Civilians talk to an Ukrainian serviceman who is returning from the front line in eastern Ukraine, in Kiev, March 11, 2015. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

The following is a guest post from Nikolai Sokova Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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The ongoing debate about the proper Western response to Russian actions in Ukraine is growing increasingly heated. Are sanctions effective? Should they be kept at the same level for the time being or increased? Under which conditions could they be eased? Should the West (or individual countries) provide full-scale military assistance to Ukraine? Moreover, different countries supported sanctions for different reasons with different end results in mind, so as the conflict progresses, tensions will only increase.

There is no lack of arguments in support of various options, but almost all of them share the same drawback: they regard the conflict as one-dimensional and consequently arrive at a black-or-white answer. In fact, there are at least three distinct, but overlapping “games” being played in and around Ukraine. What makes the situation so complicated is that the effectiveness of different types of policies, including sanctions, differs across different “games.” Disregard for the inherent complexity of the crisis will only further exacerbate a debate that already seems increasingly futile.

The three “games” are as follows:

(1) “Victory or Minsk.” This “game” boils down to the choice between continuing the war until Kiev succeeds in restoring full control over separatist regions and negotiating. The former requires a military victory. Today, this is the dominant debate in Kiev – those who insist on continuing the ATO (anti-terrorist operation) are strong, they see the Minsk agreement as a retreat and de facto loss of territory to the aggressor. Russia plays that “game,” too: each time Kiev’s victory seems close, Moscow increases support for separatists demonstrating that it will continue to bring superior force to bear until Kiev agrees to negotiate on the status of the two regions in question, Donetsk and Luhansk.

The United States, Britain, the Baltic states and some other players introduced sanctions to roll back Russian involvement. Proposals about military assistance fall into the same category and are intended to provide Ukraine with the capability to deny Russia its “game.”

Many other E.U. members, however, seem to have a more instrumental use of sanctions as a tool to bring Moscow to the negotiating table. There are reasons to believe that this is not necessary – Russian President Vladimir Putin is already at the table waiting impatiently. Moscow has consistently demonstrated that it would like to wind down the fighting without loss of face (which presumes partial victory – at least on the autonomy for the two separatist regions).

A factor that complicates that “game” is Moscow’s apparent inability to differentiate between motivations of different Western countries and the perception that ALL sanctions are intended to roll it back. This perception increases intransigence and enhances the determination to continue providing military support to separatists.

(2) “The Meaning of Minsk.” This “game” is about the future status of the two separatist regions and has been largely overshadowed by the continued fighting. If, however, negotiations begin in earnest, the degree of autonomy granted to separatist regions will be difficult to agree on. Thus, this “game” has a high chance of failing.

On the other hand, sanctions will likely be particularly effective within that context. It is much easier to concede on seemingly technical details behind closed doors than on big, highly visible issues. If the sanctions card is played properly, the probability of success can be increased.

Both “games” (1) and (2) are further complicated by incomplete control of all capitals over relevant actors: Moscow does not fully control separatists, Kievdoes not fully control volunteer battalions and hardline nationalists, Washington and European capitals do not control their own domestic politics. This increases the likelihood of escalation that nobody wants, but which remains very possible.

In both “games” Ukraine is at a disadvantage because it is the party that will have to continue the ATO with questionable (but unavoidably bloody) consequences or make most concessions. Instead, it might want to attempt changing the entire context:

(a)  It might make sense if Ukrainian leadership shifts focus from the ATO to long neglected political and economic reforms. After all, they were the primary motivation for participants of the Maidan; Ukraine’s Western partners expect the same. This is where the future of Ukraine will be ultimately decided. So far the Poroshenko-Yatsenuyk government has paid only limited attention to the fundamentals of the economic and political system concentrating instead – understandably so – on the ATO. Successful reforms, however, could help improve and consolidate public support while strengthening Ukraine’s hand in dealings with other countries;

(b)  Any negotiations on the status of the two separatist regions by default put Ukraine at a disadvantage. It would make more sense to seriously entertain an enhancement of the status of ALL regions. If greater autonomy is granted to just two regions, it will seem a reward for separatism and is untenable even in the short term while a reasonable degree of decentralization (following, for example, Germany) could help limit demands by Donetsk and Luhansk while negotiations will not look like concessions.

(3) “It’s the 21st century, stupid” (a rephrase of a British Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement). The ongoing conflict is also conceptualized, with good reason, as a Russian challenge to the fundamentals of the international system. This “game” is about bringing Russia back into the fold and presumes a complete reversal of Russian actions, including on Crimea, which is not at stake in the other two “games.” The broad strategic implications of Russian behavior appear to be the primary concern of the United States, Britain and some other countries, which implies that they will probably refrain from lifting sanctions even if “games” (1) or (2) succeed. This, in turn, will likely generate a conflict with members of the E.U., which regard sanctions in the context of more limited goals.

This is also the “game,” in which sanctions are destined to play only a marginal role at best. Full retreat will likely require a change of guard in the Kremlin in the same way that former President Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to power eventually resulted in the end of the Cold War; such change of leadership will hardly involve a “Moscow Maidan” and will be implemented in a more orderly fashion.

One alternative option for “game” (3) was proposed recently by Samuel Charap and Bernard Sucher. They believe that a sustainable resolution should include a broad agreement on regional security (perhaps even broader than that, since Russian complaints about U.S. foreign policy extend to other regions, such as the Middle East and Northern Africa) and that sanctions could be used as a bargaining chip in this context. While such a broad agreement is desirable (and sanctions could, indeed, play a role), it seems unlikely that Western countries (the United States first of all) will agree to a broad redefinition of the principles of the international system.

Conclusions from this overview suggest that sanctions will only work under certain scenarios while in other cases they will probably play only a limited role or even be counterproductive. Successful leveraging of sanctions will require a careful selection of the context in which they are applied and a precise articulation of the end goals – conditions that key Western players may be hard pressed to meet.

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For more recent Russia and Ukraine coverage at The Monkey Cage, see:

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Five fatal flaws in realist analysis of Russia and Ukraine

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Putin’s war of words, decoded

Answering remaining questions about Ukraine’s Maidan protests, one year later