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Until the latest clashes in the Kerch Strait, the conflict in Ukraine has been largely off the news radar. What started as an unprecedented escalation in 2014, leading to revisions in NATO and Russian postures, quickly became bogged down in a protracted localised struggle between the government in Kiev and the government in Moscow, which controls the Crimean Peninsula and the rebels in Donbas. The smouldering crisis has only now come to prominence once again, in the form of a direct clash between the Russian and Ukrainian navies on the Kerch Strait on 25 November. There are different prognoses as to how this incident will affect future events. What analysts can learn from it, however, is that a country like Ukraine, belonging to no institution with collective security assurances, can never really feel safe in a constantly-evolving multipolar international system.
It is worth asking a question here: how can a conventional military escalation, like the one just witnessed on the Sea of Azov, even happen? Especially at an interstate level and particularly in Europe, such things were meant to be unthinkable, in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War. One potential answer is the absence of any element of nuclear deterrence and effective collective assurances; both of which are lacking in Ukraine. As a newly independent, state it was ‘invited’ to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and renounced the considerable quantity of Soviet nuclear weapons on its soil. Ukraine did so, giving up its nuclear capability under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum with the US, Russia and the UK as its guarantors. Indeed, Ukraine’s position today is eerily similar to that of some of the countries which fell victim to the appeasement policies during the 1930s. The interwar period saw a number of newly-created states protected under international conventions and treaties surrender to the German policy of brute force. Some, like Czechoslovakia, were assured that partial territorial concessions would ensure their survival. Others, like Austria, were simply annexed under the pretext of cultural synonymity with Germany. The latter political approach can also be seen in how certain political circles in Russia view Crimea and the Donbas – as being inherently Russian provinces, which ended up in Ukraine as a result of peculiar administrative decisions made in the Soviet Union.
The Budapest Memorandum was signed in a very different security context than that of today. There was no telling how rapidly NATO would expand eastwards, and therefore, how Ukraine’s security environment would be affected. The decision-makers in Kiev at the time operated in a much more ambiguous environment, with the alignment of many of their neighbours yet to be decided. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians, in the 20 years between the signing of the Budapest Memorandum and the Russian annexation of Crimea, the ex-Soviet republic has found itself increasingly more isolated, lingering on the sidelines of both NATO and the Russian military alliance. When it tried to change this situation, for example, through the change of establishment following the Euromaidan movement in 2013, it was already too late.
In a fashion that harks back to darker times, one of the Memorandum’s guarantors decided to break its clauses and annex part of Ukraine’s territory. The escalation in the Kerch Strait is yet another example of Russia’s ambition to exploit Ukraine’s alienation, while the other two guarantors choose to remain silent. The reason they do so is precisely because their own security assurances are based on NATO membership, to which Ukraine has no access. As some observers of the Ukrainian conflict argue, it would have been close to impossible for Ukraine to retain its nuclear power status, given that it was inherited from the USSR. The pressures of the New World Order, the clauses of the NPT and its enforcers, were too high for a new country to handle. Still, it relinquished its nuclear weapons of its own volition and in return for certain security guarantees which, as it turns out, are of little value to countries which are not members of NATO. This is the weakness in Ukrainian security which the Russians have exploited by shooting at or ramming Ukrainian vessels.
One can expect that this is exactly the boundary that the opponents of NATO would dare to cross without fear of any retaliation. While a full-scale conflict between the West and Russia remains unlikely, regional power struggle and ‘stress-tests’ of Western deterrence postures are here to stay.
Still, if the latest Sea of Azov skirmish ends with no further serious repercussions, then it constitutes proof that NATO deterrence does work elsewhere, and particularly in deterring Russian from any overt attempt to destabilise the Baltic states.
But although no direct military assistance to Ukraine is envisaged from the West, any hesitation or a serious lapse of unity in the West would constitute an open invitation to a further escalation in Ukraine, possibly culminating in a Georgian War-like scenario. Western decision-makers should not underestimate the gravity and significance of what is happening in Ukraine. In many instances they do not, as the G7 statement on the Kerch Strait clash demonstrates. For, in effect, it confines NATO’s eastern frontier to a situation of constant tension.
Wojciech Pawlus is the counter-proliferation coordinator at RUSI.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.