The real trouble with Ukraine

The west risks overreacting to Russia's gamble

Putin has been winning in Ukraine. The country is nowhere near joining NATO, a western goal only a few years ago, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a geopolitical fact. Putin is also a master in using military force in ways that don’t quite cross over to hot war. Western powers have been signalling that they won’t allow a new invasion of Ukraine to go unpunished. But judging when to act, and how, is crucial. The pompous, yet vacuous rhetoric used by the west risks pushing the conflict over the line into a military one, for which there is no strategy or exit plan, writes Hew Strachan.


On December  12 the foreign ministers of the G7 states met in Liverpool to avert the danger of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. They were a bit late. The war has been going on for well over seven years. In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea and occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of the Donbass in Ukraine’s south-east. Sporadic fighting and a steady if sustainable flow of casualties have continued ever since.

The front line, with its trenches and no man’s land, is fixed, not fluid. The western powers can conveniently classify this as a ‘frozen conflict’, not a ‘hot’ war.  That suits Russia. It serves geopolitical purposes which reach back to the reign of Catherine the Great. The question is now whether Russia’s escalation will make that fiction impossible to sustain for the west. Sometimes rhetoric binds you to unwise acts.

Russia’s strategy in Ukraine has been working

Regaining control of Ukraine reflects Russia’s long-term interests. It secures Russia’s access from the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea and thence – via the international waterway of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles – to the Mediterranean.  The combination of a warm-water port, open all the year round, with the grain surpluses of Ukraine made this part of the Tsarist empire of vital economic and strategic importance. Ukraine was integral to Russia while conscious of its own national difference. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 Ukraine became an independent socialist republic but, following a bloody civil war, by 1921 most of it was absorbed in the Soviet Union. For Russia, Ukraine indubitably remains part of its ‘near abroad’.

The cards are almost all in Putin’s hands.

Putin’s aim has been equally consistent.  Ukraine must not become a NATO member. That would put the old Cold War adversary directly athwart Russia’s routes south and end any hopes of Ukraine’s re-incorporation within Russia’s sphere of interest. So far he is winning. In 2014 Barak Obama seemed to favour NATO extending membership to Ukraine, although openly he confined himself to calling on it to help in its military modernisation. It was clear, when the NATO members met in Wales that year, that Ukraine could not expect anything more.  In 2021 nothing has changed.  Ukraine is still not a NATO member and so is not covered by article 5 of the Atlantic Charter, which makes an attack on one an attack on all.  Neither President Biden, when he met Putin online for talks, nor the G7 foreign ministers in Liverpool put a military option on the table. If Russia defreezes the conflict, economic sanctions will follow, not an escalation to major war.

The cards are almost all in Putin’s hands. He has already gained a great deal. He has told the west what he wants and so far they have acceded to that demand. Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, would like Ukraine to be a NATO member but there have been no echoing chords from western leaders. As the long-term head of a unitary power, unfettered by the sometimes converging but frequently divergent interests of an alliance, Putin can act unilaterally and at speed. He can stop and start as he chooses. He is operating on short lines of communication, adjacent to Russia’s own frontiers, across which there are ethnic Russians for whom his first language is also theirs. Most of them are entirely loyal to the nations in which they reside but that does not stop him manipulating their presence as the threat of a fifth column. Above all, he understands how to use military force in limited ways.

As it emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and as the threat of an imminent nuclear exchange lessened the leverage of deterrence in maintaining the global order, Russia re-engaged with the idea of war as a continuation of policy by other means. So, of course, did the United States, especially after the 9/11 attacks. But they did so in different ways. Both use limited means (which above all excludes the use of nuclear weapons) but only Russia adopts ends which are also limited and so configured to match the means it is ready to employ. Its objectives are politically specific (that Ukraine should not become a NATO member) and geographically contained. By using proxies, ‘little green men’, disinformation and plausible deniability, and also by operating in its own backyard, it keeps means and ends in step.

Rhetoric which borders on the vacuous does not establish clear foreign policy objectives and fails to generate strategies capable of effective application.

The west’s rhetorical ambiguity

The western powers seem incapable of not dressing up every confrontation as an existential crisis for freedom and democracy. This does not mean that NATO and the western powers are not in the business of protecting both, and rightly so. But rhetoric which borders on the vacuous does not establish clear foreign policy objectives and fails to generate strategies capable of effective application. Given the ambitions of the ‘global war on terror’ in 2001 and their abject defeat in Afghanistan in 2021, the emptiness of big ideologies as declaratory war aims should be evident. But in the same week both President Biden and the British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, produced similar statements. The only military element in Biden’s remarks was a reference to article 5, but only designed to reassure existing NATO members also adjacent to Russia’s borders, Poland and the Baltic states. It is worth noting that the British tank in whose turret Truss was photographed was in Estonia, not Ukraine.

In December 1994, in Budapest, under the terms of the non-proliferation treaty on nuclear weapons, Russia, the United States and Britain guaranteed the security of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, in return for those three countries giving up the Soviet missiles that had been located on their soil. In 2014 the US and Britain accused Russia of breaching the Budapest agreement by its actions in Crimea and Donbass. Russia responded by charging the US with also doing so, saying it had orchestrated the Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv which had led to the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004 and to those of 2014. The Budapest agreement – not NATO membership – has been the legal foundation for Ukraine’s own claims to international support.

The problem for NATO is less that Putin will overplay his hand and more that it will overplay its.

The problem for Ukraine is that both the US and Britain, unlike Russia, are separated from eastern Europe not just by the sea but also by a significant land mass. Neither of them possesses direct regional leverage. From the outset, the US disputed the idea that the Budapest agreement imposes military obligations on its signatories. Now its people have responded to its administration’s shifting priorities. In 2018 a poll for the Ronald Reagan Institute found that 21 percent of Americans thought China was their greatest threat and 30 percent Russia; today 52 percent fear China and 14 percent Russia. It is hard so see how Biden could sell a war with Russia. Despite the Salisbury attacks, Britain is probably in the same position. It too has used its recent Integrated Review to trumpet its shift to the ‘Asia-Pacific’.

Time is on Putin’s side, yes it is

Putin is an opportunist with a long-term strategy and his timing looks good.  Historically the big western player in Ukraine since 1917 has been Germany. It used the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 to engineer an economic partnership with Ukraine, initially the better to fight the First World War and then to recover from it. In 1939 Ukraine was fully united for the first time thanks to the German-Soviet pact and the partition of Poland. In 1941 many Ukrainians – ill-advisedly but not incomprehensibly – welcomed the German invasion of Soviet Russia. For these very reasons, however, a very different Germany remains reluctant to exercise its latent hegemony in 2021. The new coalition government is most unlikely to use military force and, although it is supportive of the G7’s possible use of economic sanctions, it remains to be seen whether it will abandon the Nord Stream 2 gas supply from Russia.

The problem for NATO is less that Putin will overplay his hand and more that it will overplay its.  So far Putin has adroitly remained below the threshold where he would tip his western adversaries into overt war. When they identify Russia’s actions as ‘hybrid warfare’, using subversion and dissension as instruments designed to achieve its objectives, they implicitly recognise NATO’s own vulnerabilities. The dangers here are twofold. First, the onus to escalate will be on NATO, not on Russia. Secondly, the US and Britain could translate their rhetorical ambiguity into military action, although they have not thought through whether they have the will or the means to put their ambitions into effect. Dominated by domestic political challenges and rendered dysfunctional and inward-looking by the Omicron variant (for all its international transmissibility), they seem unable to think strategically. The biggest danger then is miscalculation – and one whose consequences would be open-ended. The US withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement in 2019 has undermined the security architecture created to accommodate nuclear weapons in Europe, a point which Russia is exploiting. Nor would the consequences be confined to one continent. After all, a ‘hot’ war in eastern Europe, even if not orchestrated by Russia with China, would also create opportunities for the latter in East Asia and the western Pacific.

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Emily Holbert 15 December 2021

It's so sad that a lot of countries nowadays have armed conflicts. I hope one day everything will stop, and everything will be solved peacefully