costs of what he perceives as a dynamic and aggressive Western foreign policy. How he will do so is anybody’s guess. Where he will do so is anybody’s guess. But it will probably not be in or around the Donbas.
Anti-tank weapons might have shifted the battlefield dynamic in 2014 or early 2015 when there were major conventional military clashes between Ukrainian and Russian forces. Since 2015, the line of contact drawn in the Donbas is defined mostly by artillery fire and the occasional skirmishing of soldiers. This kind of violence will not be affected one way or another by the weapons Washington has decided to send to Ukraine. What destabilizes Ukraine is the brute fact of unresolved conflict, a fact that can be maintained on the Russian side by simple, unsophisticated military tactics — by a refusal to cease firing the weapons that are ubiquitous on the ground. Javelins and other lethal weapons are only salient to a possible, though highly unlikely Russian invasion beyond the line of contact.
Precisely because Western defensive lethal weapons are pegged to conventional war, and most notably to tank warfare, the Russian counter-response is likely to be unconventional — directed perhaps at the Poroshenko government’s ability to function. Due to historic and cultural ties between the Russia and Ukraine, Russian intelligence has penetrated many Ukrainian institutions. Ukraine already displays a murky domain of targeted assassinations, active criminal networks and weak law enforcement; Russian cyber interference follows a well-established pattern in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s scope for unconventional war and subversion in Ukraine is vast.
The Obama administration excelled at maintaining transatlantic unity on Ukraine. It supported French and German leadership in the diplomatic process and in the maintenance of the EU’s sanctions on Russia. President Barack Obama’s refusal to provide Ukraine with lethal military aid may simply have reflected his own thinking about Ukraine and Russia. It was also a courtesy paid to Germany and other European states that preferred a diplomatic rather than a military solution to the crisis, while Germany led the European Union in sanctions maintenance. Behind this was a pattern of strong personal relationships between Obama and key European leaders, encouraged by a basic concordance of outlook. With Russia, the long-term assumption was that the West was strong. Over time, its attractions would outweigh Russia’s heavy-handed tendency to coerce the loyalty of its neighbors. The symbol of Western strength was transatlantic unity on sanctions. Even if sanctions did little to end the conflict in Ukraine, they demonstrated collective resolve to Russia. European security rested comfortably on this resolve.
The Trump administration holds its transatlantic allies in low esteem. A partial list of burdens that have been added to relations with its European allies would include the following Trump administration positions and decisions. Trump heaps scorn on free-trade agreements and has scuttled TTIP. He has withdrawn from the Paris agreements on climate change and has contempt for multi-lateral institutions, including the European Union. His administration has been uncertain in its support for the Iran nuclear deal. Contradictory messaging about the Article 5 commitment among NATO allies has disturbed America’s European allies. Announced plans to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem have been condemned across Europe, and tacit support for far-right, anti-E.U. movements within European nations has not won Trump many friends in European capitals. These burdens have not yet led to a break. They have, however, put transatlantic relations on a much shakier foundation.
The unilateral decision to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons will test this foundation. Congressional sanctions on Russia, levied in July 2017, were already greeted with horror in Europe, as further proof of economic nationalism run amok in Washington: Germany, in particular, has reacted to these sanctions as the dumping of collateral damage from the U.S.-Russian relationship onto Europe. This was an early crack in the West’s common policy toward Russia. Lethal weapons for Ukraine will be a second crack, a revival of Donald Rumsfeld’s old and new Europe. In the Northeast of Europe, the move to furnish lethal aid to Ukraine will be seen as too little too late, though a sign that Washington has finally come to its senses and is at long last facing up to the Russian threat. Western and Southern Europe may refrain from direct criticism of the Trump administration, in the name of transatlantic unity, but where Washington goes in this conflict they will not be eager to follow. For the many European countries who would gladly wriggle free from Russia-related sanctions, “American adventurism” could be a convenient excuse. Long-term Western strengths have been sacrificed for a short-term expediency that may prove the opposite of expedient.
Dysfunctional U.S.-Russian Relations
The lethal weapons decision is embedded in an obviously dysfunctional U.S.-Russian relationship. There is little regular diplomatic contact between Washington and Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavov and Secretary Rex Tillerson still meet and Presidents Trump and Putin still speak by phone. But these are episodic communications at the highest level; they are not backed methodical work at the lower levels of the bureaucracy. At best what we have now is crisis management. This is something other than sustained diplomacy, of which there was a great deal in the later decades of the Cold War. Indeed, sustained diplomacy was a prerequisite for the breakthroughs of the late 1980s. Diplomatic structures that had been built up after 1991 were destroyed by the conflict in Ukraine in 2014. Within the Trump administration, the military has been empowered, the State Department has lost stature, and the legislative branch has chosen to exercise its constitutional status as co-equal to the executive branch. The result has been a shocking incoherence on Russia. Trump regularly challenges his own intelligence community on Russia, while continuing to speak in praise of Putin. The White House has not acted on the most urgent threat Russia presents: its interference in domestic American politics. Congress has acted preemptively on this very threat with sanctions, and others within the administration pride themselves on being tougher on Russia than the Obama administration had been.
Putin may view Trump as the victim of a Russophobic “deep state” in Washington. He could ignore those aspects of American policy that he dislikes on the expectation that he and Trump may still be able to do business, to resolve outstanding problem and to focus Russian-American energy on counter-terrorism rather than quibbles over Europe’s security architecture. Strategic incoherence might encourage Putin to dangle great-power deal making before Trump against the will of the U.S. Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the more hawkish European powers. But this would require more diplomatic initiative and skill of Trump than he has so far demonstrated. In the meantime, strategic incoherence on Russia carries an immediate and practical danger. The intended effects of sending lethal aid to Ukraine could easily be misread or misinterpreted by Russia. If so, these weapons will not serve as diplomatic leverage, despite the lip service the Trump administration is still paying to Minsk. They could become the pretext for an escalatory spiral and through accident to direct conflict — either within Ukraine or along the border Russia shares with NATO, from Estonia to Poland.
Both sides interpret their own actions as defensive. The greater the need to defend from the other’s aggression, the more an expansion of military assets makes sense — hence, the provision of “defensive lethal weapons.” Hence, Russia, chooses to intensify its military presence in Kaliningrad and near the Baltic states. The greater the aggregate military presence, the more opportunity there is for an incident, an American-supplied weapon, say, that can be shown killing Russian or ethnic Russian civilians or purportedly shown doing this. Or the incident could involve Russian troops traveling by rail through Lithuania to Kaliningrad, behaving in a way that suggests malign intent. Once public opinion is inflamed, in Russia or in the West, it would require exceptionally cool heads to retain control of the decision-making process.
Neither Washington nor Moscow wants direct military conflict, but this sentiment on its own is inadequate to preventing it. The prevention of conflict demands regular communication and proactive diplomatic effort. Khrushchev may have thought he was supplying Cuba with “defensive” nuclear weapons in 1962. President John F. Kennedy was willing to understand Soviet motivations as defensive enough not to attack Cuba. In the end, both he and Khrushchev got lucky. They could have sleepwalked into mutually assured destruction. After the Cuban missile crisis, U.S.-Soviet diplomacy was stepped up. We are now at risk of reverting back to a pre-Cuban missile crisis Cold War, another long, twilight struggle.
Faltering Reforms in Kyiv
An overarching reason for supporting Ukraine has been its will to reform. The Maidan had been about joining Europe. It was Ukraine’s movement toward the rule of law, toward democracy, and toward European values. This was a cause more profound and lyrical than mere sovereignty. It remains the cause of Ukrainian civil society, but it is no longer the cause of the Poroshenko government, if it ever was. Poroshenko has continued in the path of its predecessors: rampant corruption, indifference to rule of law, the presentation of one face to the West, and an entirely different face at home where Poroshenko and his government are acutely unpopular. Of course, lethal weapons may be necessary for purely military reasons, but regardless they will serve a political function. This will be to shore up the Poroshenko government and to decrease Western leverage over Ukraine. If what truly matters to the West is the Russian threat, reform in Ukraine may be irrelevant. Without meaningful reform, however, Ukraine is yet another corrupt post-Soviet state, geographically but not normatively European. Its entitlement to Western support should be questioned, and not heedlessly rewarded.
A further cost to Ukraine, if Minsk is dead and the conflict lingers on for years unresolved, will be internal. Ukraine is in desperate need of foreign direct investment. It needs to become a predictable market and provider of goods and services; it would prosper as such. A semi-frozen conflict will make this impossible, as has been the case in Moldova, which has contained a frozen conflict since 1992. Ukraine’s integration into Europe has been cruelly slowed by the conflict in the East. Ukrainians can hold Russia morally responsible for this, but the practical consequences are theirs to endure. They are the central problem of Ukrainian foreign policy. For all its flaws, Minsk had been a roadmap, a promise of normalization. Without Minsk, regional normalcy will be that much more elusive. Without Minsk, investors and business partners will have one more reason to stay away from Ukraine. This is a tragic turn of events for a long-suffering country.
A New Military Approach? A New Diplomatic Approach?
Shadowing the unnecessary demise of Minsk is an absence of good alternatives. Western military pressure could, in theory, be employed to end the conflict. After all, the West is the stronger power, and Russia the weaker. The threat of escalation, backed by a non-rhetorical will to act, could push Russia out of the Donbas. This would have to be a joint American-Ukrainian war. It would demand of Washington a willingness to commit ground troops and to employ the full panoply of American weaponry, including nuclear. This scenario implies a degree of support for Ukraine that domestic American politics would never bear. The United States going all-in might be in the Ukrainian national interest. It would not at all be in the American national interest, something both Presidents Obama and Trump have had no difficulty understanding.
A new round of diplomacy is just barely conceivable. It would have to acknowledge that many of the leaders of and some of the conditions have changed since 2015. Minsk is dead! Long live Minsk! This diplomacy might array Western leverage differently, including the threat of military force as a more prominent component. This surely is the Trump administration’s working assumption at the moment, negotiating from a position of greater strength. Unlike Minsk, this process would have to be U.S.-Russian, since providing lethal weapons reflects an American rather than a shared European position. France and Germany would fall into the background. The old custom of American-Russian summitry, going back to Reykjavik and Potsdam and Yalta, could be reactivated. Presidents Trump and Putin would have to sit down and hammer it out. But Russia has hardly been pushed back onto its heels by the lethal weapons that will be arriving from the West. Its military position remains as strong as it was between August 2014 and February 2015, the months of fighting that forced the Ukrainians into accepting Minsk. There is no obvious reason for Russia to concede ground and no evidence to suggest that Trump’s Washington has the diplomatic savvy to discover a face-saving way for Putin to honor Ukrainian sovereignty. Nor is Washington likely to accomplish much diplomatically without the Western European powers at its side.
Alternately, Europe could play good cop to Washington’s bad cop. France and Germany had earlier taken the lead. They could do so again, breathing new life into Minsk: Deal peacefully with us, they might say to Moscow, or you will have to contend with the Americans and their weapons. But the European Union in 2017 is not where it was in 2014. Brexit is a formidable distraction; a pro-Russian party is part of the governing coalition in Austria; a newly elected Czech president happily airs pro-Russian views; and most importantly Chancellor Merkel has fallen from the position of de facto leader of Europe to an embattled figure in Germany, struggling to cobble together a governing coalition. She is a politician nearing the end of her story. Meanwhile, Europe is trying, without much success, to figure out Trump’s Washington. Even if Europe were unified and as Atlanticist as it had been in 2014, it would still need to bring something new to bear on Minsk diplomacy to arrive at an outcome other than stalemate. It has no soft-power influence in Putin’s Russia. Germany will ensure that hard-power options are off the table, which is to say that Europe lacks real leverage in its dealings with Russia. In addition, the romance of the Maidan that made Ukraine seem a country on the cusp of Europe has faded under Poroshenko’s dispiriting rule. Ukraine is another of Europe’s grim problems, and as far as public opinion is concerned, Ukraine is far from a priority. In the coming months, Europe will be focused on sanctions maintenance, tied to the old Minsk diplomacy. It will not go out on a limb for Ukraine.
These theoretical military and diplomatic alternatives or modifications to Minsk will not come to pass. They would demand too much, too much daring, too much boldness, too much effort for a country that has never received the full attention of the West. It will be muddling through without a roadmap from now on, quite possibly to the detriment of Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the United States.
Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America. From 2014 to 2016, he served on the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State where he worked on issues related to Russia and Ukraine. He is the author of The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers and the Lessons of Anti-Communism (Harvard 2009). His next book, The Decline of the West: An American Story, is forthcoming with Basic Books.