Using confidence-building measures in the Ukrainian crisis

Last week, a small back-page article in the New York Times reported that the President of Ukraine had come to believe that while he wanted Ukraine to join NATO, it might just be a dream, suggesting a willingness to give up membership . Then came another bit of news that might offer some help: a report that Vladimir Putin suggested using confidence-building measures – confidence-building measures – to solve problems with NATO rather than fight for a global agreement that seems out of reach.

CBMs are worth exploring. The underlying idea is that parties to a conflict take small but significant steps, reciprocally, to distance themselves from a potential battlefield. Reducing tensions, preventing the escalation of hostilities and building mutual trust in each party’s motives are the immediate objectives. There can be bipartite or multiparty CBMs. A confidence-building measures agreement does not resolve a conflict, but it lays the foundations for a positive dynamic that could ultimately lead to a settlement. Of course, every step of the way offers the possibility of failure, intentional or accidental. But that’s also the beauty of CBMs: because each step is small, any flaw can be rectified or, if not, replaced with something more practical.

The lesson here is that although MDCs are relatively easy to design, accepting and implementing them is no small feat.

MDCs depend to some extent on trust. Each party hopes that the other party will take a corresponding step back. As President Reagan once said when speaking of arms control agreements with Russia, however, “trust, but verify.” Thus, confidence-building measures are always accompanied by elements of verification, such as international on-site inspectors, monitoring technologies and notification procedures. The MDCs have been effective in European troop deployments, the nuclear deal with Iran and the Sino-Indian border dispute. And they could work in the current crisis over Ukraine.

What could CBMs look like in the crisis? A common CBM is monitoring troop deployments to prevent surprise attacks or misperceptions of intent. Another is a ceasefire in border areas. Third, a withdrawal or reduction of forces from the Ukrainian border. A fourth step could be the withdrawal of threatening weapons, such as US missiles from Poland and Russian missiles from their own territory. Alternatively, a CBM would simply halt additional weapon deployments. There are also all sorts of economic MDCs that could be staged, such as the phasing out of US and EU sanctions and Russian commitments to keep natural gas flowing to Germany and beyond (the Nord Stream 2 project) . It is very important that CBMs are taken into account when it comes to cyberattacks. Finally, MDCs also have non-military applications, such as social and cultural exchange.

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Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Moscow, writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that Biden, “together with allies and partners, . . . should seize the diplomatic offensive and retaliate with a big global bargain to strengthen European security. Call it “Helsinki 2.0”.

This idea makes sense but in the current circumstances seems premature and, because it is so ambitious, more likely to fail than MDCs. Admittedly, the CBMs only deal tangentially with the main problem of the current crisis: security in Central Europe. They respond neither to Russian demands for NATO withdrawal nor to NATO demands for Russian withdrawal.

In short, they are not establishing a new European security order, as Putin and Amb demanded. McFaul pleads. But what confidence-building measures could accomplish is a series of substantial, verifiable steps that reduce tension and, externally, start a confidence-building process. And now we need a few small steps.

However, even small temporary measures may not alleviate the Ukrainian crisis. NATO seems opposed to any move suggesting a weakening of its commitment to the defense of Ukraine. It is also unclear which confidence-building measures favor Putin.

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We have examples of confidence-building measures being rejected even when they seem so logical to prevent violent conflict. China-Taiwan tensions have not led to an agreement on confidence-building measures because China first demands that Taiwan affirm the “One China” principle. The lesson here is that although MDCs are relatively easy to design, accepting and implementing them is no small feat. Let’s hope that President Zelensky in Ukraine gives up on his dream and that Putin in Moscow accepts the confidence-building measures. Because if they don’t, we will have war.

Mel Gurtov
voice of peace

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