The Escalation Advocates are Wrong on Ukraine


Russia remains parked in Ukraine’s east where Moscow-backed separatists continue to create mayhem. Meanwhile, the western allies are maintaining a general consensus that has led to the political isolation of Russia, the slow ramping up of economic sanctions, and the symbolic but important reassurance of nervous eastern European members of NATO – accomplishments trumpeted by President Barack Obama in the State of the Union address. The recent increase in the Russian presence in eastern Ukraine is reason for reviewing options. The problem is that, given the risks involved, the only realistic and thus most likely effective option is long-term, patient resolve to stay the course. Nevertheless, there is a growing chorus in the United States that believes the next steps should be to send military aid to Ukraine. This would be a risky gamble at this time, not worth the potential dangers.

The United States and Europe hold overwhelming political, economic, and military advantages over Russia. Russia, in fact, grows weaker by the day –as made evident by the recent S&P downgrade of Russian credit to “junk” level. Russia is fundamentally weak in terms of its unsustainable long-term force projection and the erosion of its economy. However, Russia does not need to apply much pressure to keep Ukraine destabilized enough to maintain significant leverage over Kiev’s future alignments; one should anticipate this standoff lasting for some time. It is unclear how adding fuel to the fire would help. As Matt O’Brien wrote recently in The Washington Post:

Russia, in other words, is doomed as long as oil is cheap and sanctions are in place. It could survive either alone. But together, they destroy Russia’s economy and its ability to borrow to cover that up. And unlike, say, 2008, when oil prices rebounded rather quickly, this crisis could last awhile. After all, if you think Putin is going to back down in Ukraine anytime soon, well, think again: he’s already pushed pro-peace oligarchs who’ve lost a lot of money the past year to his outer circle, if that.

In other words, this crisis requires strategic thinking and patience, not tit-for-tat tactical reactions which are insufficient to achieve a balance of power in eastern Ukraine and unlikely to foster a diplomatic resolution.

Yet momentum, at least in Washington, is moving in the opposite direction: the assumption appears to be that it is America’s job to fix the problems of eastern Ukraine, even if that risks escalating the conflict. Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, last week argued that, “…Mr. Putin will settle only when the costs of continuing the war are too high. Supplying arms to Ukraine will raise the costs to Russia, increasing the likelihood that a real settlement can be negotiated. The time for doing so is now.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in recent Senate testimony said, “Our support for Ukraine must enhance its security capabilities and support the new government’s ambitious reforms, because Ukraine will need to restore security and implement dramatic economic changes to emerge from the current crisis.” Strobe Talbott and Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution insisted, “Washington needs to do more to get Russia to change course. That means giving the Ukrainian military sufficient means to make further aggression so costly that Putin and the Russian army are deterred from escalating the fight.” They call for $3 billion to be allocated over three years to support Ukrainian defense efforts by providing lethal but defensive military equipment to the Ukrainians (which would somehow come to operate without Americans needing to be there). They also argue that, the United States should garner commitments within NATO for more military equipment for Ukraine.

Strobe Talbott and Steven Pifer are contributors to a longer joint study by the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Their report details the argument for the United States to provide lethal defensive equipment to Ukraine. What is notable about this report is the number of Democratic Party national security luminaries who signed it: Michele Flournoy, a likely choice for Secretary of Defense should Hillary Clinton win the White House; Jan Lodal, a senior defense department official during Bill Clinton’s presidency; and Ivo Daalder, a former advisor to President Obama, U.S. Permanent Representative on the NATO Council, and a veteran of the Clinton National Security Council. Former SACEUR Admiral James Stavridis (ret.) and Dean of The Fletcher School also lent his considerable weight to the report along with General Charles Wald (ret.), former deputy commander of U.S. European Command, and John Herbst, a former ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

As these proposals rolled out, NATO Deputy Secretary General, Alexander Vershbow, also a former senior American diplomatic and defense official, and a primary architect of NATO enlargement, visited Tblisi, Georgia last week and tweeted, “All tools in place to help #Georgia move from #NATO partnership to membership. W/ necessary political commitment, I’m sure it will happen.”

These tactical responses to Putin’s reckless behavior are well-intended, but risk producing dangerous outcomes for the United States while doing little to change the situation in Ukraine. It would take time to adequately equip and train Ukrainian armed forces in an impactful way – even with relatively modest items like counter-battery radars and anti-tank missiles. Advancing weapons into Ukraine is precisely the kind of evidence that Putin wrongly says justifies his illegal actions. There is every reason to believe that Russia would respond not with negotiation, but perhaps with more, and even deadlier, war. NATO allies in Europe will also consider how Russia might react and will likely not be as bullish as escalation advocates hope. Indeed, already on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel signaled her opposition to this approach saying: “Germany will not support Ukraine with weapons. I am convinced this conflict cannot be solved by military means.” If anything, American delivery of military equipment to Ukraine could actually serve to take European allies off the hook for playing their role in further isolating Russia, opting to let the United States pay the price and take the risks.

Consequently, the United States risks undermining existing consensus in NATO and the European Union by putting military aid to Ukraine on the agenda. Already there are frays over who contributes and pays for the new NATO reinforcement spearhead force announced this last September. Holding NATO and EU consensus steady while collating power advantages with patience is perhaps the most significant strategic need at this time. Fundamentally, none of these proposals for military escalation address what Ukraine truly needs – tens of billions of dollars of guaranteed loans to cushion destabilizing but necessary economic reforms. No one, it seems, is lining up to write that check.

Flournoy told The New York Times, “One of the best ways to deter Russia from supporting the rebels in taking more territory and stepping up the conflict is to increase the cost that the Russians or their surrogates would incur.” The assumptions-behind this national security thinking completely ignore the alternative outcome or what comes next – that this approach is precisely the trigger that provokes a dramatic escalation by Russia. This thinking also indicates a belief that, in effect, if America leads on this, the other NATO allies will fall in line. One can certainly hope these things will happen – but hope is not the basis of sound strategy. Even if the military assistance contemplated achieved an elusive balance of power in eastern Ukraine, given the higher degree of Russian interests in the region, there is every reason to think Moscow would see this as a challenge to overcome American technology, challenging America’s credibility and that of NATO. What, then, is the plan?

Speaking at a recent Senate hearing, Henry Kissinger said, “I’m uneasy about beginning a process of military engagement without knowing where it will lead us and what we’ll do to sustain it…I believe we should avoid taking incremental steps before we know how far we are willing to go.” He added, “This is a territory 300 miles from Moscow, and therefore has special security implications.” Kissinger’s views accurately explain the situation and why escalation carries dangers not worth the costs – at least as the situation now stands. Regrettably, in the debates over Ukraine and Russia too much time is spent arguing about what should be done, and not enough time is spent understanding what is actually driving the interests of the states involved – including that of America and its allies in Europe.

Advocates of escalation in Ukraine are sustaining a respectable and logical extension of a worldview that governed the last two decades of American policy towards Europe, which culminated in the false promises of NATO’s 2008 declaration that Ukraine and Georgia would one day join NATO. That worldview, however, ran into the ditch in eastern Ukraine last March. Military escalation at this time would entangle America in a conflict adjacent to a declining, paranoid, and nuclear-armed Russia. What Russia has done in eastern Ukraine is unacceptable and the Russian people will eventually look back and wonder what their “leadership” was thinking. Now, however, is not the time to risk making a bad situation even worse by launching America onto a slippery slope of dangerous military escalation.


Sean Kay is Robson Professor of Politics and Government at Ohio Wesleyan University where he is Director of the Arneson Institute for Practical Politics and heads the International Studies Program. He is also an associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. His most recent book is America’s Search for Security: The Triumph of Idealism and the Return of Realism.