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Hudson: Ukraine is slipping into a frozen conflict

People walk past a destroyed building in the town of Vuhlehirsk, north-east from Donetsk, March 8, 2015

It does look like Ukraine is slipping into a frozen conflict that is going to remain for a very long time, especially as views seem to vary so much among pro Russian separatists and the central power in Kiev, said John Hudson, an analyist with the “Foreign Policy” magazine.

He told Radio Free Europe that a solution may be to create a sort of neutral, buffer zone in Ukraine and make an ironclad promise to Moscow that Ukraine will never become part of NATO

“Washington has resisted offering this option, because it does not want to bar any country, potentially joining NATO. This decision should be up to those countries”, said Hudson.

RFE: Is the current ceasefire sustainable, given the fact that the previous one was severely breached. The additional problem is conflicting political goals of the both sides.

Hudson: The Minsk 2 agreement looks incredibly fragile right now. The odds it’s going to be a durable ceasefire seem unlikely. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been working closely with Berlin. There are hopes that it’s not going to have to impose additional sanctions or to send defensive weapons to the Ukrainians. But, the president is largely pushing back against almost the entire national security, foreign policy community in Washington – think tanks, members of the Congress, State department’s officials, defense departments’ officials – who are all pushing for the US to arm Kiev.

Barack Obama and Angela Merkel seem that both they see eye to eye that the escalation would not be to the benefit of their relations with Russia, but also it would not benefit the Ukrainians because of fears Russia could escalate and counter escalate any sorts of weapons’ transfer to the extent that it would do a great damage to Ukraine.

RFE: Will the US eventually send lethal weapons to Ukraine? If so, may it help the Ukrainian forces in an attempt to contain the Russian troops, or the Kremlin would use it as a pretext in spreading conflicts to other areas, first of all to secure a land corridor to Crimea.

Hudson: It seems impossible to know what would be an effect. This is why people are so divided on the issue. If we were armed the Ukrainian forces would they be able to defeat the rebels and would Moscow just back off.

RFE: Or Moscow would use it as a trigger to strengthen its presence there?

Hudson: It may feed into the Moscow line that this is the imperial aggression of the US and the West to try to double down. The Kremlin line has already been this is the NATO conspiracy, NATO has been entrenching its power right on Russian borders. Many of these accusations are utterly false but if the US were to step up military efforts to support Kiev, it would certainly play into this sort of fictional narratives that Moscow pushes for.

RFE: What’s a Moscow’s intent? Is the priority that pro Russian rebels solidify their positions in regions, which they have already controlled – first of all Luhansk and Donetsk – in order to extract political concessions, like the federalization of Ukraine, which is Kiev adamantly opposed to. Or, they could spread operations encompassing even Odessa?

Hudson: I don’t know what the Russian intents are. It’s certainly familiar to the Georgia playbook in attempt to destabilize the country in order to make it weak and keep it down. Russia hasn’t certainly played a helpful role in the separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Was Russia simply horrified at Janukovich departure and wants to make Ukraine weak and, therefore, supports dissents within Ukraine? Or, is it the part of a larger ambition to compound Russian control near its borders? I don’t know answers.

RFE: What measures the West has at its disposal to force Russia into compliance, except ratcheting up sanctions and sending lethal weapons to Kiev?

Hudson: There seems to be three options Washington has. One is an increased military support to Ukraine. The Obama administration for long time said that there is no a military solution. So, he is opposed even to considering sending lethal weapons to Ukraine. He has wavered on that position saying now he has not made decision yet but it has not ruled it out. A second option is increased sanctions and it’s continuing to threaten to increase sanctions, although it would be difficult to get Europeans on board, because they are reluctant to support that, especially Germans.

Third options is to create a sort of neutral, buffer zone in Ukraine and make an ironclad promise to Moscow that Ukraine will never become part of NATO. Washington has resisted offering this option, because it does not want to bar any country, potentially joining NATO. This decision should be up to those countries.Of course, the US does play a huge role in accepting countries in NATO. Therefore, despite a belief in the US administration that there must be a diplomatic solution, there are still diplomatic options, which Washington is not willing to consider at this point.

RFE: As you just mentioned, the EU is not so enthusiastic, first of all Germany, to lend its support for ratcheting up sanctions against Russia. For that reason, some pundits claim that the US derails, to certain extent, the recent German-French peace initiative, because from the Washington’s stand point it would amount to admitting the defeat to Putin.

Hudson: I think there is a serious harmony between president Obama and chancellor Merkel in their view of the Ukrainian crises. However, there is a huge disconnect between the mainstream foreign policy establishment in Washington and Europe. Many hawks in the Congress – even the Democrats – do not understand why Europeans keep skidding in the way of it, that it’s more important for them than for anyone else and they should be concerned by Russia’s aggression.

RFE: You mentioned third option – Ukraine as a neutral, buffer zone. Is it realistic at this stage, or it would be feasible only after the cycles of bloody violence, which would eventually end when one or another side is to be military defeated.

Hudson: The West is not ready to agreeing on it at this stage. It does seem that a type of diplomatic agreement with the West and Russia agreeing on Ukraine as a neutral, buffer zone – would be possible only if there substantially more casualties, higher death toll, which will prepare both sides to make such agreement.

RFE: The primary goal of the Western sanctions is to convince Putin to back off, and withdraws its support to rebels in Eastern Ukraine. However, he does not seem impressed by these punitive measures. Meanwhile, as the “Foreign Policy” recently published, Putin has succeeded in solidifying his positon in the so-called “Near Abroad”, i.e. in the former Soviet Union – in Armenia, Azerbaijan and even in Georgia, whose two breakaway provinces (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) are tightly controlled by the Russian military. Namely, the West has not delivered something tangible on its promises to Georgia. For that reason, the new authorities in Tbilisi have been desperately trying to reduce tensions in relations with Moscow, which reached its historic low during the reign of pro Western president Mikhail Saaksahvili.

Hudson: Yes, the point is the Russia is having some successes in expanding its influence even in the countries with strong Western approach like Georgia. My colleague, who wrote the article, was cautioning the US to not take Georgia’s Western position for granted. Although Georgia is historically pro Western oriented, this line which is Russia pushing, a sort of Christian nationalism, is catching on. Are the international sanctions efforts going to convince Russia to change its mind? I’m pretty skeptical it would have an impact.

There is not a lot of evidence that sanctions play a huge role in changing the way sovereign actors behave, especially when it comes to crucial national security issues. Russia has always jealously protected its right to make decisions in its “Near Abroad”, despite the opposition from the US or anyone else.

RFE: Is it just an imperial sentiment in Russia, as a great power throughout history, or this staunch position is motivated by fear, which also harkemomg back to history, of being encircled.Starting with the Mongols’ invasion from the East in the middle ages, then the Swedish encroachment from the North, the very powerful Polish kingdom from the West, and later on Napoleon and Hitler’s intrusion who swept right across Ukraine on their way to Russia? Does the fear of the dismemberment of Russia itself following the collapse of Soviet Union, harden the Kremlin’s position? Finally, is Putin scared by (of) a would be attempted regime change?

Hudson: The way the people view Russia’s actions really seems to inform how a solutionlooks like. On one end, there are people who think this is a Hitler like moment – a 19 century expansionist behavior that Russia is engaging and it needs to be confronted in the same way as Hitler never was confronted, i.e. the appeasement will never be a solution. This is positon of the people in a hawkish camp and even in a centrist one. At the same time, in the US there is left wing academic prospective which sees Russia, as you described, as fearful because the West is coming close to its border and encircling it. This prospective is more sympathetic to the argument that NATO expansion in the 1990s was aggressive, it created almost permanent sense of distrust between Russia and the West. Therefore, the West should be more accommodating to Russia’s real grievances about NATO expansion. Of course, many people think it’s flawed mindset because the conflict in Ukraine began over the Association Agreement with the EU rather than NATO expansion.

RFE: However, Russia apparently perceived the Association Agreement at that time just as a first step on Ukraine’s road to NATO.

Hudson: Yes.

RFE: US secretary John Kerry said recently that some Balkan countries are, among others, on the firing line in relations between Washington and Moscow. In which way Russia could preserve its impact in this region, given the fact it recently abandoned the project South Stream, which would be a powerful leverage for projecting its influence in the Balkans?

Hudson: Politically a battle of ideas is taking place and it will continue. For example, I interpret Putin’s statements on the “Near Abroad” as his desire to have a type of “Monroe doctrine” for Russia. Historically, the Monroe doctrine was obviously Washington’s policy of asserting its regional dominance in the Western hemisphere. Russia seeks the same. It is a thinly vailed threat to the countries in the region.

RFE: Is there danger that the Ukrainian crises could easily spiral out of control and the conflict on massive scale may erupt. Frequent violations of airspace – what Russia and the West mutually accused of each other, sending military advisors on the spot – it’s a stark reminder on the situation on the eve of World War One. None major powers, at first glance, wanted a global war, but all their actions led to it.

Hudson: Yes, speaking in military terms, the risk of sliding into a more full scale war seems to be a concern that both the Obama administration and its strongest European allies are extremely concerned with trying to prevent it. At same time, I think that there are domestic lobbies in Europe that would like to stave off the potential of increased conflict. So, I think there is less risk of a full scale escalation due to concerns of people who are in power – Obama and Merkel. However, if we see the leadership change it could have a big effect. But for the next two years under Obama presidency does seem there will be caution against further escalation. However, whether this caution welcome a further Russian aggression that is the big question which is nobody able to answer. There is a sort of foreign policy establishment consensus in Washington that arming Ukraine is extremely important because Putin only understands power, and if we not project power we are not going to stop him. Obama and Merkel do not subscribe to that view at this point.

RFE: Many predict that, even if the ceasefire is to be maintained for the time being, the crisis will continue and perhaps evolve into a frozen conflict, the most formidable one in the world, because the parties involved remain at the loggerhead with regard to a political solution for the status of eastern Ukraine.

Hudson: Unfortunately, it does look like Ukraine is slipping into a frozen conflict that is going to remain for a very long time, especially as views seem to vary so much among pro Russian separatists and the central power in Kiev. I do not see the situation is to be improved anytime soon. Is it going to be the worst frozen conflict in the world, I do not know because there are many of them. For example, the Israeli-Palestine issue is very frustrating from the US prospective because it divides a lot of its allies.