Unanswered questions in the Ukrainian crisis

Negotiating under the threat of blackmail is never an objective task. Credible Russian threats to invade Ukraine are forcing an emotional security debate that fails to answer key questions about the future of NATO and its eastern flank. The central issue for Moscow appears to be the future of Ukraine’s membership in NATO. The current rhetoric on both sides focuses on drawing “red lines” and exacting punishment absent a larger strategic calculus. U.S. and European policymakers should step back and address four questions before refusing to negotiate over Ukraine and committing to a path of almost certain escalation.

First, is the current crisis 1914 Sarajevo or 1948 Berlin? While analogies are fraught with peril, they help to capture the character of a crisis. Is the current standoff a moment in which Kremlin thinkers are willing to risk war for the sake of national pride and stalling their inevitable decline, or a situation in which bargaining, to include the creative use of military forces, can prevail? Arguably, the Russia-Ukraine relationship is a worst-case scenario for international relations scholars. The countries have a history of territorial disputes, rivalry and competing national narratives hundreds of years in the making. Based on past studies, this pattern suggests two countries prone to militarized disputes, protracted conflicts and commitment issues that cast a shadow over rational political bargaining. Russian elites are likely risk-prone and loss acceptant.  They operate under a nostalgic strategic logic that prefaces geopolitics and sees spheres of influence and buffer states as enduring realities of statecraft.

Second, would having Ukraine — or Georgia, for that matter — join NATO increase or decrease the collective security of existing NATO members? NATO’s raison d’etre is the security of its member states. Its mission is to “guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.” Politically, the ways and means include promoting democratic values and security cooperation amongst its member states. Militarily, NATO generates military power to “undertake crisis-management operations.” Russian gray zone campaigns across Europe are an affront to the alliance’s political values, but no more than they were during the Cold War.  Adding a country such as Ukraine with — however fabricated — territorial disputes with Russia risks becoming a drain on NATO’s military power, forcing the alliance into a series of forward deployments that don’t secure the Baltics, Northern Europe/Scandinavia, or the Mediterranean — all areas where Russia is challenging the alliance. Put another way, does making the Donbas or Crimea the new Fulda Gap help or hinder NATO’s ability to generate military power?

Third, has the prospect of joining NATO stopped Russia from intervening in Ukraine? In 2009, Georgia and Ukraine were offered a road map for joining NATO without a specified timeline.  Since then, Russia has increased its efforts to undermine both countries while pursuing a large-scale military modernization program. Neither sanctions nor the prospect of NATO membership stopped Russian military intervention in Ukraine. There is an asymmetry of interests at play. For NATO, Ukraine is a vital issue, but for Russia it is a core issue. Ukraine’s membership in NATO will not balance this asymmetry. If anything, offering a collective security guarantee to Kiev will pull Europe into a broader series of escalating confrontations as long as revisionist elites crowd out more tolerant voices in the Kremlin.

Fourth, is alliance credibility really at stake? Here a counterfactual helps answer the question.  Assuming Russia invades Ukraine and NATO did nothing, would any member of the alliance vacate Brussels? While inaction might embolden Russia in a future crisis, it also likely would increase defense expenditures across NATO member states and guarantee more aircraft, ships and troops forward stationed and watching Moscow’s every move. The test of NATO’s credibility is how the alliance, consistent with its original charter, responds to an attack upon a member state.

Fifth, what is the opportunity cost to the current standoff? From all accounts, Russia is willing to offer concessions to get an agreement on Ukraine and Georgia. Given more flexibility, negotiators could pivot and, for example, trade a guarantee of no Ukraine in NATO for 15 years for a new round of arms control negotiations and revitalizing lapsed nuclear treaty verification regimes. Trading diplomatic time for tangible arms control and nuclear de-escalation could produce results and delay future deliberations until after Putin exits office. After all, no tsar lives forever.

European states need to stand up to Russia, but the question is how and when. Policymakers shouldn’t confuse long-term competition with the outcome of any single crisis. Rather than refusing to bargain over Ukrainian membership, NATO member states should focus on pushing Russia towards a larger strategic dialogue on issues such as arms control while developing policies that limit Moscow’s ability to coerce Europe. There are few downsides to calling Russia’s bluff and delaying a decision over Ukraine. In the ensuing years, NATO member states, along with key European partners, can take tangible actions to reduce Moscow’s coercive reach. 

First, energy security is national security. Russia can be bold while the winter winds blow, and post-pandemic inflationary pressure keeps commodity prices high. Europe needs an alternative to Russian resources as a national security priority. Second, stronger transatlantic intelligence and cyber collaboration will help to limit Russia’s ability to conduct gray zone campaigns across NATO member states. Third, NATO needs military modernization and to reinvest in alliance interoperability.  

The United States can play a role, from increasing energy exports to Europe to coordinating intelligence, cyber and military modernization programs — but these efforts need European NATO member states to take the lead.

Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D., is a professor of strategic studies at the School of Advanced Warfighting, Marine Corps University, and senior fellow for future war, gaming, and strategy in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Tags Enlargement of NATO Russia–Ukraine relations

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