Why the Ukraine crisis is still very dangerous (short version)

I am about to post a long piece on the Ukraine crisis derived from a talk I gave last week at Berkeley. I have indulged myself, however, and allowed it to grow too long for the average reader. So what follows is an eight-point summary of the argument for those with less patience.

  • The U.S. and its NATO allies have been taking significant steps to build up NATO’s eastern defenses since Russia annexed Crimea early last year, and those measures are going to continue. They have also been providing military assistance to Ukraine, and that assistance is going to increase. If the fighting in eastern Ukraine ramps up again, it is very likely that the U.S. and at least some of its NATO allies will begin providing lethal weapons to Kyiv, which will likely mean an all-out proxy war between the West and Russia in Ukraine. It might also precipitate an open Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • Western governments are increasing military assistance to Georgia, and NATO membership for Georgia (as well as for Ukraine) has not been taken off the table. Indeed, Western officials continue to signal that Georgia is on a path toward eventual NATO accession.
  • Not just the Kremlin but the Russian political elite and public broadly view all this as extremely provocative, as an illegitimate encroachment on Russia’s rightful sphere of influence, and as a threat to Russian national security. While many Westerners find those interpretations implausible and unwarranted given Russia’s behavior towards its neighbors, it does not really matter what they think as far as the risk of war goes – what matters is what Moscow thinks.
  • Although Russian officials have made very clear that Moscow views NATO’s military response to the Ukraine crisis as threatening and illegitimate, the Kremlin’s redlines are not particularly clear. Nor is it clear how it will react if those redlines are crossed, openly or covertly.
  • Nonetheless, the Kremlin will take countermeasures one way or the other, and it will do so in part asymmetrically – that is, it will respond not only in Ukraine but in the Middle East, East Asia, the Arctic, and so on, and it will make moves in arenas where it believes it has a comparative advantage, such as brinksmanship, including nuclear brinksmanship, or cyberwar by proxy. (I outlined some of these possible responses in earlier posts, but see in particular “No own goals at the September NATO summit,” posted on June 16, 2014.) Part of Moscow’s response will be political and economic in nature, but a good part – and the most dangerous part – will be military.
  • Moscow’s response is also going to be guided by a (doubtless correct) assumption that the Russian public has a much higher pain threshold, and a considerably higher tolerance for risk, than either the U.S. or especially West European public.
  • The current confrontation between Russia and the West entails a risk of a military clash between NATO and Russia. I would characterize it as a kind of Black Swan-type risk – not in the sense that it is inherently unpredictable, but in the sense that it is a low probability event with potentially enormous and unforeseeable consequences.
  • The current goings on in and around the Kremlin (notably Putin’s apparent health problems, the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a possible challenge to Kremlin authority from the Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, and signs of serious differences among elite factions in Moscow) only add uncertainty to an already uncertain, and dangerous, relationship between Russia and the West. I believe they should be viewed a wildcard factor that makes risk assessment all the more difficult, not as signs of Putin’s imminent demise or a change of direction in foreign or domestic policy.


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