Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The West Is Sleepwalking Into War in Ukraine

| Feb. 23, 2022

It's not easy to make sense of how the United States and Europe are responding to Russia's aggression.

With some notable exceptions, opinion and commentary in the West have solidified around a black-and-white view of the situation in Ukraine. The near-total consensus is it's all Russian President Vladimir Putin's fault; Russia's stated grievances have no legitimate basis whatsoever; and the only conceivable Western response is to refuse to make any concessions, stand up to Moscow, send more U.S. troops to Europe (though not to Ukraine itself), and proceed with tough economic sanctions if Russia invades.

In some ways, I wish I could subscribe to this view because it would allow me to stop thinking about this complicated set of issues and join the chorus. But I can't do that because key aspects of the crisis strike me as puzzling, and I keep hearing echoes of the same beliefs, tropes, and engrained orthodoxies that have led U.S. leaders astray in the past. These reflexive responses are making a bad situation worse and are likely to do further damage to Ukraine and to broader U.S. interests.

For starters, I'm puzzled by the gap between the level of resolve conveyed by the United States and NATO and the diplomatic position the alliance has taken. U.S. President Joe Biden has made it clear that the United States is not going to send U.S. troops to fight for Ukraine, and no important European countries are proposing to do so themselves. If anything, the United States has sent the opposite message by withdrawing U.S. military personnel and relocating its diplomats. Apart from a few hotheads, nobody in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment wants to fight a real war for Ukraine, a tacit acknowledgement that this is not, in fact, a truly vital interest.

By contrast, Russia has made it clear it is willing to use force to achieve its core objective, which is to keep Ukraine from joining NATO—not just now but at any point in the foreseeable future. It demonstrated that willingness back in 2014, and Biden thinks they're about to fight a war of choice now. As with 2014, current movement of Russian troops into the Donbass region is illegal, immoral, and indefensible from the West's perspective, but it has happened, nevertheless. Even if Russia decides not to mount a broader invasion, the crisis has done considerable economic damage to Ukraine already.

Here's what puzzles me. Not only is there a significant imbalance in resolve—i.e., what Russia sees as a vital interest (and thus worth fighting for) is less than vital for the West (and thus not worth fighting for)—there is also an imbalance in directly relevant military capabilities. The United States and NATO may be far stronger than Russia overall, but Ukraine is right next door to Russia and therefore vulnerable to its air and ground forces....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The West Is Sleepwalking Into War in Ukraine.” Foreign Policy, February 23, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt