15 Jun 2016

Beyond sanctions: responding to the Ukraine-Russia conflict

Economically, sanctions are having an impact.

Steven Pifer, who spent 25 years with the US State department and served as ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, delivered a distinguished lecture at the WTI on 14 June on the West’s response to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

The talk by Pifer, who is now Director of Arms Control and the Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, was hosted jointly with the US Embassy, Bern. It reviewed the steps taken by the West and further measures that Europe and the United States should consider.

Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 - following the February Maidan revolution and ousting of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich - and subsequent support for armed separatism in eastern Ukraine pose a fundamental challenge to the European security order. The European Union and United States have responded with enhanced support for Ukraine as well as political and economic sanctions against Russia. In parallel, NATO has moved to bolster its deterrence and defence posture in its east.

The former ambassador began by outlining the twin challenges currently facing Ukraine: dealing with Russian aggression in the east, and its ongoing economic reform. Although Ukraine has implemented reforms in the past few years, it still needs to tackle endemic corruption and reform its legal system.

Whereas Kyiv has the primary responsibility for dealing with these issues, it would be in the West’s interests to help, he said.

What happens next

Considering how the conflict will evolve, Pifer outlined several scenarios. The least likely, he argued, was the outbreak of peace with the implementation of the Minsk II agreement to resolve the ongoing conflict in the eastern Donbass region.

It was also unlikely there would be a resumption of major fighting as Ukraine realises it cannot beat the Russian army, and the Russians fear more casualties and sanctions.

The likeliest scenario was a “frozen conflict” with the ceasefire remaining fragile and negotiations failing to produce results.

In terms of policy the West should be seeking to bolster Ukraine, Pifer argued, pushing the government to carry out more reform and stamp out corruption. As an incentive it could provide more assistance - both financial and military.

The US and EU should also seek to restrain Russia through a coordinated strategy. Sanctions on Russia affecting the financial, high-tech and energy sectors are not just to punish Moscow for its actions in eastern Ukraine but also to persuade it to change its policy. “Economically, sanctions are having an impact,” he said, “they need to stay in place.”

The key to lifting these sanctions would be Russia’s full implementation of Minsk II.

Restraining Russia also involved ensuring NATO had the right tools in place, Pifer said.