Four steps to surviving the Russia crisis

The atrocities committed against Ukrainians and the fear of further invasions is leading many to call for drastic action to contain Russia. However, should the West put its foot on the first rung of the escalation ladder, it must be willing to climb it.
ukraine stockholm
Swedish protesters hold Ukrainian flags and anti-war banners during a demonstration to protest the Russian invasion in Ukraine in central Stockholm. Credit: TT News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo.
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In just days, Russia’s high-risk war of aggression in Ukraine has become a nuclear crisis. A nuclear crisis is a confrontation with a heightened probability of military hostilities, that takes place in, and is conditioned by, the shadow of nuclear weapons and their possible use. And this nuclear crisis may endure for some time. We don’t know how long this will last or where it is headed. As things stand, Ukraine may be spared a rapid conquest. But it may then suffer the distress of a protracted war and occupation, well beyond the time scale and costs that Putin’s regime hoped for. The war itself is already inflicting brutal losses. And now that both Ukraine, NATO, and a broader US-led coalition counters it with arms, economic sanctions, intelligence and diplomacy, nuclear-armed states are on a dangerous potential collision course. Through inadvertence or miscalculation, the economic war, proxy war and war of words could tip over into an actual shooting conflict. 

How do the warring sides (Ukrainians, the wider West, and Russia) survive this? By ‘survive’, I mean not only staying alive by avoiding a major war between NATO and Russia in and over Ukraine. I also mean ensuring that what westerners value, their lives and liberty, are secure enough beyond this theatre and further down the track. For while the conflict is centred in Ukraine, it flows from a more profound and wider collision over how Europe should be ordered. It will take prudent management to contain the spill-over. It is a time for cool heads capable of grasping enough of the problem’s complexity, even amid the velocity and fog of war. Consider these four propositions. 

We should be aware of ‘decisive’ solutions that focus on being right or just, above being effective

Two siren songs are especially beguiling. One is the temptation to put the brakes on now by using diplomacy as a substitute for war rather than as symbiotic with the fighting, rushing into any concessions that might give immediate relief with little thought for the longer-term consequences. Some of Russia’s demands, such as the secession of the eastern republics, are too much to ask, and would lay the basis for further aggression. Not only would a more dismembered Ukraine create a platform for more adventurism, Moscow could judge that it achieved its aims at an acceptable cost. There is growing evidence that Moscow’s ultimate aims in Ukraine are maximalist, the annexation of the country, and giving away major concessions from this point would hardly discourage such ambitions. It is not in our interests for Russia to judge that it came out of Ukraine with an unambiguous win. Vladimir Putin is not Adolf Hitler, but such success could increase the regime’s appetite, in Ukraine and beyond, to other neighbouring countries and NATO’s eastern flank. Rather, the goal should be to deplete Russia by making such ambitions unattractive, or at least more unfeasible.  

Equally, there is the opposite temptation, to prize righteous war over diplomacy by ramping up hostilities with NATO directly. Russia’s violent lunge has called forth passions, anger, and fear, and rightly so. But this in itself raises dangers. The coming of a predator, and one that can be slowed down and frustrated by counter-pressure, will tempt some to reach for responses that are morally upright and appealing to the liberal conscience, while abandoning limits or due regard for consequences. Advocates of measures beyond sanctions, arms and intelligence, hope or assume that Russia will back off, and that only a display of uncompromising resolve can keep us safe, raising the risk of major war now to avoid running it later, and with little thought about how the adversary will see things and react. 

While the West’s strategy should aim to deplete Russia in its attack, it should beware of taking Russia to the brink. As Dan Altman argues, NATO should avoid certain measures that dramatically raise the risks of direct escalation. These include adopting a goal of ‘regime change’ (or more recklessly, calling for Putin’s assassination), enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, projecting power openly from NATO bases, formalising an alliance with Ukraine, or putting western combat forces in Ukraine. We can’t know for sure, but each of these measures alone or together would either mean war with Russia, or at least a state of brinksmanship that can barely be managed, and over a conflict of potentially long duration. As far as possible, the west should preserve Russia’s incentives to limit its risk-taking from this point onwards.

Nothing is certain, but we can be confident that directly escalatory measures would add to Russia’s perception of threat and introduce a destabilising sense of haste into Moscow’s calculations. We may be content that our aims and alliances are defensive, but Russia cannot know our intentions, and what any step will be a prelude towards. If it starts to fear that the struggle is existential, and feels pressure to pre-empt further steps up the ladder, or if it suspects that its greater resolve enables it to frighten the West off, it may be tempted to gamble, and attack western states with conventional or nuclear weapons as a trump card. We cannot control Russia’s decision. But we can decide whether to put our foot on the first rung of the escalation ladder, and whether we are willing to climb it. If we are not, we should leave the ladder alone.

It is false to argue that we ‘might as well’ increase the risk of major war with Russia now, since if we did not, Russia would force us to later. This ignores the fundamental difference between fighting to defend a non-ally and fighting to defend a NATO ally under Article V protection and extended deterrence. The difference isn’t that one involves nuclear risk, and the other does not. What makes it different is the degree of resolve and the intensity of interest at stake. Failing to defend NATO states like Estonia would destroy NATO, and this is what makes it more credible that NATO will defend it, thereby making deterrence stronger. Whereas in Ukraine, western commitment is less credible because Moscow regards the country’s status as a core interest worth bleeding for. 

Conditions ripe for a negotiated withdrawal do not yet exist

While channels should remain open to dialogue, at this point it is simply too hard to agree a bargain that all sides can live with, or even the terms of any ceasefire. The state of the battle itself (losses, prospects, and time) shapes the parties’ aims and their appetite for bargaining. Whether we like it or not, the fighting and the talking are intertwined in messy ways. A lopsided contest in the early phase would discourage the winning side from making concessions. A state of equilibrium relatively early on gives both sides incentive enough to keep fighting. 

Nations at war endure the distress of war because they fear the possible post-war future. All sides will be reluctant to commit to any future in which their core interests still seem threatened by the adversary they distrust. This is especially so if the warring sides still believe they can strengthen their position. Russia has already suffered ‘sunk costs’ in people, equipment, and economic pain, which makes compromise harder to accept. It remains fearful of Ukraine’s ties with the West. Moscow will fear America breaking assurances again and it is determined to prevent Ukraine reverting to its pathway of becoming an advanced western base. Plus, the regime is probably feeling more insecure, adding pressure to come away with concrete gains. While its campaign thus far has been beset by logistical, operational and planning failures, it has not yet unleashed its full onslaught. They will still bet that overwhelming force can succeed. 

For its part, Ukraine as a belligerent also gets to decide what it is willing to suspend fighting for. This is not a moral point but a political observation: as an invaded country which is choosing to resist, Ukraine is a party to the conflict and has a choice in the matter. Ukraine will fear Russia breaking promises and re-invading yet again. To agree on any alternative to all-out protracted conflict, it would need meaningful concessions from Russia. Ukraine’s defence thus far is also going better than they would have hoped. Ukrainians will also be encouraged by international support. Even to get Ukraine seriously to the table, Russia will have to pause firebombing its cities, and getting it to do that will require it to suffer further losses.

There is already a sophisticated discussion about what any settlement would look like. A prudent ‘middle’ might involve ratifying Russia’s prior theft of Crimea, agreed Ukrainian neutrality, Russian withdrawal, and demobilisation near the border. The least bad strategy at this point may be to inflict enough pain to reach a stalemate later, whereby victory at reasonable price and ‘maximal’ aims become too remote, and where all sides can agree to both win and lose, in a measure. Russia in this scenario would achieve gains to a point. While, as Mike Sweeney argues, the campaign has already demonstrated the difficulty both of attacking and occupying Ukraine, and Ukraine could point to the losses it inflicted on Russia as the basis both for deterring further attempts to invasion, and for the viability of armed neutrality. It’s not a complicated idea, just very difficult to get to and build on.

We must look to threat scenarios beyond Ukraine

The West should intervene in this particular war not just to shape its internal course, but with an eye to the longer-term consequences of its ending. 

This has already begun, with the welcome development of NATO states committing to carry a greater share of the defence burden in Europe, with Germany’s new defence programme being the most significant development. European states should continue to increase their burden of defence, anticipating the increased pressure on the US to focus its power on the Indo-Pacific and the containment of China. When Russia emerges from the Ukraine war, it should be faced by a well-armed NATO, designed both to fight at high intensity and combined arms war at scale, to deter or defeat direct full-frontal aggression, while also organised and deployed to preclude fait accompli measures that Russia could use to induce a crisis that wrecks NATO from within. At the same time, this version of NATO should end its dalliance with alliance promises to Georgia and Ukraine, focussing on giving the alliance depth rather than added breadth.

It is worth also thinking about what kind of Russia will emerge. A successful Russia will be dangerous, especially if it can limit its losses or ride out the economic crisis. Success can raise a predator’s ambitions and, worse, make it think heaven or history is on its side. But a bloodied, weakened Russia will also be dangerous, even a post-Putin Russia. An all-out economic-cyber effort to strangle a nuclear-armed revisionist power may indeed have the effect of bringing down Russia’s current leadership—though there is a long history of coercion efforts rallying the populations of adversaries around the national flag. But too many assume that the successor in Moscow will be desirable – more democratic, more peaceable, and less imperial. We cannot make such complacent assumptions. Frustrating Russia in Ukraine will not terminate its resentment of encroachment or its determination to resist further EU or NATO enlargement, so trying to break Russia (as opposed to countering and weakening it) could aggravate rather than calm the demons that led to this point.   

Western leaders should resist demagoguery, against strong temptations otherwise

For the West, the argument over how to balance resisting evil with avoiding major war will likely intensify and poison domestic politics. The horrific footage of atrocities will increase the clamour to do something, or anything, more. Arguments for limitation will attract charges of fecklessness, or worse, the all too frequent slur that one’s opponent is the ally or stooge of a hostile foreign power. And arguments for doing more will attract charges of unspeakable motives and warmongering. As the war drags on, calls for collective reprisal or even a Kulturkampf against Russians at home or abroad will increase. 

Protracted war tends to debase societies and corrupt their democratic politics. In Thucydides’ immortal account of the long Peloponnesian conflict, Athens is afflicted by the interaction of disaster abroad and disarray at home. Arguing about Russia is all the more fraught, because Putinism is identified with sinister subversive forces linked to the western far right. The net effect could be that any prudential discussions of what will work and what won’t, will descend into a polemical exercise in questioning other’s motives and loyalty. This both damages democracy and a country’s capacity to conduct a coherent foreign policy. The least leaders can do is restrain themselves and mind their tone as they argue through the choices. That too is a duty of all citizens. Foreign policy, after all, is made at home.

Patrick Porter

Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020).

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