Courting Conflict with Russia Invites Catastrophe

Offering security guarantees to Ukraine and Georgia without any formal treaty commitment would be the worst of all worlds.

Bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO is one of the stranger zombie ideas we have in our foreign policy debates. An even weirder version of this idea is that the U.S. should treat Ukraine and Georgia as if they are already members of the alliance when they are not:

But most importantly, the United States should treat Ukraine and Georgia as de-facto NATO members. That should translate immediately in providing assistance with training, military compatibility and joint exercises, weapons sales (with fewer restrictions), and cyber-security arrangements.

The problems with making security guarantees to these countries are many and well-known. Offering these guarantees to Ukraine and Georgia without any formal treaty commitment would be the worst of all worlds. The U.S. would be on the hook for defending these countries in the event of continued or future conflict with Russia, but Russia would have good reason to doubt the seriousness of the commitment. It would carry with it all of the liabilities of “strategic clarity” with none of the advantages of a formal alliance. It would not deter further Russian interference, but would instead almost certainly provoke even more aggressive behavior. Tsereteli and Carafano would have the U.S. draw lines in the sand that it could not realistically back up, and by drawing those lines unilaterally the U.S. would be practically daring Russia to cross them.

There is virtually no public support for fighting on behalf on Ukraine and Georgia in a conflict with Russia. While there is majority support for fighting to defend genuine NATO allies, there would be no such consensus in favor of defending these countries outside the alliance. Making unilateral security guarantees to Ukraine and Georgia would be an extraordinary example of overreach and over-commitment where no vital U.S. interests are at stake, and it would expose the U.S. to enormous risk for no real reason except to serve the obsessions of Russia hawks.

The risks of courting conflict with Russia are significant, but as usual advocates for expanding U.S. commitments don’t take these risks seriously. Samuel Charap has argued that the U.S. needs to reconsider its core assumptions about the relationship with Russia, and this is one area where the current policy is getting things badly wrong:

The risks stemming from the current state of the relationship are not trivial. The prospect of a conflict between Russia and NATO due to miscalculation or misunderstanding looms larger as the confrontation intensifies. The Russian penchant for using force to prevent geopolitical losses, engage in coercive diplomacy, or impose its will upon neighbors is well-established. Consequently, European security is far less stable than it may appear, perhaps one major crisis  away from a complete breakdown. A conflict between Russia and the United States could have existential implications not just for European security, but also for the prevailing international order.

Such a conflict could result from a mismanaged game of coercive bargaining, a miscalculated gambit to make gains, or a heavy-handed response to a crisis that drives an escalatory spiral. Both Russia and the United States expect the worst from each other, and see the other side as acting aggressively. European allies add to the dynamic, with their own security concerns and interests, shaped by a complex history vis-a-vis Russia. The situation is thus ripe for escalation and misjudgment.

If the U.S. greatly increased its commitment to Ukraine and Georgia and treated them as de facto allies, that would further destabilize the situation with potentially disastrous consequences for the U.S., Russia, and all of Europe. This proposal would take U.S. policy towards Russia in exactly the wrong direction, and courting conflict with a major power on its own doorstep invites catastrophe.