How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
For more than five years, Russian forces and their proxies have waged a bloody war against Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The conflict has claimed more than 13,000 lives, driven almost two million people from their homes, and caused immense material damage. France and Germany have together sought to broker peace but failed to produce a durable cease-fire—let alone a political settlement.
On December 9, French President Emmanuel Macron will host a summit with his Ukrainian, Russian, and German counterparts aimed at bringing the conflict to an end. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appears committed to making peace, while Moscow appears committed to sustaining the war. Whether the summit will yield any progress toward closing that gap remains in doubt.
If European efforts continue to falter, the United States should take a more active role in the peacemaking process, working with European countries to make Russia’s military engagement in Ukraine more costly and a settlement more attractive. Moreover, Washington should set forth its own peace plan—one that builds on previous diplomatic efforts but includes a UN-authorized peacekeeping mission and an interim international administration in Donbas.
Moscow’s primary objective in Ukraine is to bring the former Soviet republic back into its orbit. In February 2014, pro-European protesters ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who had enjoyed the Kremlin’s backing. Russian special forces responded by seizing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Regional authorities there organized a hasty and illegitimate referendum to join Russia, and in March 2014, Russia formally annexed Crimea—a move that most of the world denounced.
The following month, fighting broke out in Donbas, a separate region in eastern Ukraine that borders Russia. So-called “separatists”—with the help of Russian leadership, funding, weapons, ammunition, and, in some cases, regular Russian military units—declared “people’s republics” in the provinces, known as oblasts, of Donetsk and Luhansk. Unlike in Crimea, where Ukrainian military units remained garrisoned, in Donbas the Ukrainian military fought back. By August 2014, Ukrainian forces had retaken most of the region from the “separatists,” prompting the Russian army to intervene directly to forestall defeat. In September of that year, in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, both sides agreed to a cease-fire, but it didn’t hold.
Five months later, in February 2015, France and Germany brokered a new framework for a political settlement between Russia and Ukraine. The Minsk II agreement, as it was dubbed, was supposed to facilitate a sustained cease-fire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the line of contact between the two sides, and, eventually, prisoner swaps and local elections, among other measures, to restore normalcy. The agreement succeeded in stabilizing the line of contact, but the cease-fire never fully took hold and not all heavy weapons were withdrawn. Most observers primarily blamed Russian and Russian proxy forces.
Ultimately, the conflict in Donbas has undercut the Kremlin’s aim of turning Ukraine into a client state.
Ultimately, the conflict in Donbas has undercut the Kremlin’s aim of turning Ukraine into a client state. Five-plus years of conflict have forged a strong sense of national identity in Ukraine and strengthened the desire of many Ukrainians to integrate fully into Europe. For the first time since Ukraine regained independence in 1991, polls show that a plurality, and sometimes even a majority, of Ukrainians favor joining NATO.
With Kyiv now unlikely to return to Moscow’s orbit, the Kremlin appears to be pursuing a more limited secondary goal: to pressure, distract, and destabilize the Ukrainian government so that it cannot successfully tackle its reform priorities. From Russia’s point of view, a weak and distracted Ukrainian government is better than a stable, democratic, and successful one that fully embraces Europe. A simmering conflict in Donbas advances the Kremlin’s goal of disruption.
Moscow has incurred significant costs in pursuit of this aim. The West moved to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014—for example, by suspending the G-8 and meeting without Russia, as the G-7. The United States and the European Union have also imposed a range of visa and economic sanctions against Moscow and against individual Russian officials and businesspeople. Those sanctions have cost the Russian economy an estimated one percent of annual GDP, a not insignificant share for an economy that has grown roughly 1.5 percent annually in recent years. To date, the Kremlin appears to believe that the benefits of sustaining the conflict in Donbas still exceed the costs. Altering Russia’s cost-benefit analysis is the key to changing its behavior—and the United States and Europe have the ability to do so.
Washington should not attempt to displace the diplomatic efforts of Berlin and Paris, which have sustained a common European Union policy of support for Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. But it should work with European capitals to ratchet up pressure on Moscow: for example, if Russia continues to resist a mutually acceptable settlement, Western countries can expand the visa sanctions to include the spouses and other family members of those on the current list. In addition, the United States and Europe can impose harsher sanctions on Russian industry and discourage the holding of Russian sovereign debt. Finally, the United States and certain NATO members can plan to enhance their military assistance to Ukraine in the event that peace fails. Russia should know that it will pay a heavy price if it continues to resist a settlement in Donbas.
Having laid this groundwork, the United States should propose a path to peace that would retain the essential features of the 2015 Minsk II agreement. But the new proposal should go farther, introducing a UN-authorized peacekeeping force and an interim international administration to manage the transition back to full Ukrainian sovereignty in Donbas. The blue helmets and the interim administration would provide political cover for Russia’s withdrawal, while the international presence, both military and civilian, would restore the confidence of the local population.
In accordance with Minsk II, the first step would be a sustained cease-fire, accompanied by the verified withdrawal of heavy weapons from the line of contact. (Absent a firmly established cease-fire, the other elements of the initiative will be impossible.) After that, Russian and Russian proxy forces would withdraw from Donbas while a U.N. peacekeeping force deployed to the region in stages, ultimately taking control of the Ukrainian-Russian border.
The peacekeeping force, whose troops would not be drawn from NATO members or Russia, would plan to remain for 12 to 24 months, although it could withdraw earlier if conditions allowed. At that point, Ukraine would assume full sovereignty over Donbas. An interim police force comprising Ukrainian national police, local Donbas police, and international police elements might assist the peacekeeping force.
Starting at the same time as the peacekeeping operation, the interim international administration—perhaps organized and staffed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—would restore basic governance and manage the transition back to Ukrainian rule. The interim administration would oversee detainee releases and swaps and organize local elections. To make the transition complete, the legislature in Kyiv would have to devolve some powers to local governments in all oblasts and award special status to the two Donbas oblasts, Donetsk and Luhansk. National-level policies—foreign, defense, macroeconomic, and financial, among others—would remain Kyiv’s responsibility.
For this peace process to succeed, the United States will need not only to shift the Kremlin’s calculus on Donbas but to shore up Zelensky’s position, as well.
Donbas will need economic assistance to recover from the war. To that end, the U.S. plan would include a fund, under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, with contributions also from the World Bank, the United States, and other countries, such as Canada, to assist the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Donbas.
Even if Ukraine could be promised a full political and economic recovery in Donbas, its leaders will surely still seek a more lasting guarantee of the country’s security. The United States, Ukraine, Russia, Germany, France, and perhaps others should open a joint diplomatic dialogue on European security issues as the peace process unfolds. These discussions would take up the matter of Ukraine’s relationship with—and possible future membership in—NATO, starting from a position of “Not now, but not never.” Such a starting point reflects the fact that there is currently no consensus within NATO on whether Ukraine should join the alliance, but it leaves the possibility open. In such a dialogue, Russia could articulate its security concerns, even while it is forced to recognize those of Ukraine.
With each step forward in this peace process, Western countries would gradually lift the related visa and economic sanctions on Russia, with a major relaxation of sanctions coming once Russian and Russian proxy forces vacate Donbas. The West would also move to restore other ties with Russia that have been severed or strained since 2014, including the G-8.
For this peace process to succeed, the United States will need not only to shift the Kremlin’s calculus on Donbas but to shore up Zelensky’s position, as well. Segments of the Ukrainian public opposed the Minsk II agreement and are likely to object to granting Donbas special status. Zelensky’s early preparations for the December 9 summit in Paris, including reaffirming Kyiv’s commitment to Minsk II, have already engendered protests. He will have to make the difficult case to his people that concessions in Donbas are the necessary price for restoring Ukrainian sovereignty.
A bold diplomatic gambit from the United States is far from guaranteed to succeed. But if it does, it would advance U.S. interests vis-à-vis Ukraine and Russia. An end to the conflict in Donbas would allow Kyiv to focus on reforms that would contribute to European stability and security. Peace would also improve the battered U.S.-Russian relationship. The alternative—continuing conflict in Donbas, and persistent tensions between the United States and Russia—hardly seems preferable.