News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Russian Troops Near Ukraine’s Border: How Should the West Respond?

With Ukrainian forces on high alert as Russia continues to amass troops on the border, we asked Belfer Center experts to outline America’s national security interests in the region and to identify any steps they believe Western forces should take to thwart Vladimir Putin’s aims.


GRAHAM ALLISON, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government

“America has no vital interests in Ukraine. Contrary to hotheads calling for a military response, President Biden wisely underlined that point when he said last week that sending troops to defend Ukraine is ‘not on the table’ Since Eisenhower, presidents have repeatedly had to face choices about sending troops to defend European victims of Soviet/Russian aggression. In every case, they decided: No. That was Bush’s decision in 2008 when Russia ‘liberated’ two provinces of Georgia; that was Obama’s decision in 2014 when Putin seized Crimea. Attempting to deter Putin by threatening severe economic consequences while engaging in serious diplomacy to find a ‘good-enough’ compromise makes great sense. Going to war over Ukraine would be folly.”


MARIANA BUDJERYN, Research Associate, Project on Managing the Atom

 “The post-Cold War order left Ukraine wedged between the expanded NATO and a revanchist Russia, opposed to any Ukrainian attempts to join the Western political, economic, and security community. Ukraine essentially finds itself in a power vacuum, in which Russia takes the opportunity to challenge the collective West. This is why, while building up forces on Ukraine’s borders, Russia addresses its demands to NATO and the West. When considering its response options, the Biden Administration must understand that any negotiated solution will only be sustainable if it fills the power vacuum in Ukraine in such a way that deters Russia from continuing to exploit it. Long term, the West must find a place for Ukraine in European collective security architecture.”


PAULA J. DOBRIANSKY, Senior Fellow, Future of Diplomacy Project

“At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Ukraine is of strategic importance. The primary U.S. interests in the region are ensuring that Europe remains whole and free; upholding our democratic values; resolutely countering Moscow’s actions to undermine the post-Cold War trans-Atlantic security architecture and fragment the Alliance; and preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. We should not allow Moscow to dictate NATO or EU membership or force structure and deployments. We should promptly provide Ukraine with the lethal military equipment it requested, lift the waiver on Nord Stream II, and stop the weaponization of energy and impose targeted sanctions. A demonstrably unified NATO posture is also essential. A Russian invasion of Ukraine can be deterred if there is a strong Western response. A great deal is at stake; how we handle Moscow’s provocative behavior would greatly impact China’s actions vis-a-vis Taiwan.”


NICOLE GRAJEWSKI, International Security Program Fellow

“There is no easy solution to the situation in and around Ukraine. US foreign policy needs to balance multiple imperatives – supporting Ukrainian sovereignty, compelling a withdrawal of Russian forces from Eastern Ukraine, preventing further infringements of Ukrainian territorial integrity, and avoiding a military escalation with Russia. Moscow has articulated a litany of demands from the West, most notably for NATO to formally disavow the 2008 Bucharest Summit’s decision on Georgian and Ukrainian membership. Whereas Russia’s brinkmanship posture over Ukraine offers little room for constructive discussions between Russia and NATO, the West is hardly united in its approach and President Biden has eschewed the possibility of committing militarily. Diplomatic efforts – via the OSCE or Normandy Format – should be coupled with the threat of economic and financial sanctions, targeting Russian elites who rely on Western financial institutions.”


PAUL KOLBE, Director, Intelligence Project

“Russia, poised to invade Ukraine and bring large scale mechanized warfare to Europe for the first time since 1945, is unlikely to be deterred by economic threats. Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Donbas, and Syria taught President Putin that force works. He will shrug off sanctions, even the nuclear option of banning from SWIFT, confident that pain which would cause riots in the streets in the U.S. will be borne stoically by the Russian people. Should discontent manifest, he is confident that any protest can be coopted or crushed. Further, Russia has systematically begun to de-risk its financial systems and has developed resilient alternative trade mechanisms. Only credible threat of force might alter Putin’s risk-gain calculations and deter war, but that has been taken off the table. 2022 may bring a bloody winter and a forever changed Europe.


KEVIN RYAN, Senior Fellow, Intelligence Project; former U.S. Defense Attaché to Moscow

[Adapted from Ryan’s essay in The Hill, “What are the best US military options for Ukraine?”]

“If the U.S. and West hope to prevent an armed conflict, and not just react to one, we can still take preventive steps now.  … military options should look to asymmetric responses that keep us from potentially escalating to a nuclear conflict. One such option is to threaten Russia’s earlier attempts to establish buffer zones through so-called ‘frozen conflicts.’  …Reinforcing Moldovan and Georgian forces to create a credible threat to retake these breakaway regions would require Russia to divert military forces from any plan against Ukraine — perhaps enough to throw the plan in doubt. The U.S. and its Western supporters also could threaten to conduct a blockade or quarantine of the Russian exclave Kaliningrad, surrounded by Poland and the Baltic Sea. …We cannot know what choices President Putin will make with regard to Ukraine, but he has assembled the resources to give him several credible military options. If we want to prevent such a choice, it would be prudent that the U.S. and the West do the same. That means not just ‘saying’ we would take steps, but moving the troops and equipment so that we ‘can’ take steps if we choose. This is the kind of messaging that Russian leaders understand. ”


SIMON SARADZHYAN, Director, Russia Matters Project

“My research indicates that three conditions need to be in place for Putin to order a military intervention in another country. First, Putin had to be directly motivated by an acute threat to Russia’s vital national interests as he sees them. Second, he had to have a reasonable hope that military intervention would succeed in warding off this threat. Third, he had to have run out of less costly non-military options of responding to the threat.  In the case of Ukraine, Condition 1 is in place, Condition 2 is materializing but Condition 3 is absent for now. It will be the results of the Kremlin’s negotiations with the U.S. that will play a key role in determining whether Putin feels that his non-military options have been exhausted.”


CALDER WALTON, Director of Research, Intelligence Project

“Today’s perilous situation in Ukraine concerns a ‘frozen conflict’ arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union thirty years ago. Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, has termed the Soviet Union’s disintegration the greatest geopolitical disaster in the 20th century. It saw former Soviet republics like Ukraine become independent states and align with NATO, which robbed Russia of its historical greatness, Putin said this week. His grand strategy is to correct past ‘injustices’ and achieve a grand bargain with the United States and NATO to give Russia control of ‘traditional’ areas. Russia calls countries like Ukraine its ‘near abroad.’ Many people living there wish to be less near, and further abroad. 

As military forces stand eyeball to eyeball in Ukraine, we see the importance once again of having timely, reliable, and accurate intelligence about a hostile state’s intentions and capabilities. That is easier said than done when it comes to Putin’s Russia, a closed police state, where decisions are made by, and known to, only small numbers. It is a herculean challenge, but hopefully the US intelligence community is rising to it: recruiting human sources, and using technical intelligence collection, to uncover the secrets of Putin’s decision making. Only with good intelligence can we understand what his intentions and capabilities are regarding Ukraine and other frozen conflicts in Eastern Europe.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Russian Troops Near Ukraine’s Border: How Should the West Respond?.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, December 15, 2021.


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Nicole Grajewski