In a hard-hitting essay published here in the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, A Year of War, the Washington Institute’s Anna Borshchevskaya paints a sobering picture of what Ukrainians, and all in NATO, face. She argues that Russians view the war as an existential struggle for their future. Washington and the rest of NATO are now rightly ensuring that at a minimum Kyiv does not lose and, more vaguely, that it achieves an as-yet unspecified form of victory.
This is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for Ukraine’s survival as an independent state, the core goal of NATO, let alone for a Russian strategic defeat. Saving Ukraine and NATO’s security long term requires the United States to dust off its Cold War containment principles, including security guarantees and troop presence, tempered by flexible diplomacy with the opponent.
For Russia, an Existential War
Anna Borschevskaya’s key point, which some still miss, is that “Putin defines the war as an existential battle for Russia’s survival,” and that “his aspirations go beyond the peripheral parts of Ukraine already in his control.” Furthermore, he is not alone: “even if there is a change of leadership…Moscow’s imperial impetus to control Ukraine will not vanish.”
Other Russia experts recently sound similar notes, including Paul Goble March 7 in the Jamestown Foundation Eurasia Daily Monitor, and Artem Shaipov and Yulia Shaipova in Foreign Policy March 12, who write “Russia’s nature as an imperialist power is incontrovertible.” This author agrees, based on his experiences negotiating with Russian leadership on the Georgia and Syria conflicts.
The war in Ukraine is not an accident but rather flows from the same widely shared Russian logic that motivated Nazi Germany to try to equalize its status with the great powers of its day. By population, economy, military power and global influence, Russia is currently a “B+ league” state. For nationalistic and 19th century realpolitik reasons, Russia seeks “A league” status along with the EU, China, and the U.S. The only way for an ‘almost great power’ to solve this dilemma is to grow, in territory, population, economic and military power, mainly by attacking smaller prey. (Others argue Russia’s actions represent more defensive responses, analogous to the UK actions in the Northern Ireland Troubles, see Anatol Lieven, “What the Fall of Empires Tells Us About the Ukraine War,” Foreign Policy, 6/20/2022. But as Putin’s aggression continues this explanation loses credibility.)
Seizing Ukraine, with almost 30% of Russia’s population, and its extraordinary geographic location, resources, and economy, is an inevitable existential goal. Putin and other Russians stress that their country must either become an A-leaguer – too big to snuff out – or suffer at the hands of great powers the fate of major states like Poland and Mughal India in the 18th century. US protestations that the 20th century made-in-Washington global collective security strategy transcends 19th century realpolitik ring hollow to Moscow in light of what happened to Mosaddegh, Noriega, Saddam, Milosevic, and Qaddafi.
Thus Ukraine, even in the most optimistic military scenario with all captured territory regained, cannot force Russia to abandon its ongoing aggression, any more than North Vietnamese defeats in 1965, 1968, and 1972, and casualties proportionally greater than Russia’s, forced Hanoi to give up its ambitions. Moscow can bide its time, rebuild its forces based on its four times larger population, resources and economic base, either to launch another military offensive and/or to hold Ukrainian reconstruction, refugee return and normalcy hostage to Russian forces wherever a ceasefire line runs.
As Borschevskaya writes, “Putin’s strategy remains focused on outlasting Ukrainian troop reserves. He has more resources to bring to bear, especially since he is not isolated globally, and he does not care how many people he loses….” Reuters reported March 10 a similar assessment by Lithuanian intel chief Paulavicius that Russia could sustain the same level of effort for two more years. And if that pressure eventually results in Ukraine’s collapse or capitulation, NATO will lose its Ukraine buffer and face combat-experienced, victory-flushed Russian forces along hundreds of miles of NATO borders.
Back to Containment
The current Western focus on supporting Ukraine diplomatically and militarily makes sense, buys time for tough decisions and weakens Russia. But it cannot eliminate Russia’s underlying existential threat. Therefore Washington, in consultation with NATO states and Ukraine, needs to accelerate thinking about “the day after.”
Judging from the past century there are only two ways to oppose such an expansionist threat. The first is a total war to occupy and transform that power, as done to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The second, as in the Cold War, is to contain that threat until it eventually passes. As the first alternative is suicidal in the nuclear era, that leaves the second. Its core principles have been (1) deter attack by clear security commitments to a defense line as far forward as possible, backed by troops, and (2) provide diplomatic assurances that the defensive alliance is not out to roll back the aggressive opponent, and (3) eventually reach some modus operandi as with the Soviet Union. (Thus the U.S. did not react to multiple uprisings in the Warsaw Pact between 1953 and 1981, and agreed to limited security arrangements from strategic weapons to the Helsinki Final Act.)
What the world has learned since World War II is that, where there is such a security guarantee along a clear line, particularly backed by even a limited US troop presence, aggressors stand down or retreat: South Korea after 1953, Sinai after 1973, Vietnam in 1972, Bosnia and Kosovo after NATO intervention, Kuwait and Iraqi Kurdistan post-1991, and Syria post-2018. Where there was no such delineation in all the above locations, aggressors struck, regardless of international law, treaties, UN resolutions or ceasefires, exactly as Russia has done in Georgia in 2008, and in Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.
The most logical place to put that line – which is inherently the eastern border of NATO – is, once fighting slows down, along the line of contact in Ukraine, to preserve as much of that country as possible, for moral as well as military reasons.
The details of such security guarantees and troop presence to back such a line cannot be specified in advance, as much depends on the war’s course. But the best option would be a UN Security Council peacekeeping mission, with US participation, avoiding a Russian veto by diplomatic concessions including on sanctions against Russia. Other options include UN General Assembly authorization, such as Korea in 1950, a coalition of the willing, OSCE armed presence, or other more informal arrangements. (A NATO mission in, or NATO membership for, Ukraine is unwise as either would likely provoke Russia to perceive offensive, “roll back” intent.) US troops could be assigned in various roles, as peacekeepers, temporary training deployments for Ukrainian forces, or advisors, or enablers for air defense or long-range fires. Numbers and mission specifics are less important than presence and clarity of Washington’s intention to fight if the line is crossed.
This author does not dismiss the obstacles to such a strategy. Beyond domestic opposition, the current and future US administrations would likely face NATO partners’ anxiety with an American deployment that could drag them into war, and Ukraine might object to Washington supporting only defending its territory, as opposed to recapturing land or punishing Russia. (This was a major problem between the US and South Korea during the 1953 Korea ceasefire talks.)
But those obstacles must be weighed against the fact that there is no other way to guarantee Ukraine’s survival long term, a survival now essential to NATO’s own: as noted, there is already a U.S.-guaranteed security line on NATO’s eastern border, but how credible will that be if Ukraine is lost despite Washington’s and NATO’s extraordinary efforts?