What’s at risk in Ukraine, and why it matters to America and its allies
Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed an invasion force near Ukraine’s borders, although it is far from clear that he intends to use it. He has all but declared his intention to regain control of a land he sees as rightfully Russia’s. The Biden administration and NATO have made good statements and taken some military actions to deter Putin — but the West’s commitment remains ambivalent.
It must not be. Americans and Europeans must understand that Ukraine’s independence is of vital import — for ourselves as well as Ukraine — and must act accordingly. That is also the best way to deter Putin.
The establishment of independent Ukrainian and Belarusian states after the Soviet Union’s fall in 1991 moved Russia’s borders hundreds of miles to the east, creating a de facto buffer between Russia and Central Europe. The U.S. and Europe have relied on that buffer to reduce their militaries considerably.
With a Russian takeover of Ukraine, however, the re-emergence of a serious Russian conventional threat on the Polish and Romanian borders would transform the strategic situation in Europe. It would require a remobilization by NATO states and the deployment of significant forces on those borders. It would transform the Black Sea into a Russian lake, increasing pressure on Turkey (still a NATO ally, for all its problems). It would seriously question the willingness of the U.S., the European Union and NATO to defend NATO’s eastern members. It would add Ukraine’s 45 million people and heavy industrial base to Russia’s. And it would send a devastating signal to China and other predators about Western weakness, especially after America’s ignominious retreat from Afghanistan.
Putin’s threats against Ukraine occur on the backdrop of his steady absorption of Belarus. He already is moving Russian forces back into Belarus, and more are likely on the way. Poland and Lithuania are likely to find themselves facing Russian mechanized troops near the vital Suwalki Corridor, the only ground line of communication between NATO’s Baltic members and the rest of the alliance. Russian Control of Ukraine in addition would create an existential threat to Poland and even to Romania — one that could be met only by major deployments of U.S. and European ground and air forces to what could become a new Iron Curtain.
Western ambivalence about defending Ukraine stems in part from confusion about Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state. Russian propaganda and some experts question the “socio-cultural” basis of Ukraine’s independence from Russia or at least, of eastern Ukraine’s inclusion in a unitary Ukrainian state. Yet a sovereign state has no obligation to prove its socio-cultural uniqueness. Once recognized by the international community and the United Nations without qualifications, any state — however small, weak or culturally similar to another — has the same sovereign rights as any other.
Ukraine was recognized — including by the then newly independent Russian Federation — as an independent state within its current borders (including Crimea and the east) 30 years ago. There is no more of a legal basis for Russia to insist on regaining part of Ukraine than there is for Germany to demand the return of Alsace or Lorraine from France or to claim a right to defend ethnic Germans living in Czechia, Austria or Poland. Acceding to Russian claims of special rights to another country’s territory undermines the sovereignty of all countries. It invites international predators to return the world to a Hobbesian state.
Russian deployment near Ukraine’s border is not defensive and threatens aggression. Ukraine poses no military threat to Russia; Putin claims, falsely, that Kyiv is preparing an invasion of … its own territory, the Russian-occupied Donbas region. But Western discussions often accept an equally false basis — that Russia has any right to respond, even if Kyiv did move to retake Donbas. Russia’s supposed rights in the matter stem from the Minsk II agreement that froze the conflict that Russia began in 2014 by seizing and annexing Crimea, then launching a crypto-invasion and occupation of Donbas. Putin is asserting the right to prevent Ukraine from taking back what he seized. Why should the West honor that assertion?
The situation is really quite simple: Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, annexed part of it, occupies another part through proxies — and now threatens further aggression against the remainder of the country.
The real trouble is that the West has no stomach for this fight, which would be quite difficult.
Putin has amassed sufficient force near Ukraine to launch an invasion with little notice. The withdrawal of most U.S. ground forces from Europe and the decline of Europe’s own military power precludes the deployment of Western mechanized forces to stop a Russian invasion. Instead, NATO would have to rely primarily on such defensive capabilities as Ukraine has or that NATO is willing to share. Even the use of NATO’s air and missile power would be problematic, because of Russia’s highly capable air defense systems. NATO would have to deploy many of its stealth aircraft inventory along with ship- and submarine-launched missiles to blunt a Russian offensive.
Air power alone would not likely be enough to stop that offensive, but it could impose a massive cost on Russia’s military. And therein lies the key to deterring an attack in the first place.
Russia is a poor country, in truth, with a dysfunctional economy and an ossifying kleptocracy. Russian GDP is well under one-tenth that of the U.S. or Europe — less than one-twentieth of the entire NATO alliance. The West can afford to replace even expensive weapons systems lost in combat; Russia cannot. Putin knows that.
Russian military doctrine is built on the assumption that Russia cannot win a conventional war against a mobilized NATO. Putin’s belief that NATO will not fight such a war to defend Ukraine is critical to his willingness to contemplate aggression. Replacing that belief with a conviction that NATO indeed would fight is the key to deterring him.
The Biden administration and NATO have taken some important steps in this direction, but they must take more. They must stop talking about the need to compel Kyiv to abide by the Minsk accords while threatened with invasion. They must make clear to Putin that there will be no discussions about resolving Ukraine’s internal problems under these conditions. They must deploy the aircraft and continue deploying the ships needed to show Putin the price he would pay for an invasion. And they must dispel any uncertainty about defending Ukraine if he attacks it.
Putin will claim all such actions are provocations — such is the language of aggressors and dictators. Many may fear he will seize on such “provocations” to attack — but NATO has as much right to deploy its forces within its own borders and international waters as Russia does; it has the right to give or sell defensive weapons to threatened partners, too. Those activities are worrying only to a man who intends to attack and fears losing the advantage. If undertaking them prompts a Russian invasion, then a Russian invasion was already on the way.
The West must spend less energy fearing to “provoke” aggression and more energy worrying about losing Ukraine and the vital buffer between Russia and Central Europe. It should worry about losing a core principle of the international system and about continuing the world’s descent into chaos.
Those are the issues at stake in Ukraine today, and those are the stakes for which the West must be prepared to fight.
Frederick Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He is the author of “Choosing Victory” and an architect of the surge military strategy in Iraq.