Ukraine and Russia: NATO should clarify its deterrent approach, while it still can

The recent deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops to Ukraine’s border, along with an array of equipment necessary for an invasion, fundamentally threatened Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence. Although Russia reportedly has returned the troops to their barracks, the equipment remains forward-based as prepositioned stocks, available on short notice should Moscow decide to invade at some future time. 

Given this potential for a swift Russian fait accompli invasion, as well as the West’s interest in a stable, independent Ukraine, the United States and its NATO allies should make its response to a Russian invasion crystal clear to Moscow. Ambiguity, although sometimes useful in national security, is counterproductive in this situation. Instead, NATO can use the upcoming June summit to convey the kinds of steps Western countries could take following any incursion into Ukraine, such as cutting off Russian access to international finance, pulling the plug on Russian energy supplies, and opening the spigot on Western arms transfers to Ukraine.

Ukraine is not a NATO ally, despite the alliance’s ill-conceived promise of eventual membership in 2008. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence are important to the United States and its European allies for at least three reasons. First, Ukraine’s dismemberment or its political implosion because of Russian military action would completely undo the tenuous regional stability achieved in the past couple of years, thanks in large part to a rejuvenated U.S. and allied commitment to deterrence in Eastern Europe. Undoubtedly, another Russian invasion would throw the region into instability and result in still more — not less — requirements for U.S., German, British and French military forces in Central and Eastern Europe.

Second, a Russian invasion could result in waves of refugees fleeing Ukraine, creating social, economic and even political upheaval elsewhere in Europe. Given the terrain along Ukraine’s western and southern borders, those refugees probably would head to Poland, a challenge made more difficult by Poland’s COVID-19 lockdown measures and its slow rate of vaccination.  Ukrainian refugees probably also would flee to other favored destinations beyond Poland, especially Germany and Italy.

Third, yet another violation of international norms and law at the hands of Russia would compel the United States to devote more energy, attention and resources to European security matters, possibly at the expense of the Indo-Pacific. Europe remains vital to American national security, regardless of what Russia does, and of course the American national security enterprise can walk and chew gum at the same time. However, as Washington increasingly focuses on China, Russian adventurism in Eastern Europe creates an unwelcome distraction.

What are the United States and its allies to do? Making it clear to Moscow what’s at risk is necessary to avoid miscalculation and eliminate ambiguity, while deterrence is still a viable policy choice and before a Russian military operation is unleashed that leaves the West with fewer options. In about seven weeks, NATO allies will gather for their first summit of the Biden presidency, presenting a perfect opportunity to clarify potential Western responses to any further Russian military action against Ukraine. Of course, there’s no guarantee that Russia can be deterred now or in the future, but speaking with unity and clarity at the NATO summit might preclude the most catastrophic of outcomes. 

The menu of potential Western responses should focus first on Russia’s center of gravity — the economy that fuels its military operations and modernization — and secondarily on Russia’s ability to consolidate and maintain any gains from an expansion of its presence in Ukraine.  Some might argue economic matters are outside NATO’s purview, but Article 2 of its founding treaty calls on allies to collaborate more closely in the economic realm, which is an increasingly important vector for Russian (and Chinese) influence and other hybrid activities in Europe.

With regard to Russia’s economy, two areas in particular are ripe targets. The first is the financial sector. The U.S. and its allies should make clear that they likely would ban Western institutions’ trading of existing Russian debt in secondary markets and end Russian banks’ access to the financial messaging system used for most international money transfers. If implemented, these steps would have a chilling effect on the Russian economy by significantly increasing Moscow’s borrowing costs, weakening the ruble, and reducing liquidity in the Russian economy.

Second, the West should signal its willingness to close the taps on Russian fossil fuels. Such a move would demand sacrifice by both Washington and its European allies. On this side of the Atlantic, U.S. officials should reduce America’s recently growing reliance on Russian crude oil, which spiked last year as oil imports from Venezuela plummeted. However, given the global nature of the oil market, simply prohibiting the importation of Russian crude isn’t enough.  Instead, the West could announce its willingness to tap strategic petroleum reserves and its intent to get other major oil producers to expand production. 

Meanwhile, Germany would need to put the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project on ice, something Chancellor Angela Merkel has been loath to do. Moscow values consistent, predictable demand for its energy exports, though, since fees from oil and gas account for roughly 40 percent of Russia’s government revenues. More broadly, reducing Russian fossil fuel revenues would dramatically impact the Russian economy, which remains dependent on resource extraction.

Finally, NATO should be clear that another invasion of Ukraine could unleash Western arms transfers to Kyiv, making any attempted occupation painful for Russian troops. Since 2014, the United States has committed more than $2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, including a recently announced package of $125 million for patrol boats, counter-artillery radars, and other equipment. However, there remains $150 million in unspent fiscal year 2021 funds under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which Washington could signal it intends to release immediately upon a Russian offensive. Meanwhile, key U.S. allies Germany and France could announce their intention to do more as well, joining the United Kingdom in its willingness to provide offensive weapons and capabilities.

The sanctions against Russia announced in early April by the Biden administration were viewed as limited in scope and impact. This was likely intentional on the administration’s part, to retain a few arrows in its quiver but also in the hope of eventually reaching some kind of peaceful coexistence with Moscow. It’s time to show Moscow what’s in the quiver, but Washington can’t act alone. Together during the upcoming June summit, the NATO allies should exercise their deterrent power while they still have it.

John R. Deni, Ph.D., is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and an adjunct professor at the American University’s School of International Service. He’s the author of “NATO and Article 5.” The views expressed are his own.

Tags International sanctions NATO Russia Russia–NATO relations Ukraine

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