BRUSSELS – Memories of the twentieth century’s great conflicts, from 1930s pacifism to Cold War antagonism, are stirring again, motivating both Russia and the West in one of the gravest threats to global order and European stability in the past 25 years. Indeed, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine involves nuclear-armed powers whose collective military spending accounts for nearly two-thirds of the global total. Yet history need not repeat itself, so long as the West takes steps to avoid being trapped by any sudden escalation.
Russia’s military intervention in eastern Ukraine has placed it in breach of international law and in violation of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, by which Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal in exchange for a guarantee of its borders by Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, later followed by China and France. Ignoring international law, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been sending an unvarnished message that only force matters.
Russia may be winning militarily and tactically in Ukraine, but its short-term success masks its underlying weakness. The combination of low energy prices and Western sanctions will make it difficult for Russia to maintain its high level of military spending over time. Indeed, Russia is even more economically and financially brittle than its Soviet forerunner; with an undiversified economy, and dependent on Western banks and technology, Russia cannot simply ignore what it does not control.
Given this, the United Nations Security Council’s three Western permanent members (France, UK, and the US), along with Germany and the European Union, need to appoint a single senior envoy to engage continuously and quietly with Ukraine, NATO and Putin. The current “Normandy format” (Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France) clearly is not enough.