In Background, Ukraine

By Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy, Feb. 9, 2015

Washington pundits are jumping on a proposal to send weapons to Ukraine. Here’s why they all need to take a deep breath.

Note by New Cold editors: We do not share the assumption by the following article that Russia is conducting a “seemingly aggressive policy” in the conflict in Ukraine. Nor do we accept its prescription that Ukraine should remain a “buffer state in perpetuity” between Russia and the West. We offer the article in order to inform readers of the debate that is taking place in influential political circles in the U.S.

Ukraine army, photo by Sergey Dolzhenko, EPA

Ukraine army, photo by Sergey Dolzhenko, EPA

Should the United States start arming Ukraine, so it can better resist and maybe even defeat the Russian-backed rebels in its eastern provinces? A lot of seasoned American diplomats and foreign policy experts seem to think so; a task force assembled by the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs wants the United States to send Ukraine $1 billion in military assistance as soon as possible, with more to come. The Obama administration is rethinking its earlier reluctance, and secretary of defense nominee Ash Carter told a Senate hearing he was “very much inclined” to favor this course as well.

Unless cooler heads prevail, therefore, the United States seems to be moving toward raising the stakes in Ukraine. This decision is somewhat surprising, however, because few experts think this bankrupt and divided country is a vital strategic interest and no one is talking about sending U.S. troops to fight on Kiev’s behalf. So the question is: does sending Ukraine a bunch of advanced weaponry make sense?

The answer is no.

One reason to be skeptical of the report from the three think tanks is the track record of its like-minded members. The task force wasn’t made up of a diverse set of experts seeking to explore a wide range of options and find some creative common ground. On the contrary, its members were all people who have long backed NATO expansion and have an obvious desire to defend that policy, which has played a central role in creating the present crisis. After all, these are the same people who have been telling us since the late 1990s that expanding NATO eastwards posed no threat to Russia and would instead create a vast and enduring zone of peace in Europe. That prediction is now in tatters, alas, but these experts are now doubling down to defend a policy that was questionable from the beginning and clearly taken much too far. As the critics warned it would, open-ended NATO expansion has done more to poison relations with Russia than any other single Western policy.

Those who favor arming Ukraine are also applying “deterrence model” remedies to what is almost certainly a “spiral model” situation. In his classic book Perception and Misperception in International Politics, political scientist Robert Jervis pointed out that states may undertake what appear to be threatening actions for two very different reasons.

Sometimes states act aggressively because their leaders are greedy, seeking some sort of personal glory, or ideologically driven to expand, and are not reacting to perceived threats from others. The classic example, of course, is Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and in such cases accommodation won’t work. Here the “deterrence model” applies: the only thing to do is issue warnings and credible threats so that the potential aggressor is deterred from pursuing its irrevocably revisionist aims.

By contrast, the “spiral model” applies when a state’s seemingly aggressive policy is motivated primarily by fear or insecurity. Making threats and trying to deter or coerce them will only reinforce their fears and make them even more aggressive, in effect triggering an action-reaction spiral of growing hostility.

When insecurity is the taproot of a state’s revisionist actions, making threats just makes the situation worse. When the “spiral model” applies, the proper response is a diplomatic process of accommodation and appeasement (yes, appeasement) to allay the insecure state’s concerns. Such efforts do not require giving an opponent everything it might want or removing every one of its worries, but it does require a serious effort to address the insecurities that are motivating the other side’s objectionable behavior.

The problem, of course, is that responses that work well in one situation tend to fail badly in the other. Applying the deterrence model to an insecure adversary will heighten its paranoia and fuel its defensive reactions, while appeasing an incorrigible aggressor is likely to whet its appetite and make it harder to deter it in the future.

Those who now favor arming Ukraine clearly believe the “deterrence model” is the right way to think about this problem. In this view, Vladimir Putin is a relentless aggressor who is trying to recreate something akin to the old Soviet empire, and thus not confronting him over Ukraine will lead him to take aggressive actions elsewhere. The only thing to do, therefore, is increase the costs until Russia backs down and leaves Ukraine free to pursue its own foreign policy. This is precisely the course of action the report from the three think tanks recommends: in addition to “bolstering deterrence,” its authors believe arming Ukraine will help “produce conditions in which Moscow decides to negotiate a genuine settlement that allows Ukraine to reestablish full sovereignty.” In addition to bolstering deterrence, in short, giving arms to Kiev is intended to coerce Moscow into doing what we want.

Yet the evidence in this case suggests the spiral model is far more applicable. Russia is not an ambitious rising power like Nazi Germany or contemporary China; it is an aging, depopulating, and declining great power trying to cling to whatever international influence it still possesses and preserve a modest sphere of influence near its borders, so that stronger states — and especially the United States — cannot take advantage of its growing vulnerabilities. Putin & Co. are also genuinely worried about America’s efforts to promote “regime change” around the world — including Ukraine — a policy that could eventually threaten their own positions. It is lingering fear, rather than relentless ambition, that underpins Russia’s response in Ukraine.

Moreover, the Ukraine crisis did not begin with a bold Russian move or even a series of illegitimate Russian demands; it began when the United States and European Union tried to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and into the West’s sphere of influence. That objective may be desirable in the abstract, but Moscow made it abundantly clear it would fight this process tooth and nail. U.S. leaders blithely ignored these warnings — which clearly stemmed from Russian insecurity rather than territorial greed — and not surprisingly they have been blindsided by Moscow’s reaction. The failure of U.S. diplomats to anticipate Putin’s heavy-handed response was an act of remarkable diplomatic incompetence, and one can only wonder why the individuals who helped produce this train wreck still have their jobs.

If we are in a “spiral model” situation, arming Ukraine will only make things worse. It certainly will not enable Ukraine to defeat the far stronger Russian army; it will simply intensify the conflict and add to the suffering of the Ukrainian people.

Nor is arming Ukraine likely to convince Putin to cave in and give Washington what it wants. Ukraine is historically linked to Russia, they are right next door to each other, Russian intelligence has long-standing links inside Ukraine’s own security institutions, and Russia is far stronger militarily. Even massive arms shipments from the United States won’t tip the balance in Kiev’s favor, and Moscow can always escalate if the fighting turns against the rebels, as it did last summer.

Most importantly, Ukraine’s fate is much more important to Moscow than it is to us, which means that Putin and Russia will be willing to pay a bigger price to achieve their aims than we will. The balance of resolve as well as the local balance of power strongly favors Moscow in this conflict. Before starting down an escalatory path, therefore, Americans should ask themselves just how far they are willing to go. If Moscow has more options, is willing to endure more pain, and run more risks than we are, then it makes no sense to begin a competition in resolve we are unlikely to win. And no, that doesn’t show the West is irresolute, craven, or spineless; it simply means Ukraine is a vital strategic interest for Russia but not for us.

Efforts to resolve this crisis are also handicapped by the U.S. tendency to indulge in “take-it-or-leave it” diplomacy. Instead of engaging in genuine bargaining, American officials tend to tell others what to do and then ramp up the pressure if they do not comply. Today, those who want to arm Ukraine are demanding that Russia cease all of its activities in Ukraine, withdraw from Crimea, and let Ukraine join the EU and/or NATO if it wants and if it meets the membership requirements. In other words, they expect Moscow to abandon its own interests in Ukraine, full stop. It would be wonderful if Western diplomacy could pull off this miracle, but how likely is it? Given Russia’s history, its proximity to Ukraine, and its long-term security concerns, it is hard to imagine Putin capitulating to our demands without a long and costly struggle that will do enormous additional damage to Ukraine.

And let’s not forget the broader costs of this feckless policy. We are pushing Russia closer to China, which is not in the long-term U.S. interest. We have brought cooperation on nuclear security with Russia to an end, even though there are still large quantities of inadequately secured nuclear material on Russian soil. And we are surely prolonging the suffering of the Ukrainian people.

The solution to this crisis is for the United States and its allies to abandon the dangerous and unnecessary goal of endless NATO expansion and do whatever it takes to convince Russia that we want Ukraine to be a neutral buffer state in perpetuity. We should then work with Russia, the EU, and the IMF to develop an economic program that puts that unfortunate country back on its feet.

Arming Ukraine, on the other hand, is a recipe for a longer and more destructive conflict. It’s easy to prescribe such actions when you’re safely located in a Washington think tank, but destroying Ukraine in order to save it is hardly smart or morally correct diplomacy.


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