It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Is Defending Ukraine Vital to U.S. Security?

As Putin prepares to invade, Washington and its allies still appear undecided on whether Kyiv is worth fighting for.

By , a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
An activist wrapped in Ukraine's flag stands outside the White House during an anti-Putin protest on March 12, 2014 in Washington.
An activist wrapped in Ukraine's flag stands outside the White House during an anti-Putin protest on March 12, 2014 in Washington.
An activist wrapped in Ukraine's flag stands outside the White House during an anti-Putin protest on March 12, 2014 in Washington. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
It's Debatable

Matthew Kroenig: Hello, Emma! We took last week off, so I’ve missed our debates. At the time, I thought we might know whether the crisis in Ukraine was going to be resolved peacefully by now, but we are still apparently standing on the precipice of an impending war.

Emma Ashford: Good morning, though not a particularly good week, I’m afraid. As you say, things have changed for the worse since our last column, and we are looking down the barrel of a major war in Europe. It’s not impossible that diplomacy could avert a conflict here, but I think that prospect is growing more distant than it was even a few weeks ago.

MK: I agree. It looks like an invasion is almost inevitable. I suspect we disagree, however, on what is at stake and what to do about it. I think allowing Vladimir Putin’s Russia to take Ukraine by force would be a significant blow to U.S. national security interests and to the post-Cold War order in Europe and globally.

Matthew Kroenig: Hello, Emma! We took last week off, so I’ve missed our debates. At the time, I thought we might know whether the crisis in Ukraine was going to be resolved peacefully by now, but we are still apparently standing on the precipice of an impending war.

Emma Ashford: Good morning, though not a particularly good week, I’m afraid. As you say, things have changed for the worse since our last column, and we are looking down the barrel of a major war in Europe. It’s not impossible that diplomacy could avert a conflict here, but I think that prospect is growing more distant than it was even a few weeks ago.

MK: I agree. It looks like an invasion is almost inevitable. I suspect we disagree, however, on what is at stake and what to do about it. I think allowing Vladimir Putin’s Russia to take Ukraine by force would be a significant blow to U.S. national security interests and to the post-Cold War order in Europe and globally.

I think the best chance to head it off is additional steps to strengthen deterrence (more arms to Ukraine, more NATO forces on the eastern flank, threats of tougher sanctions, etc.), but, unfortunately, I am afraid the recent, good steps from the Biden administration and NATO might be too little, too late.

But, please, tell me why I am wrong.

EA: You’re not completely wrong! Letting Russia conduct a large-scale invasion of Ukraine—whether to seize territory or simply to force concessions from Kyiv—would be a bad thing for European security. It would certainly be a bad thing for the people of Ukraine, who deserve to live in peace if they wish. And I even think it would be a bad thing for Russia, as it would undoubtedly lead NATO to dial up forces in Eastern Europe, and it would probably result in fairly severe economic penalties.

But it’s not quite as easy to prevent as you suggest, for three reasons: First, increasing the flow of arms to Ukraine is not going to change the military balance enough to deter Russia. And it will become increasingly difficult to infiltrate those arms into the Ukrainian theater after the onset of conflict, particularly in the face of advanced Russian air defenses.

Second, increasing NATO forces on the Eastern flank might help deter Russia from an attack on a NATO member state. But it was never likely that Putin was planning to test NATO’s Article 5 commitment to collective defense, even in the Baltics! And it certainly won’t deter action against Ukraine.

Third, of course, the threat of tougher sanctions is real, but it’s limited. As Russia is one of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, there are real-world limits to how much Russian economic activity Washington can cut off without causing economic crises elsewhere. A shut-off of gas flows to Europe, for example, whether through sanctions or by Russia’s choice, would be deeply damaging to Western economies, forcing Europe to dig into reserves and raising prices around the globe. I suspect that Putin, meanwhile, has already priced more moderate financial sanctions into his calculus.

Some of the sanctions under discussion, like export controls on products made with U.S. technology, could hit hard. This could mean no iPhones in Russia.

MK: I agree that any of these items on their own is insignificant, but in combination they start to add up. Samuel Charap and Scott Boston are right that providing Ukraine with Javelin and Stinger missiles will not be enough to stop a multifront Russian invasion, but they do raise the cost.

Similarly, Putin claims he is going to war to prevent NATO from expanding into his sphere of influence, so presumably he does not like the (still small numbers of) Spanish, Danish, U.S., and other forces possibly moving into Eastern Europe. And some of the sanctions under discussion, like export controls on products made with American technology going into Russia, could hit hard. As James Lewis said, this could mean no iPhones in Russia.

So, yes, Putin strongly desires the reincorporation of Ukraine into the Russian Empire. But if the price is a costly war, greater encirclement from NATO, and real economic pain in Russia, that should at least make him think twice.

EA: Assuming that Russia decides it wants to invade, though, I still don’t see any of these things actually deterring it—not least because they were all predictable before the Kremlin even started building up forces.

But let’s get back to basics for a minute. Is Ukraine really so important to global security that the United States should be defending it? It seems like all the rhetoric from Washington says yes, but the actions say no. If it’s so important, why not defend it in 2014? Or why not make a stronger commitment today? And if you’ve instead made the decision to not send troops to defend it— which President Joe Biden’s statements clearly indicate is the administration’s stance on this crisis—then surely it’s not that important?

MK: That’s a good point. I do think it is important and that Washington could do more if U.S. officials wanted to reliably deter Russia. Biden saying that he changed his mind and all options are on the table, sending U.S. combat forces into Ukraine, and, if things continued to escalate, putting U.S. nuclear forces on high alert would, I suspect, be enough to convince Putin not to go in. But it would be risky, and Biden has clearly decided that he is not willing to run that risk.

EA: Extremely risky! Indeed, the only person I’ve seen directly make this case is the former Defense Department official Evelyn Farkas, who argued that the United States should prepare for war with Russia. But she is effectively alone in that assertion.

MK: So, to directly answer you, it is not a black-and-white issue. It is pretty important to Washington, and Biden is willing to take some significant steps, but it is not important enough for him to risk nuclear war.

During the Cold War, the line was a thousand miles further West. Ukraine wasn’t even a member of the Warsaw Pact.

EA: But why is it so important? Again, not to diminish the lives of Ukrainians, but in the context of U.S. security, Ukraine is not that important. During the Cold War, the line was a thousand miles further West. Ukraine wasn’t even a member of the Warsaw Pact; it was an integral part of the Soviet Union.

MK: Well, Americans and Europeans have been safer over the past 30 years than they were at the height of the Cold War. I don’t think Americans are indifferent to where the line is drawn between the country’s friends and enemies in Europe.

More importantly, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken eloquently argued at a speech in Berlin last week, this is about the system and principles the United States and its democratic allies put in place after the end of the Cold War. I don’t think anyone wants to go back to a world in which dictators invade their neighbors and the world stands aside.

Building up forces in NATO’s eastern member states could result in a miscalculation and accidental conflict.

EA: No one wants it, but equally, no one wants to fight a war to prevent it. And let’s remember that even the actions the United States and its allies are taking now carry some risks. Building up forces in NATO’s eastern member states could result in a miscalculation and accidental conflict, or those allies could decide to take military action on their own and suck the United States into a conflict. The Baltic states and Poland are already arming Ukraine, and the Turks have been selling them advanced drones. There is some definite entanglement risk here.

MK: And, yes, I do worry about the precedent and U.S. credibility. The United States withdrew from Afghanistan. If Washington stands aside as Russia takes Ukraine, I do worry about what is next. Why does Putin stop there? Does Iran believe that it can sprint to a nuclear weapon and the United States will not have the stomach to act? Does China’s Xi Jinping believe that the time is right to move on Taiwan? I fear that everything the United States and its democratic allies have built over the past decades may be more fragile than it appears and that everything could come tumbling down pretty quickly.

I’d rather not take that chance. And right now, the central front in that fight is in Ukraine.

EA: Oh, for goodness’ sake. Withdrawing from Afghanistan—a quagmire in which the United States spent trillions of dollars and 20 years without achieving victory—in order to pivot toward great-power competition is somehow supposed to reduce America’s credibility with Russia and China? That doesn’t make any sense.

MK: Let me first briefly answer your question about U.S. commitments; my answer is that Americans should stand behind them all to help adversaries avoid miscalculation. The United States could have stayed in Afghanistan, and getting out, in my view, was a mistake.

EA: I’ll tell you what I think the problem here is: Too many of America’s commitments over the last 30 years weren’t real commitments. Washington overextended itself. U.S. officials offered pretty words to states like Ukraine, but they never planned to actually follow through and defend them. This is a big problem. How do other states tell the difference between real commitments and the ones that are effectively a bluff? I do think the United States has a genuine commitment to defend NATO allies, for example. But Russia might misinterpret that and suck all of NATO into a conflict.

But let’s pivot to China for a second, because I think it’s the elephant in the room here. China’s choices on whether to disavow or support Russia if it does go into Ukraine are going to be critical, and I don’t think enough people are focusing on that. China could, for example, effectively undermine any sanctions regime the United States imposes.

The United States is still a global power, and it will need to develop a strategy, alongside its allies and partners, to deter and, if necessary, defend against Russia.

MK: I do think the emerging strategic tripolarity among the United States, Russia, and China may be the most important security question of our time. Many still believe that somehow the United States can prioritize China and forget about everything else. The past few weeks have shown that Putin has different ideas. The United States is still a global power, and it will need to develop a strategy, alongside its allies and partners, to deter and, if necessary, defend against Russia and China at the same time. It won’t be easy, but it’s necessary.

EA: Or—hear me out—Biden tries to find a way to not fight the other two most powerful countries on the planet at the same time. Look, you’re absolutely right that the last month has shown that the United States cannot simply place Russia in a box and assume that everything will be fine. But that doesn’t suggest to me that it needs to suddenly pivot to a two-front strategy.

Apart from anything else, as Hal Brands pointed out recently, the United States currently has a massive strategic deficit: It has commitments that far outstrip its military capabilities to follow through on them all simultaneously. Only two things will solve that dilemma: either more military spending and buildup—which is relatively unpopular and unlikely—or dialing down some U.S. commitments.

Indeed, the best solution here remains a modified version of the Biden administration’s original approach to Russia: negotiations about strategic stability. The core difference is that these talks now need to consider the big questions about Europe’s security architecture as well as the more specific arms control questions. The Pentagon can build up deterrent forces in Eastern Europe all it wants, but the quicker both sides get to the detente part of this process, the better it will be for the United States, and the faster it will allow U.S. officials to focus on China.

MK: “Big questions about Europe’s security architecture” is a euphemism for giving Russia a sphere of influence and selling out America’s allies in Eastern Europe. So, your “solution” is not a solution. It is exactly what Washington should be trying to avoid.

EA: Let’s talk like adults here, rather than D.C. policy wonks. Large states have more influence and power in the international system than small states. That’s IR 101. “Spheres of influence” are the unpleasant but logical corollary. Large states don’t tolerate threats on their borders. Consider the Cuban missile crisis, for example.

And to be frank, no one is talking about selling out Eastern Europe. What we’re talking about is a mixture of deterrent threats (like sanctions) and potential rewards for good behavior—the carrots and sticks of international diplomacy.

There’s no scenario here in which Putin simply orders the more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border to stand down and return to base unilaterally. That means that any attempt to deter Russia from action in Ukraine needs to be matched with a diplomatic effort to resolve at least some of the issues that led to the current crisis, such as conventional arms buildup in Eastern Europe and the future of NATO expansion. To its credit, the administration continues to plug away at the diplomacy angle.

But I do worry that it’s not focusing on the right areas. For example, I think one of the most fruitful potential avenues here is conventional arms control in Europe. It’s an idea with plenty of precedent; the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which was signed in the late Soviet period, mandated caps and inspections on tanks, artillery, and other weapons that the superpower blocs could maintain in Europe.

It was quite effective until it collapsed in the mid-2000s under the pressure of NATO expansion and Russian pushback. A similar conventional treaty—unlike the NATO expansion pledge that has been the topic of most discussion—would be practical in a way that might allow it to be implemented.

MK: So there is no scenario in which Putin backs down from the invasion in the face of threats, but he will in exchange for promises, like a conventional arms control deal? That sounds like pure fantasy to me.

Speaking of which, my daughter is asking me to read her “The Three Little Pigs.” I hope that Putin’s threats to blow his neighbor’s house down are ultimately as ineffectual as the Big Bad Wolf’s. Pick this up here next time?

EA: Unless it’s too late for debate by then.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War.

  Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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