It's Debatable

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

Is There a Risk of a NATO vs. Russia War?

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine marks a tectonic shift in world politics and increases the danger of superpower confrontation and the militarization of Europe.

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.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a press conference in Brussels on Feb. 17. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images
It's Debatable

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma, I hope you enjoyed the long Presidents Day holiday weekend. I took my kids on their first ski trip. Meanwhile, in Russia, President Vladimir Putin celebrated Fatherland Day by invading Ukraine the next morning.

Emma Ashford: You know, I spent all weekend waiting for World War III to start, but the Russians apparently decided to wait until now. Our poor readers might be concerned that this column is turning into a Ukraine-debate column, but the security situation in Europe is obviously moving in a dire direction. 

MK: With Europe experiencing its biggest war since World War II, this is too big to ignore.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma, I hope you enjoyed the long Presidents Day holiday weekend. I took my kids on their first ski trip. Meanwhile, in Russia, President Vladimir Putin celebrated Fatherland Day by invading Ukraine the next morning.

Emma Ashford: You know, I spent all weekend waiting for World War III to start, but the Russians apparently decided to wait until now. Our poor readers might be concerned that this column is turning into a Ukraine-debate column, but the security situation in Europe is obviously moving in a dire direction. 

MK: With Europe experiencing its biggest war since World War II, this is too big to ignore.

EA: Why does everyone forget the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968? Regardless, it’s a major war—and likely marks a tectonic shift in world politics. Shall we recap briefly? 

MK: I see this as the culmination of Putin’s weekslong search for a pretext for an invasion. After auditioning several other justifications, he went with recognizing the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region and promising to send in “peacekeeping” forces to protect the newly independent states from Ukraine. Now, just a few days later, he is following it up with a massive invasion of the entire country.

EA: I’m not prepared to argue that there was never any chance of a diplomatic offramp. Western countries could have made more practical concessions on the big questions: Would Ukraine join NATO? Would NATO have military cooperation with Ukraine? 

But the window for concessions has closed. The last week saw a flurry of activity, all pointing in the same direction: advancing or justifying to some extent a Russian advance into eastern Ukraine. Russian media is now a steady drumbeat of stories about bombings, civilian casualties, genocide, and other potential causes of war. The shuttle diplomacy of recent weeks stalled, while Putin held a televised meeting of his Security Council in which he publicly berated some of his own senior officials until they endorsed publicly the recognition of the breakaway regions in Ukraine. 

Though folks in Washington seem to be assuming this will remain contained to Ukraine, there are a variety of scenarios where it could escalate.

This invasion is thus not so much a surprise as it is the inevitable other shoe finally dropping. That doesn’t make it any less shocking. Ukraine’s cities are burning, there are dogfights between Ukrainian and Russian jets, and battles are raging within two dozen miles of the capital, Kyiv. Putin may ultimately discover that he’s bitten off more than he can chew in Ukraine, particularly if we see a follow-on insurgency, but the most likely result here is undoubtedly a Russian victory.  

MK: The only person who knows if there was ever a chance for a diplomatic offramp is Putin. I suspect he made his decision when the military buildup began late last year. He began his career in office by smashing Chechnya, and he will finish it by smashing Ukraine. I bet he imagines himself going down in history as a great Russian leader who reestablished the Russian Empire after its losses during the Cold War.

If that is true, then the past few weeks of frantic diplomacy were a wasted effort. Still, the United States and European powers did a pretty good job of diplomacy and deterrence: offering plausible diplomatic overtures and outlining the penalties Russia would face for an invasion. Now that an invasion has begun, they need to carry out their deterrent threat to ensure that Putin pays a high price for his aggression. 

EA: I agree that we’re fundamentally in a new phase here. Now U.S. officials need to think about how to manage Russia’s actions toward Ukraine—and the Russian moves in the days to come. That will undoubtedly include punitive measures like sanctions, but it also needs to include a focus on preventing any destabilizing effects from spilling over from Ukraine to other European states, including managing refugee flows. And one of the most difficult problems facing policymakers is economic contagion: how to thread the needle between applying some sanctions on Russia for punitive reasons, while not actually destabilizing the global economy. 

It also means avoiding a larger conflict between NATO and Russia. Though folks in Washington seem to be assuming this will remain contained to Ukraine, there are a variety of scenarios where it could escalate: NATO member states sending troops into Ukraine on their own initiative, accidental conflict between NATO and Russian forces in bordering areas, or a tit-for-tat of economic or cyberwarfare that escalates to conflict. Reports now indicate that the White House is considering cyberattacks on Russia, a destabilizing move that would make us a direct party to the conflict and raises the risk of a broader war. 

This is, to be frank, an incredibly dangerous period. 

MK: I agree that there is a danger of direct NATO-Russia conflict. A top priority must be reinforcing NATO. If Russia succeeds in conquering all of Ukraine, there will suddenly be seven vulnerable allies on NATO’s eastern flank.

I also think negotiations will continue in some form. As Carl von Clausewitz said, war is a continuation of politics by other means. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised if after making military advances, Putin—feeling that he is in a stronger position—makes new demands about the future of Ukraine and European security architecture. He could demand, for example, that other buffer states between Russia and the West accept a Switzerland-like neutrality. 

EA: Matt Kroenig, arguing in favor of diplomacy? Now I know we’re in a brave new world. 

But you’re right that diplomacy can’t end here. After all, the big questions about European security will not be resolved by this war. Instead, we’re likely to see a far more militarized Europe, divided along a clearly demarcated line, much as it was during the Cold War. We’re already seeing an increase in NATO military forces in Poland and the Baltics, and further increases are inevitable; even long-neutral Sweden is considering joining NATO. As many have pointed out, this would hardly be good for Russia! But it seems that Putin is increasingly willing to trade a hardening of the European security environment for a guarantee that Ukraine remains within Russia’s orbit. In simple terms: It appears that Putin prefers a more hostile and militarized NATO-Russia relationship to the status quo of watching Ukraine slip toward the West. 

And if that is the case, then we’re going to need all those things that helped to reduce tensions during the Cold War: confidence-building measures, arms control, and discussions about the broader security architecture of Europe. So, while the window is likely shut on diplomacy for the moment, it will become all the more urgent after a major conflict.  

MK: I want to return to something you said earlier about sanctions. You say Washington needs to thread a needle; did you mean to say that the United States should take the needle and stab Russia’s economy to death? 

Now that Putin is invading, U.S. President Joe Biden should impose the harshest possible economic penalties, including: secondary sanctions on Russian banks, ejecting Russia from the SWIFT system for settling international transactions, export controls to cut Russia off from global technology, blocking Russian access to the U.S. dollar, targeted sanctions against pro-Putin oligarchs, and anything else Washington and its allies can throw at them. Putin needs to pay a high price for invading his neighbors. With military options rightly off the table—so long as Russia does not move against a NATO ally—this is the best tool the Western alliance has. 

To be sure, the global economy will also suffer—indeed, we are already seeing some of the effects—but the problem was being so dependent on an economy run by a ruthless dictator in the first place. Tough sanctions will help the free world to transition to more stable and secure international economic relationships. 

EA: I’m glad to see you’re ready to pay more at the pump. I wonder if your fellow Americans will be as keen to see gas at $5 a gallon? I say this not to argue that the world shouldn’t sanction Russia but to make the point that leaders need to consider the potential backlash of severe sanctions. For example, it’s possible that extreme sanctions could push Russia to leverage its oil and gas against Europe. 

Indeed, the incentive structure on sanctions is problematic here. The literature on sanctions suggests that the best approach is to go big and go hard: A heavy initial set of sanctions appears to work better than any gradual ratcheting up. Early indications are that this is what the White House and European leaders are planning. The initial set of sanctions announced this week after the Russian recognition of the independence of the breakaway regions in Donetsk and Luhansk were relatively moderate, targeted at a few banks, while adding some new restrictions to Russian sovereign debt financing. The big sanctions guns—more banks, potential export controls—are liable to be deployed in the next few days. 

Maintaining peace and stability in Europe and globally is worth higher gas prices until the world can transition to other suppliers.

The problem with going big straight out of the gate, however, is that Washington might overshoot and cause a devastating economic spiral. If the sanctions levied on Russia are too severe, for example, they could cause a serious economic crisis inside Russia. And if the Kremlin takes that as a reason to strike back at the West—using energy, for example, or cyberattacks—we could see energy prices shoot higher, damaging economies and hurting consumers around the world. Is it worth a recession to punish Russia? A depression? These things are difficult to predict in advance. 

MK: It is not just about punishing Russia. It is about enforcing an international system where countries don’t go around invading each other. So, yes, I do think that maintaining peace and stability in Europe and globally is worth higher gas prices until the world can transition to other suppliers.

Moreover, I am afraid that if the sanctions are too light, countries—especially European countries traditionally more economically dependent on Russia—are going to look for excuses to roll them back in the coming years. German consumers might say, “Oh, sure, Russia invaded Ukraine, but that was like two years ago. Can’t we resume Nord Stream 2 now?” The sanctions need to be severe enough that there is no coming back for the Russian economy until Russia has a responsible government willing to play by the rules. After this unprovoked aggression, the world should treat Moscow like Pyongyang. 

EA: The problem really is that you want sanctions to do something they cannot achieve. This is a broader problem in U.S. foreign policy: Washington accepts that there are things it isn’t willing to fight for—like admitting Ukraine to NATO—but then expects to achieve the same results simply by levying sanctions. The United States and its allies can impose all the sanctions they want, and they can suffer a lot of economic pain, but I think at this point it’s clear that Putin has priced that into his calculus on Ukraine. 

But perhaps you are actually arguing that Americans and Europeans should fight for Ukraine? I couldn’t help but notice your recent article here in Foreign Policy, in which you argued that the United States should prepare to fight both Russia and China at once, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons if necessary.

MK: Well, you jumped to the most controversial bits, but, yes, I argued that the United States and its allies need a defense strategy capable of dealing with the… 

EA: The bit where you suggested we nuke Europe to save it—Dr. Strangelove-style—did stick in the mind, yes. 

MK: As I was saying, the United States and its allies need a defense strategy capable of dealing with the real threats they face. There is a growing conventional wisdom that the Pentagon needs to prioritize the Chinese threat in Asia and do less in other regions, like Europe.

Putin has other ideas. As we all see very clearly now, Putin poses a real military threat to NATO allies in Europe. Realistically, Washington and its allies need a plan to deal with both. 

The problem, critics would argue, is that Washington and its allies lack the resources, so I sketched some ideas in the article about making up the difference, including increasing U.S. defense spending, having allies contribute more to their defense, and, yes, relying more on nuclear deterrence—like during the Cold War—to offset the local, conventional advantages of U.S. rivals. 

The article received a lot of attention and generated some controversy, but, ultimately, I predict this is where U.S. defense strategy will be headed in the coming years. 

EA: I think we both agree that a military buildup in Europe to deter Russia is pretty much inevitable at this point. But it doesn’t have to come from the United States. Europe has been lax, often unwilling to step up on defense questions. But it is also rich in latent power. This crisis offers the perfect impetus for major European states—France, Germany, Britain, Poland—to step up their contributions to NATO and to eventually take the lead on European security. The United States can support and facilitate that rearmament. 

To be blunt, the United States simply cannot afford to build up in both Europe and Asia in a sustainable way.

To be blunt, the United States simply cannot afford to build up in both Europe and Asia in a sustainable way. As Hal Brands put it recently, America is currently in a form of “strategic overstretch,” with too few military assets to manage its existing commitments. But while he might argue that Washington should just increase the defense budget, the defense budget is already almost $800 billion a year; it dwarfs other government spending. I’m not convinced the public would tolerate further increases.

The answer to this conundrum is staring us in the face. It’s not increasing defense spending or using nuclear weapons in increasingly desperate gambits, as you suggest. It’s relying on those allies—those democratic partners you’re always talking about—to carry more of the load.

MK: I agree that allies must do more, but they will not do it on their own if the United States abandons Europe. They are just as likely to cut their own side deals with Putin. To function effectively, NATO requires U.S. leadership. As I explain in my article, Washington should work with the allies to design a whole-of-free-world defense strategy and help smaller allies understand their niche roles, including the weapons they should buy. But making this work will also require a strengthened U.S. presence in Europe and Asia. After all, the theaters are very different. The Pentagon needs to deter a ground war in Europe and an amphibious invasion in Asia. The U.S. Army has more to contribute to the former, and the U.S. Navy to the latter. 

On spending, I disagree strongly. The U.S. government can afford to outspend Russia and China—look at the respective size of their economies. Washington can double defense spending and still remain below Cold War levels as a percent of GDP. And the stuff about the U.S. public is nonsense. Biden just spent trillions of dollars on domestic packages, and no one seemed to care. 

I don’t even think influential conservative commentators, like Tucker Carlson, echoing Putin’s talking points will sway public opinion on this specific issue. After all, Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump have long been proponents of “peace through strength.”

It seems like you and others are looking for justifications for the United States to scale back its commitments and have a less ambitious foreign policy. That is an option, but it would just make for a much more dangerous world. 

EA: More dangerous than the world we’re living in right now? Where all the Cold War-era arms control agreements have failed, there’s a major war on European soil, and Putin is issuing nuclear threats to the world? Forgive me, but I think I’ll take my chances with a less ambitious U.S. foreign policy. 

MK: The problems we face today are due to a relative weakening of the United States and its democratic allies in the face of these more assertive revisionist autocracies. My recommendations would restore America’s advantages—and global peace and stability. Scaling back America’s global role would only hasten the dangerous trends we have seen in recent years.

So, now that I am sure I have persuaded you once and for all, should we just close down the column? 

EA: Not likely. But I’m afraid I can predict the topic of our next column: Ukraine. This war isn’t likely to get any better. And unless we’re lucky, it may be only the beginning. 

MK: I am afraid you are correct. And this time I am using “afraid” in its literal sense.

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

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.