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On Security Guarantees

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Photo : Anton Zelenov Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25552205

I would describe my discussion with Emma Ashford and Stephen Wertheim a little bit differently than Cheryl characterizes it. Rather thank think in terms of hard or soft, or try to sort through Putin’s brain, my main consideration is on how to prevent Russia and Ukraine from having another war while maintaining Ukrainian sovereignty and opening up space for Ukraine to develop economically and politically. This last is particularly important given the baleful influence of Russia on Ukraine’s political and economic system over the last three decades. I would suggest that Stephen and Emma both lean into the idea of a soft security guarantee to Ukraine, one that integrates Ukraine into the European economic system and into the Trans-Atlantic defense industrial base so that Kyiv can prosper and protect itself, but that does not offer a hard security guarantee for Ukraine against Russia.

I disagree a little bit on priors and on grand strategy with both Emma and Stephen (who I think get to roughly the same place from different directions) in that I don’t particularly mind the idea of the United States underwriting European security to some extent; my feeling is that the consequences of war in Europe will always have significant negative effects on the United States and thus it’s worth a forward leaning posture. If this means that European countries spend a bit less on defense than they otherwise might, I’m not particularly perturbed.

With respect to Ukraine in particular, I think first that a soft guarantee creates more credibility problems than it solves. Russia should know what will happen if it invades Ukraine again; if the US is not pre-emptively committed to Ukraine’s defense, then Moscow is left to guess as to how the US and Europe will respond. Second, and I think just as important, alliances tend to restrain their members. Anti-Russian political activity in the Baltics actually decreased substantially after the three republics joined NATO, both because the governments felt more secure and because of diplomatic pressure from the rest of the alliance.

This is relevant because the problem is that both sides will find lots of good reasons to restart the war if the war ends in anything but the collapse of one government or the other. Assuming Ukraine survives this war and assuming Russia still holds some Ukrainian territory, the feelings between Moscow and Kyiv are going to be bad. Most people assume that a peace will allow Russia to reconstitute military power faster than Ukraine (Russia is larger, has a larger defense industrial base, and can always sell off commodities when it runs short of cash), but this is not necessarily a given. If Ukraine’s economy recovers rapidly and its political system uses the experience of the war to purge corruption and establish greater capacity, it has the latent capacity to become a formidable military power. Conversely, there is no guarantee at all that Russia will remain politically stable following the war (lotta folks gonna be interested in the top job) and it’s certainly possible that Russia will suffer the kind of political and economic dislocation that rendered it so weak in the 1990s. There’s no guarantee of this, mind you, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. In this scenario, a newly formidable and still quite angry Ukraine, unconstrained by NATO, is a major problem for Moscow and by extension for Eurasian security.

FWIW, London, Berlin, and Paris seem to be leaning towards a security guarantee that splits the difference between hard and soft, linking Ukraine to NATO and integrating Ukraine into Europe’s defense industrial base while at the same time leaving a formal guarantee up in the air. I dunno if there’s actually any way to split this difference, but it does seem to indicate that there’s an awareness of the long-term commitment, restraint, and credibility problems associated with finding an end to this war.

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