Make Ending the Conflict in Ukraine Priority Number One

by Daniel Pitcairn

The U.S. and its European allies must recognize that the conflict in and of itself serves Putin’s interests. The West should focus on ending the conflict now, even if under less than ideal circumstances.

In devising their strategy to end the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, U.S. and European policymakers have failed to internalize the fact that the conflict in and of itself serves Moscow’s interests. The West has largely decided to use its influence to help settle the conflict on terms favorable to Kiev by heaping pressure on Russia through increasingly biting sanctions and the threat of providing lethal aid to Ukrainian government forces (President Obama recently signed a bill authorizing further sanctions and lethal aid). But this has not had the desired effect. Russia has been politically isolated and nudged into economic recession by the West, but the conflict is far from over and Putin has only hardened his anti-Western stance. Instead the U.S. and Europe should prioritize settling the conflict as soon as possible even if doing so yields short-term setbacks.

The ongoing clashes in the Donbas region of Ukraine serve President Putin’s interests in two main ways. First, it keeps Kiev weak and provides Russia significant leverage over Ukraine, which Putin deems essential for his prized project – the Eurasian Union. Second, and much less obvious to the casual observer, the continuing conflict bolsters Putin’s self-fulfilling prophecy that the U.S.-led international system is broken. In his Valdai Club speech from October 2014, Putin revealed this as a foundational concept of his foreign policy vision. He argued, “instead of settling conflicts [the largely unipolar system] leads to their escalation, instead of sovereign and stable states, we see the growing spread of chaos.” Per Putin’s vision, unilateral actions taken by the U.S. and its allies have consistently undermined international order (see the bombing of Serbia in 1999, the Iraq War, or the air campaign in Libya). The ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the West’s inability to resolve it are just further evidence of the current system’s ineptitude. The fix, in Putin’s mind, is for great regional powers (like Russia) to establish a new supposedly more equitable and multipolar system.

By fixating on punishing Russia and demanding an end to the crisis on terms unacceptable to Moscow, the West has only helped prolong the conflict and thereby played into Putin’s narrative. Policymakers in the U.S. and Europe should abort this shortsighted policy and play the long game. Doing what is necessary to end the conflict now will require concessions to Russia, including setting aside the annexation of Crimea for now, decentralizing governance in Ukraine, and an agreement for Ukraine not to join NATO for a period of time (see the August 2014 Boisto Agenda influential Americans and Russians agreed to in a session of Track II diplomacy as an example of a compromise settlement), but it will also allow Ukraine and the West to achieve their larger, longer term objectives.

For Ukraine, a definitive end to the conflict, however disadvantageous the terms of settlement appear in the short term, will allow Kiev to finally focus on the economic development and cleanse of political corruption it so desperately needs to become a stable, democratic country. Succeeding in doing so, Ukraine will find itself much less dependent on Russia and in a much better position to define its own future.

For the West, beyond facilitating the development of an ally, ending the conflict in Ukraine now is necessary to restoring legitimacy to the current international system and combatting Putin’s efforts to undermine it. Western policymakers should not underestimate the extent to which the ongoing conflict bolsters Putin’s anti-Western narrative.

To do what is best both for the international system it created and Ukraine, the West should push for an immediate end to the conflict, accepting considered concessions as necessary. U.S. and European policymakers must not miss the forest for the trees.