By David L. Phillips
Humanitarian and security concerns are urgent priorities, as Russia tightens the noose on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, killing thousands and causing widespread displacement. As violence escalates, President Volodymyr Zelensky will eventually have to consider leaving the country and establishing a government in exile to carry on an insurgency against Russian occupation.
Anticipating the next phase of conflict must not distract from immediate requirements. Heroic Ukrainians need weapons to defend themselves.
The US has been leading efforts to equip the Ukrainian armed forces. Other NATO members are also doing their part. Germany’s decision to send 1,000 javelin anti-tank missiles and 500 stinger surface-to-air missiles is a dramatic reversal in German policy since the Second World War. Overland delivery of weapons should be accelerated before conditions worsen and borders close, making surface transport impossible.
The displacement crisis is also an urgent priority. More than 1.5 million refugees have fled the country, and another million are moving within Ukraine. The scene of women and children desperately trying to board a train out of the country to Lviv is heart-wrenching. US officials anticipate that Russia’s terror tactics may displace 4-5 million people.
The resistance of Ukrainians is not only inspiring. It also serves a strategic objective. A protracted Ukrainian insurgency could affect Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus, giving time for sanctions to take their toll. It could also make space for renewed diplomatic efforts. The more time it takes, the more weapons can be delivered into Ukrainian hands and the more pain inflicted on Russian aggressors.
Despite the heroic defense by Ukrainians, there is a sense of inevitability to Russia’s relentless assault. Ukraine’s cities will eventually be turned into rubble and succumb. Russia is determined to arrest local leaders and install a pliant military government.
Mr. Zelensky should hang on for as long as possible, and the US should support Ukrainian defenders to the utmost extent. As Russian troops close in, however, Mr. Zelensky should consider getting out of harm’s way. The government-in-exile could be established in Poland, Romania, or the Baltic States, where it would be protected by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter, which states: “An attack on one is an attack on all.”
The government-in-exile will need both protection and financing for its diplomacy and operations. Most of Ukraine’s 44 million citizens will remain in Ukraine and join the insurgency. They will need intelligence and lethal equipment to take on the Russians.
France’s Economy Minister said the goal of economic sanctions was to “collapse Russia’s economy.” NATO leaders should be similarly forthcoming. Destabilizing Russia and affecting regime change should be declared as NATO’s objective. Though naysayers warn that endorsing regime change could lead to Russian reprisals, it is hard to envision more destructive actions on Russia’s part.
Lessons from Iraq and other US-led efforts to overthrow a government have taught that the push to remove Mr. Putin must come from within. So far, more than 10,000 people have been detained across the country. These Russians have shown tremendous courage, facing down riot police and jail sentences. Russians protesting the war oppose aggression committed in their name. They are also reacting to rumors of forced conscription.
Taking down Mr. Putin will require severing support from the oligarchs, wealthy Russian businessmen who amassed huge fortunes during post-Soviet privatization. US money-laundering experts should be unrelenting in pursuing their ill-gotten gains, confiscating yachts, private jets, and high-end real estate in London and New York. Seized overseas assets could be monetized to finance refugee relief.
More diplomatic pressure is also needed. Last week, 141 countries voted in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s aggression. The vote was a strong repudiation of Putin’s unwarranted and illegal attack on Ukraine.
Thirty-nine countries have called on the International Criminal Court to investigate Mr. Putin for violations of international humanitarian law. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that Russia uses banned munitions such as cluster bombs and so-called vacuum bombs that suck oxygen from the air, triggering a huge explosion with devastating effects. Indiscriminate bombing of schools and hospitals is a war crime.
Some Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, have already been sanctioned. Issuing an Interpol red bulletin would establish the legal basis for arresting him and other Putin cronies.
Can Mr. Zelensky achieve more as a martyr or by staying alive and bearing witness to Russia’s crimes? The Ukraine conflict will go on for years. The insurgency needs leadership, which Mr. Zelensky provides.
Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University. He served as a Senior Advisor to the UN Secretariat and as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations