How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
Thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin, NATO’s Madrid Summit takes place this week against the backdrop of a resurgent Western alliance. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine compels NATO to return to its founding mission of providing collective defense against Russia. Members of the alliance are demonstrating remarkable unity and resolve as they funnel arms to Ukraine, increase defense spending, bolster the alliance’s eastern flank, and impose severe economic sanctions against Russia.
The invasion of Ukraine has shown that NATO is back, but the reality is that it never went away. The alliance was actually in good shape even before Putin launched his errant war, which is one of the reasons that it has been able to respond to developments in Ukraine with such alacrity and solidarity. Since the Cold War’s end, NATO has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to the times, undertaking operations far afield, including in Afghanistan and in the Balkans, and opening its doors to Europe’s new democracies. As a consequence of the war in Ukraine, an already strong NATO just got stronger.
But despite its clean bill of health and demonstrable unity, NATO faces a thicket of thorny issues, and discussions in Madrid will only just begin to address them. The war in Ukraine will, of course, dominate the summit. The conversation is poised to focus on the easy part: getting more arms to the frontlines. But NATO also needs to take up the hard part: when and how to marry the flow of weapons to a diplomatic strategy aimed at producing a cease-fire and follow-on negotiations over territory. The urgency of making that pivot stems from the need not just to end the death and destruction but to limit the war’s economic spillover, which could threaten the Atlantic alliance from within by eroding solidarity and weakening the West’s democratic foundations. The conflict in Ukraine also puts on NATO’s agenda a set of additional challenges: managing the future of enlargement, channeling Europe’s growing geopolitical aspirations, and building a transatlantic architecture that can accommodate the ever more complex and diverse issues facing the West.
The transatlantic effort to support Ukraine has focused on providing the country the weapons it needs to defend itself. That is as it should be. Kyiv needs more firepower to resist, and even reverse, Russian advances in Ukraine’s east and south. The goal, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is to “defend every meter of our land.” Washington has so far been unwilling to caution Kyiv against seeking the full expulsion of Russian troops from its land. “We’re not going to tell the Ukrainians how to negotiate, what to negotiate and when to negotiate,” Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, has stated. “They’re going to set those terms for themselves.”
But it is time for NATO to focus on a diplomatic endgame and capitalize on its successful effort to strengthen Ukraine’s hand by facilitating a cease-fire and follow-on negotiations. Since Ukraine’s initial military successes, momentum on the battlefield has shifted to Russia’s advantage, which is one of the reasons France, Germany, Italy, and other U.S. allies are pressing for a turn toward diplomacy. Washington has so far resisted. As President Joe Biden put it in early June, “I will not pressure the Ukrainian government—in private or public—to make any territorial concessions.”
But Washington can hold off for only so long. At issue is not just maintaining transatlantic solidarity by picking up the European call for a strategy that includes a pathway to a diplomatic settlement. Even with additional weaponry, Ukraine likely lacks the combat power to drive Russian forces from all its territory or even to restore the territorial status quo of February. Continuing the war may well mean more loss of life and territory, not battlefield gains for Kyiv. And the longer the war goes on, the higher the risk of escalation, whether by design or by accident, and the more prolonged and severe its disruptions to the global economy and food supply.
Of particular concern are the war’s economic effects on NATO members themselves, including the potential impact of rampant inflation on American politics. The domestic foundations of U.S. foreign policy are much more fragile than they once were. The bipartisan centrism that prevailed during the Cold War is long gone, giving way not just to polarization but to a potent strain of neo-isolationist sentiment. Former President Donald Trump’s “America first” foreign policy was a symptom more than a cause of this inward turn. Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” signals that Democrats, too, are sensitive to the electorate’s desire for Washington to spend more time and resources solving problems at home instead of abroad. Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan delivered on that front. His ambitious agenda for domestic investment and renewal also aimed at improving the lives of Americans, getting the middle class back on its feet, and rebuilding the nation’s political center.
As a consequence of the war in Ukraine, an already strong NATO just got stronger.
The war in Ukraine, along with perpetual congressional gridlock, has sidelined this critical agenda of domestic repair. To be sure, the provision of military and economic assistance to Ukraine enjoys an unusual level of bipartisan support. Nonetheless, time is not on the side of bipartisanship, which is poised to dissipate as the November midterms near. The war, coming on top of the supply disruptions caused by the pandemic, is contributing to economic conditions that are playing into the hands of “America first” Republicans. Inflation is at 40-year highs; the price of gas, food, and other essential items keeps climbing. The stock market is swooning amid talk of an impending recession. The war in Ukraine is hardly the sole cause of these economic tribulations, but it is certainly playing an important role. It is also soaking up the Biden administration’s precious time and political capital.
With these economic conditions as a backdrop, the midterms are poised to put the House and, probably, the Senate in Republican hands. The complexion of the Republican cohort that would call the shots in Congress is impossible to predict, but the party is likely to tilt further in the “America first” direction. J. D. Vance, buoyed by an endorsement from Trump, recently won a hotly contested Senate primary in Ohio. His views of the war in Ukraine may be emblematic of what is to come: “I think it’s ridiculous that we are focused on this border in Ukraine. I got to be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.”
It is worth keeping in mind that Trump withheld military assistance to Ukraine to extract political dirt on Biden, regularly insulted NATO allies, and expressed interest in withdrawing the United States from NATO. He, or some other “America first” Republican, could well return to such wayward policies if elected. A political or constitutional crisis of some sort is also a possibility. Just before Putin invaded Ukraine, a poll revealed that 64 percent of Americans fear that U.S. democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.” This is all to say that electoral outcomes in Ohio may have at least as much impact on European security and the future of liberal democracy as military outcomes in the Donbas.
Europe, too, needs to keep a watchful eye on the domestic front. Europeans have demonstrated remarkable generosity in hosting millions of Ukrainian refugees, but the warm welcome may wear thin and could well produce a political backlash; previous waves of immigration have strengthened the hand of illiberal populists. In the meantime, food shortages in Africa exacerbated by the war in Ukraine could trigger a humanitarian crisis and confront Europeans with yet another influx of desperate migrants. Persistent inflation and the prospect of energy shortages next winter could also weaken Europe’s impressive resolve in standing up to Russia. As Robert Habeck, Germany’s economy minister, warned earlier this month, “We are in a gas crisis. Gas is a scarce commodity from now on. . . . This will affect industrial production and become a big burden for many consumers.”
The domestic foundations of U.S. foreign policy are much more fragile than they once were.
Italy’s government is already wobbling due to internal disputes over the provision of arms to Ukraine and German leaders continue to squabble over the delivery of heavy weapons. Emmanuel Macron may have been reelected in France in April, but some 40 percent of the electorate voted for Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate who is a fan of Putin and pledged to withdraw her country from NATO’s military command. That Macron lost an absolute majority in the lower house of parliament is a further sign of popular discontent. Le Pen’s party, the National Rally, surged from eight to 89 seats.
The West’s sanctions against Moscow, even as they take a toll on the global economy, have so far failed to have the intended effect in Russia. Because of the soaring price of crude, Russia continues to enjoy ample oil revenues. And even though the value of the ruble plunged when Russia launched its invasion in February, it has rebounded and recently hit a seven-year high against the dollar. The United States and its G-7 partners agreed earlier this week to pursue further measures to restrict trade with Russia and also discussed putting a price cap on purchases of Russian oil to ease inflationary pressures and lower Russia’s revenues. The potential impact of these next steps remains uncertain.
Yes, the West must stand by Ukraine, punish Russian expansionism, and defend against further acts of aggression. But it also needs to weigh these priorities against the imperative of preventing illiberal populists from taking power on both sides of the Atlantic. The price of gas in Ohio or Bavaria seems of trivial relevance against the backdrop of Ukraine’s valiant fight for its freedom. But managing the war in Ukraine also means navigating the dangerous shoals of American and European politics. Ukraine would certainly not be the beneficiary should “America first” Republicans come to power in the United States or pro-Moscow populists gain ground in Europe.
It would indeed be cruel irony if NATO succeeds in helping Kyiv thwart Putin’s predatory ambition only to see the Atlantic democracies fall prey to threats from within. Even as they send more howitzers and drones to Ukraine, NATO leaders need to pay close attention to the economic and political blowback from the war on their own societies. When they do so, they will better appreciate the need to facilitate a cease-fire and support Ukraine’s cause at the negotiating table.
Moving from war to negotiations, of course, does not offer a quick fix to the economic dislocations produced by the conflict; sanctions against Russia could well remain in place for quite some time. But diplomacy ultimately offers the only pathway to easing the geopolitical tensions that continue to disrupt energy and food supplies and contribute to inflationary pressures.
NATO members will have their hands full dealing with the war in Ukraine, managing fraught relations with Russia, reinforcing the alliance’s eastern flank, and after the fighting ends, participating in post-conflict reconstruction. But they must also begin looking beyond the war and its immediate consequences to draw broader lessons.
The conflict in Ukraine has made clear the need for fresh thinking about advancing security in Europe’s “gray zone,” the lands between NATO and Russia. Even as the war grinds on, a constructive conversation is emerging over Ukraine’s potential geopolitical status moving forward. How this issue evolves may provide a model for Georgia, Moldova, and other countries that have been looking to the West but may not be destined for NATO membership now that Russia has thrown down the gauntlet in Ukraine.
Three intertwined approaches are taking shape to advance the security needs of countries in Europe’s gray zone. First, permanent neutrality offers these states a means of strengthening their sovereignty and independence while taking into consideration Russia’s objections to the further eastward enlargement of NATO. Ukraine embraced neutrality after it separated from the Soviet Union in 1991. It was not until 2019, in response to Russia’s 2014 land grab in Crimea and the Donbas, that Ukraine enshrined in its constitution its intention to join NATO. According to Putin, the prospect of Ukraine’s membership in the alliance played a role in his decision to invade again. In his February 24 address to the nation justifying the “special military operation,” Putin pointed to “the fundamental threats which irresponsible Western politicians created for Russia. . . . I am referring to the eastward expansion of NATO, which is moving its military infrastructure ever closer to the Russian border.” During the early weeks of the war, Kyiv seemed ready to embrace a return to neutrality. Should that outcome emerge as part of a negotiated settlement to the war, Ukraine’s neutrality may serve as model for the region.
Greater clarity on NATO’s future could help dampen rivalry between Russia and the West.
Second, neutrality would be accompanied by security assurances from a coalition of willing countries. Such assurances would fall short of the formal defense guarantees that would accompany NATO membership, but they would commit signatories to help maintain the security and nonaligned status of countries in Europe’s gray zone. These arrangements would go beyond previous levels of Western support, likely entailing additional military training and arms transfers during peacetime and robust military support should the states enjoying such assurances face attack. Ukraine again serves as a good model. NATO members are not sending troops to Ukraine to join the fight, but they are providing Ukraine with the wherewithal to defend itself. When the war ends, Ukraine could well find itself in a state of armed neutrality, with ongoing economic and military support from NATO members strengthening its hand in the negotiations over territory that may well follow a cease-fire.
The third plank of security in the gray zone would be membership in the EU. Brussels has already granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate status, while Georgia is in the waiting room. Although accession negotiations can take a decade or perhaps longer, candidate status provides aspirants a political shot in the arm and gives their governments the leverage they need to tackle corruption and implement onerous economic and political reforms—key steps that Ukraine needs to take to extract itself from the oligarchic legacy of its past. EU membership would eventually mark formal institutional inclusion in the community of Atlantic democracies, while avoiding the provocation of Russia that would come with membership in NATO. As Putin put it recently when confronted with the prospect of Ukrainian entry into the EU, “We have nothing against it. It’s their sovereign decision to join economic unions or not. . . . It’s their business, the business of the Ukrainian people.”
In this scenario, NATO would take in Finland and Sweden, and the alliance would eventually integrate aspirants in the Balkans. But it would go no further. Setting a transparent limit on NATO’s eastward enlargement and instead looking to the EU to extend its reach into Europe’s gray zone may finally enable the West and Russia to set aside an issue that has bedeviled their relationship since NATO enlargement began soon after the end of the Cold War. Even if Putin has used NATO expansion as a pretext for his land grabs, greater clarity on NATO’s future could help dampen rivalry between Russia and the West.
The war in Ukraine has been a geopolitical wake-up call for Europe—and NATO should capitalize on this moment. Europe has made numerous false starts over the years at acquiring more geopolitical strength and responsibility, but this time, thanks to Russia, the effort may well yield more impressive results. Russian aggression has already prompted Europeans to make new and substantial investments in military capability. Germany has allocated 100 billion euros to upgrade its dilapidated military and has agreed to meet NATO’s benchmark of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. Other European nations have announced sizable increases in their defense budgets. Translating these investments into war-fighting capability will take time and require coordination across national boundaries and between NATO and the EU. But these investments, and Germany’s turnaround in particular, have the potential to be a game-changer, finally endowing Europe with the greater geopolitical heft that that it needs in a world in which great-power rivalry is back. The United States should keep the pressure on its allies and work with them to take full advantage of their new readiness to shoulder greater defense burdens.
A more capable Europe will make for a stronger Atlantic partnership. Democrats and Republicans alike have long complained that NATO needs a sturdier European pillar. Whatever party is in power in Washington, the Atlantic link will be in better shape if Europe brings more geopolitical heft to the table. With Russia now threatening NATO’s eastern flank and tensions in the western Pacific also putting new demands on U.S. resources, Washington will appreciate having more European capability. And even though a renewed Russian threat will keep U.S. forces in Europe for the foreseeable future, Europe needs to be able to act on its own when necessary.
Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine constitutes a traditional act of territorial aggression, it also reveals just how complicated the security agenda has become. The implications of the conflict cut across a wide variety of issues. Military affairs and intelligence are front and center, but so is energy security. Stepping away from reliance on Russian fossil fuels may be a strategic necessity, but it also has negative effects on climate change as Europe reopens shuttered coal-fired electricity plants and as energy producers pump more oil and gas. Cybersecurity, food security, supply chains, migration, relations with China, the international payments system—the war has left few issues untouched.
Transatlantic institutions need to adapt accordingly. NATO can handle some, but certainly not all, of these cross-cutting issues. It has been quite adept at integrating cybersecurity into its agenda, and the alliance has begun a constructive conversation about the geopolitical consequences of China’s rise. Notably, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea are attending the Madrid Summit as observers. But on energy security, economic sanctions, digital governance, technological supply lines, climate, and a host of other issues, the EU is the more appropriate interlocutor. The United Kingdom, however, no longer has a seat at the EU table in Brussels, further complicating the task of creating transatlantic institutions adapted to global interdependence.
Deeper linkages between NATO and the EU offer one avenue for better integrating the geopolitical and the geoeconomic. Another option would be to establish a new transatlantic council charged with addressing policy issues in a way that transcends and breaks down institutional and bureaucratic barriers. This body could include representatives from NATO and the EU as well as select member states, providing oversight of a dynamic and diverse transatlantic agenda. The recently established U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council provides a good example of an institutional innovation aimed at enabling policy to keep up with technological change. The fallout from the war makes amply clear how profoundly globalization and interdependence are creating the need for new forms of transatlantic governance and cooperation. Of equal importance, any new oversight body needs to closely monitor the increasingly intimate connections between foreign policy and domestic politics. Should leaders on either side of the Atlantic overlook such connections, they do so at their own peril and that of transatlantic solidarity.
NATO remains an essential pillar of an enduring transatlantic community of shared interests and values. It has amply demonstrated its relevance, efficacy, and unity in marshaling a resolute response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. It is now time for NATO to start moving toward a cease-fire and diplomatic endgame in Ukraine, in no small part to maintain transatlantic solidarity and guard against homegrown threats to liberal democracy that may pose an even greater threat to the Atlantic community than Putin. This pivot needs to be part of a broader effort to build a transatlantic architecture fit for purpose amid the interdependence of the twenty-first century.
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