At its summit in Vilnius, the West told Ukraine that its “future was in NATO,” yet gave it zero without even a hint of a timetable. Close-by “Easties” like Poland and the Baltics, which remember a long history of Russian aggression, were of course all for admission. Not so the principals, starting with President Biden and Chancellor Scholz, who struck a friendly note by soothing Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy with second-prizes: American cluster munitions, more German panzers, and Patriot systems. Definitely no longer-range cruise missiles that, God forbid, could hit Russia proper. France’s President Macron has been mumbling about security guarantees. In that vein, Biden keeps pushing the “Israeli model:” plenty of hardware, but no formal commitment to defend the Jewish state. We are with you, but….
What does it take to issue a credible guarantee? In her Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman recounts a conversation between the British and French general staffs about joint force planning against the Kaiser’s Germany. For the French, Britain’s Entente ally, the existential issue was whether “Perfidious Albion” would actually fight on their behalf.
To reassure the French, the British asked General Ferdinand Foch: “What is the smallest British military force that would be of any practical assistance to you?” Foch coldly replied: “A single British soldier—and we will see to it that he is killed.”
That is the core of a reliable guarantee: Allies must have their hands tied by being embroiled ab initio because paper promises have been, and will be, broken in the moment of truth. Recall the 1939 Anglo-French guarantee for Poland against Nazi Germany. When Hitler pounced, London and Paris dutifully declared war on Berlin. But intervention did not follow, and so Poland was done in after six weeks. Britain and France only fought when the Wehrmacht attacked them in 1940.
These lessons pertain to Ukraine. In the nuclear age, with the threat of millions of casualties within hours, a “single soldier” is not enough. A nation will not commit suicide for the sake of another. What then about NATO, which for decades deterred the nuclear-armed Soviet Union during the Cold War? NATO’s fabled Article 5 doesn’t even provide an iron-clad pledge to mimic the Three Musketeers’ “one for all and all for one.” It merely commits the Alliance to act “individually or in concert as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” So, it might—or not.
The reason for this shaky promise was the U.S. Congress’ refusal to let go of its prerogative to declare war—plus an ancient aversion to “entangling alliances.” Yet history proves that this so-so guarantee did work. Not with a “single soldier,” but with a million strung out along the East-West divide. This “Layer Cake” consisted of American, Belgian, British, Danish, and German forces, with the French a bit farther back in Germany’s Southwest.
This deployment signaled to the Soviets: If you go for West Germany, the most exposed country (Ukraine today), you will have to attack all of us, including 250,000 U.S. troops armed with 6,000 tactical nuclear weapons. In the early 80s, Pershing II missiles, which could reach Moscow, became part of the arsenal. Because those “Euromissiles” could reach the capital, they were actually strategic, and so the USSR would also have to target U.S. land-based forces at home, which might trigger a global war. This was known as “coupling.” More brutally put, America was a perfect hostage to European security. Deployment up-front left no exit for the United States.
Yet mere “trip wires” like the brigade-sized contingents NATO has stationed in the Baltics, in Poland, and in Romania, are not enough to unleash a full-size automatic response in the shadow of the Bomb. Hence, their deterrent value is limited. Great powers will take a limited number of casualties to avoid full-scale fighting for less-than-existential reasons. Recall Ronald Reagan who pulled out of Lebanon after 241 Marines were murdered in one fell swoop. It took far less, only eighteen servicemen, for Bill Clinton to withdraw from Somalia. Ukraine is far more important than either of these countries. Still, in 2014, the West responded only with mild sanctions when Vladimir Putin grabbed Crimea and the Southeast. The Minsk Agreements of 2014 and 2015 did not even provide a paper guarantee. Its goal was only for a cease-fire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons. Vladimir Putin was not impressed—as the onslaught of 2022 proved.
Nor did the West rush to the rescue when Putin unleashed his full-scale assault on Kyiv. At first, it dispatched only protective gear like helmets and body armor. Then, materiel was just dribbled out. It took until this year before serious stuff like tanks, cruise missiles, and combat planes arrived in modest numbers. These are not enough for Zelenskyy to drive back the Russian troops now sheltered by the multi-tiered array of trenches and fortifications that have slowed down his counter-offensive. Meanwhile, Biden keeps muttering about Russo-American talks by December. Every NATO member of weight is keeping backchannels to the Kremlin humming. No wonder that Ukraine’s president greeted NATO’s communiqué at the Vilnius summit with scarcely disguised disappointment.
He should have known better. NATO’s Secretary Jens Stoltenberg asked in June, “how we can bring Ukraine closer to NATO, where it belongs.” During the Vilnius summit, Stoltenberg scaled this back: “We will issue an invitation for Ukraine to join NATO when allies agree and conditions are met.” Make that “far in the future,” if ever. Biden and other NATO grandees mollified Zelenskyy with induction into the Alliance with a kind of “maybe once peace reigns.” Now look at this from Putin’s side. If the Alliance were to hold out membership after a settlement, he would have all the reasons in the world—certainly a good pretense—to keep on fighting to forestall admission. Even a “frozen conflict”—no war, no peace—would suffice to postpone Ukraine-in-NATO sine die.
Still, Zelenskyy got some nice consolation prizes from the G7. The club of the West’s top economies has promised long-term financial and military aid. German Chancellor Scholz wants to send a few more Patriot anti-air systems that can down long-range missiles and high-flying planes. This is a fine win because Russia commands the skies over Ukraine, but a real guarantee—let alone NATO membership—Kyiv will not obtain. Reliable protection requires not just admission, but a “Layer Cake 2.0.” Alas, this will not happen for one of the oldest reasons of statecraft. Nations hate being entrapped in wars not their own. So, why did Layer Cake 1.0 work so well?
It worked because “being there” along the Elbe River was a lot safer than “going there” today; that is, to the Russo-Ukrainian border. Remember that the United States was already in place in Europe during the Cold War, all the way to the Iron Curtain, and so were its allies who had to defend their own soil. Being there puts the onus of incalculable escalation on the other side, a deadly risk on a potentially nuclear battlefield. In the Ukraine case, the Alliance would have to move up to the Russian Rodina with mechanized divisions backed up by aircraft—offensive gear. That would make madman Putin, who has been pretending to unleash tactical nukes, truly mad.
The United States and its allies will not put entire armies in harm’s way—that is the gist of this tale. The basic rule of the post-WWII era states: no direct confrontation but only proxy wars, as fought by the United States against North Korea and North Vietnam, tacit Soviet allies. In Afghanistan, the United States stealthily delivered arms to the Afghan mujaheddin, as depicted in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War. American Stinger hand-held missiles grounded Soviet attack helicopters. Ukraine’s struggle against Russia is a proxy war, as well. We shall pay and arm, but never fight directly for Kyiv and so unleash Putin’s unbounded fury. And we will do so as long as Ukraine performs as well as it has since February 2022. Nations don’t want to back a loser. If Russia redoubles its efforts, voices will resound across the West demanding a swift ceasefire favoring Russia.
Now to the upside. Fortunately, the choice is not between general war and Ukraine’s survival. The West’s rational self-interest dictates four responses to Putin’s deadly ambitions.
One: Accelerate the flow of sophisticated hardware to Ukraine. In addition to billions in cash, send more of everything: armor, aircraft, anti-air systems, long-range precision-guided artillery, cruise missiles, attack drones, and ammunition. To suppress Russian strikes on its side of the frontline, Ukraine must be able to reciprocate in kind on the other. Not to murder civilians and destroy schools, hospitals and residential housing, as the Russians do, but to drive back Russian forces. (Russia has unleashed millions of cluster bomblets, according to reports, and Biden’s offer of these deadly devices merely adds to the Russian version already captured by the Ukrainians.)
Two: Keep and extend sanctions on Russia’s tottering economy to weaken its war machine and its domestic cohesion. As the exit of the hundred-thousand of the “Best and Brightest” shows, Russians can’t quite believe that they are re-fighting the Great Patriotic War against Hitler. Sanctions that can eventually be lifted also are high-value bargaining chips when it comes to negotiating a viable end to the war.
Three: Reverse the orgy of disarmament that gripped NATO-Europe after the last Russian soldier had withdrawn from Central Europe in 1994. Germany’s 3,000 tanks have shrunk to 360 today. Rebuild arms-production lines scrapped in the 90s, which will rein in Putin’s adventurism in the future.
Four: The Europeans, especially, should internalize that this proxy war is also their war. Putin’s appetite for further domination will be sharpened if he prevails by reducing Ukraine to a wobbly rump state at Moscow’s mercy. Why wouldn’t he expand farther west? In any case, Putin wants a droit de regard, a veto right over its former satrapies and beyond. Even the Germans, who used to stroke the Russian bear for decades, understand this. Zelenskyy was right when telling NATO at Vilnius that the Alliance needs Ukraine as much as Ukraine needs the Alliance.
The point is to reverse Russian conquests and to deter its future imperial forays. Unlike South Vietnam or Afghanistan, Ukraine does have the will and the skill to survive. Alas, because Ukraine-in-NATO is a bridge too far, let’s at least pass the ammunition to a valiant nation fighting not only for itself, but also for a decent European order.
Josef Joffe, a member of the American Purpose editorial board, teaches international relations and political thought at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
Image: Meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council at the level of Heads of State and Government, with Sweden, on JULY 12, 2023. Left to right: U.S. President Joe Biden; President Voldymyr Zelenskyy (Ukraine); NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg; NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană. (Flickr: NATO)
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