An alternative to arming Ukraine

My recent post on why arming the Ukrainians is a bad idea occasioned quite a bit of criticism. After discarding the multitude of comments accusing me of either appeasement or Nazism (or both), the most consistent critique focused on the lack of an alternative. My Brookings colleagues Strobe Talbott and Steve Pifer threw down that precise gauntlet in their response.

As a general rule, a proposal to send arms into an active war is an act of commission that bears the burden of proof for justifying itself. It need only be compared to the very plausible alternative of not sending such arms—and in this case, it fails even on those terms. But regardless, an alternative is ready at hand. Samuel Charap of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and I wrote about it this past October in Current History under the title “How to Avoid a New Cold War.”

It’s not Ukraine, it’s you

Our central point is that Ukraine is actually just one battleground in a broader struggle between Russia and the West over the regional order in Europe. The Western concept of the post-Cold War security order in Europe was that stability and prosperity come from non-negotiable acceptance of the rules of Western organizations like the European Union (EU) and NATO. Such a concept could never integrate a country like Russia, both because Russia’s multiplicity of economic, social, and security problems require more flexibility than that, and because Russia’s sense of its own greatness would never allow it.    

The West’s effort, since the end of the Cold War, to treat Russia as a normal European country with no greater sovereign rights than, say, Luxembourg or Latvia, infuriates the hyper-nationalist lurking within most Russian leaders. The continued Western insistence on this view of Russia, even as Russia’s power has risen in recent years, convinces its leaders that the
West will not stop until Russia is reduced to a level of subservience to the United States similar to that of other European countries.
 Russian leaders see U.S. involvement in Ukraine in precisely this light. 
As Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev put it on February 10
, “The U.S. has been trying to entangle Russia in an interstate military conflict and to make use of the developments in Ukraine for regime change and, ultimately, for splitting our country.”

This means that there is little point in negotiating or even fighting over Ukraine alone. Even if, by some miracle, the ceasefire negotiated in Minsk holds, or the Russians were forced by provision of arms to accept Western demands vis-à-vis Ukraine, conflict would break out again, in Ukraine or elsewhere, as long as the core dispute over the regional order remained unresolved. Instead, in order to solve the problem, we need to begin a negotiation on the question of the European security order and Russia’s role within it. Russia has been asking for this negotiation since at least 1989, but the West has never really taken that request seriously. We now need to enter into a negotiation to revise the European security order on terms acceptable to Russia and the West. 

Strength through weakness

This would necessarily involve difficult compromises, but it is both possible and necessary because of Russia’s fundamental weakness. Regardless of its self-image, Russia is a declining state. Russian decline means it hardly matters if Russia’s long-term plan is to reconquer all of Eastern Europe. It will not have the capacity to do so. So we need not worry about Russian strength, but rather about what it will do as it begins to perceive it is weak. Along current trends, Russia will at that point have many thousands of nuclear weapons and the threat perception of a paranoid schizophrenic. To avoid that outcome, we can afford to accommodate Russia in the short-term and work toward a better Western-Russian relationship that will make managing Russian decline easier. 

We do not underestimate the complexities such a negotiation would pose, particularly given the current political climate in both the West and Russia, but also given the difficult compromises that would need to be made on all sides—Western, Russian, and the states in between. But the first step is understanding the nature of the problem and setting an inclusive regional security order as a goal. 

Of course, Ukraine and other similarly placed states do “get a vote” in this and they can opt out of any negotiation or agreement. But the United States also gets a vote. And it is a U.S. sovereign foreign policy decision as to whether to provide assistance to countries that insist on a fully independent foreign policy but rely on the power of others to uphold that right. In that decision, no other country gets a vote. A sad fact of international life is that the United States, EU, and Ukraine working together cannot create a regional security order that promotes peace and stability. Only the United States, EU, and Russia working together can do that. 

We detailed some of the specifics of how to structure this negotiation in a subsequent version of the article. In the end, the West would have to explicitly part with the take-the-acquis-or-leave-it approach, both for Russia and for those countries in between. This means it would have to recognize some form of Russian special role in its neighborhood while Russia would have to forswear military intervention in the affairs of its neighbors. 

Of course, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has broken many of its previous commitments. It is, unfortunately, rather commonplace for great powers to break agreements when they want to. But the alternative to finding some negotiated agreement with Russia is to slide gradually toward all-out war with a nuclear superpower—even if Russian loses in Ukraine. Since we can’t trust Putin and we can’t overthrow his regime, we need to find an agreement that he believes is in his best interest to uphold. Only an agreement that creates an inclusive security order in the region – one that Russia can accept – will satisfy that condition. Fortunately, great powers historically have abided by agreements they believe to be in their interests. 

The balance sheet

So there is the alternative. How does it stack up against the strategy of providing the Ukrainians with weapons? Let’s take a look.

• Addresses the real dispute at the heart of the Western-Russian conflict.
• Greatly reduces the risk of war or a nuclear exchange with Russia.
• Maintains U.S. foreign policy independence and does not tie the United States to a corrupt and indefensible ally.
• Does not require spending large sums of money on armaments for the Ukrainian Army and other future proxies.
• Would produce an agreement the Russians would observe.
• Spares Ukraine from more and worse cycles of death and destruction.


• Risks reducing U.S. credibility in the eyes of both domestic and international audiences.
• Limits Ukraine’s ability—and that of other states near Russia—to join Western institutions such as NATO and the EU.  
• Risks that Russia will increase it demands during the negotiations.
• Risks that the negotiation will fail.

Even though there are real downsides to our approach, I believe it is a better alternative. But that may be because I place a much higher value on minimizing the risk of being vaporized than on maintaining Ukraine’s absolute right to an independent foreign policy. Admittedly, if your priorities are otherwise, you might rationally choose to arm the Ukrainians.

In the end, the West is much stronger than Russia—politically, militarily, and economically. That will tell in the long-term. The only question is whether, in the long-term, we are all dead.