Security and freedom must be prioritized in dispute between Russia and Ukraine

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Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed a joint session of the Duma on Wednesday and warned NATO and the United States not to threaten Moscow’s security. The next day, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced a NATO summit in June to address “Russia’s aggressive actions.” Before tensions escalate to dangerous levels, we need to correctly distinguish between peripheral and core interests. Conflating the two could lead to unnecessary — and dangerous — confrontation.

Russia recently mobilized on its shared border with Ukraine its largest troop concentrations since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, composed of heavy armor, fighter and bomber units, along with missile and rocket artillery units — everything needed to successfully conduct another incursion into Ukraine. On Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the “snap checks” had been successful and the troops would soon be returning to their home stations.

However, Shoigu “ordered that heavy weapons be kept in place about 160 kilometers (100 miles) east of the border for another military exercise later this year.” That is significant because, as civilian satellite imagery has shown, Russia set up a number of hasty new bases near the Ukraine border where large numbers of tanks, planes and rocket launchers are being stored.

Even if Russian troops return to their home bases, the equipment necessary for a cross-border attack remains in place, meaning Russia could later quietly return the troops to the new bases and be ready in a matter of days to launch an attack. That capacity is alarming given Putin’s declaration on Wednesday.

He told members of the Russian Duma that the “organizers of any provocations threatening the fundamental interests of our security will regret their deeds more than they have regretted anything in a long time.” Putin added that he hopes, “no one gets the idea to cross the so-called redline with Russia — and we will be the ones to decide where it runs in every concrete case.” That was likely a not-so-subtle response to President Biden the week before.

During a phone call between the two leaders earlier this month, Biden “made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to Russia’s actions,” and emphasized “the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

While any Russian attempt to seize all or part of Ukraine constitutes a violation of international law, before any decision is made about whether the U.S. should fight to defend Ukraine, which is not a U.S. ally, American policymakers must fully contemplate the ramifications of fighting Russia.

In a new Defense Priorities explainer, Dan DePetris persuasively argued that avoiding “hostilities — and potentially nuclear war (with Russia) — remains the highest U.S. national security priority.” America is, and by all rights should be, strongly opposed to any Russian attempt to use force to capture any part of Ukrainian territory.

We should not hesitate to bring all the diplomatic and economic pressure to bear on Moscow should Putin resort to violence. What we should not do, however, is to risk fighting a war with Russia that would unquestionably cause serious harm to our Armed Forces and could result in a nuclear exchange.

While Ukrainian security is important to us, border security to Russia is a matter of existential importance. Moscow has never been shy about signaling its willingness to use force to keep the NATO alliance off its doorstep. We should also not be shy about demonstrating our willingness to defend our vital national interests, but risking war on issues of peripheral importance does not fall within these interests.

Avoiding war and preserving American security, however, will not be accomplished by limiting our engagement with Russia solely to adversarial exchanges. Treating Moscow exclusively as a pariah only makes advancing U.S. interests more difficult than necessary.

Whether we like it or not, Russia is a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council and the only nation on earth with enough nuclear weapons to annihilate our country. It is therefore in our interests to find at least select areas where we can work constructively to resolve disputes. If we want to be able to effectively influence Russia to take actions beneficial to our needs, it is necessary to have a relationship in which constructive engagement exists.

Tensions are high on the border between Russia and Ukraine and between NATO and Russia. Washington should do all it can, in coordination with our European partners and allies, to resolve the tensions to maintain peace in Europe. But the highest priority for the United States is to avoid a costly war that could spiral into a nuclear exchange. Preserving American power and freedom should never be put at risk over Ukraine.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

Tags international affairs Joe Biden NATO nuclear powers Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Security Ukraine UN Security Council Vladimir Putin

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