With Vladimir Putin Looming Over Ukraine, the Western World Must Tread Carefully

Kash Jain ’24

Opinion Editor

Amid a Russian military buildup along its border with Ukraine and inflamed tensions between Russia and the West, many have begun to fear that war is on the horizon.

Despite Putin’s claims that Russia has no such plans, Ukraine and its allies have expressed concern about an invasion — a Russian incursion even more dramatic than its annexation of Crimea. Undoubtedly, this is a tense moment on the international stage, one that may have larger implications for all parties involved, with a considerable risk of war.

While the U.S. and Europe have pursued diplomatic measures to avert armed conflict, they and Russia have continued to send troops to nations bordering Ukraine, and no simple, conflict-free resolution is in sight. Despite this, the West must do everything possible to avoid armed conflict in the region while also pushing back against Putin.

For the West to effectively thwart Putin, it must understand a crucial element of this conflict: it isn’t
about Ukraine; it’s about the European security order. Putin perceives, and rationally so, an eastward
expansion of NATO as an encroachment on Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia has attempted to maintain this sphere of influence by backing autocrats in the region, and used it to push smaller states to bend to its will. Belarus is the clearest case of this. The country and President Alexander Lukashenko are reliant on Russian economic support. Russia provides Belarus with favorable energy prices and loans, expecting cooperation and open space for Russia’s military buildup in return.

Putin stated that he believes Ukrainians and Russians to be “one people — a single whole,” In the days of the USSR, this was true, if only in a political sense. However, Russia’s status has fallen since the union’s dissolution, and it’s lost control over Ukraine — control that it has failed to regain fully. Now, it looks as though Putin is attempting to regain control over Ukraine and rebuild Russia’s power — and by conflating Ukraine and Russia, he’s laying out the rhetoric to justify this.

However, the full might of the USSR and its sphere of influence extended beyond Ukraine and the countries currently in Russia’s orbit. For Russia, Ukraine would not be the end. Russia has consistently expressed opposition to NATO’s expansion, especially when a number of former Soviet states joined it in 2004. Though Russia hasn’t made the same sort of military excursions in these states that it has in Ukraine, it could in the absence of Western leverage and protection through membership in NATO and the EU. The Baltics are on edge following Russia’s military buildup, and rightly so.

It can be safely concluded that Putin’s chief goal is an expansion of Russia’s power and influence, particularly in Europe and in the states that it had control of in the USSR. Beyond this, the specifics
blur. Whether Russia seeks to form “partnerships” with Eastern European states akin to its relationship with Belarus or whether it wants something even more drastic — say literally subsuming other states — is unclear. However, given Russia’s military buildup, prior invasion of Ukraine, policies with countries with which it has significant leverage, and Putin’s rhetoric, this chief conclusion is clearly true.

The West has several steps in attempting to de-escalate the situation and turn Putin away from further incursions into Ukraine.

Firstly, they could fully bring Ukraine into the West’s fold by fast-tracking its membership in NATO. This, naturally, is the exact opposite of what Putin wants, with Russia arguing that the prospect of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO and the alliance deploying arms in states bordering Russia would threaten Russia’s security. However, this is a weak argument given that Russia has not been invaded by states in the region — having itself invaded both Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Additionally, even with
the backing of the West, these are small states that simply lack the power to pose a significant threat
to Russia. Russia also ignores that its own actions have a fundamental role in the desire of Ukraine
and Georgia to join NATO. While integration into the EU may be a reasonable economic decision for many European states, including former Soviet ones, NATO membership is different — it’s necessary in ensuring the basic sovereignty of states that Russia may be inclined to attempt to absorb. NATO’s expansion is predicated on Russian expansion. After all, Ukrainians were opposed to joining NATO before 2014, but 54% are in favor of joining today.

However, even though Ukraine has a reasonable argument as to why it should join NATO against Russia’s wishes, Russia would still construct Ukraine’s ascension to NATO as a threat to Russia, one that it could seek to counter through continued pressure on Ukraine and armed conflict. That being said, Ukraine joining NATO would place it in a stronger position to defend itself.

Alternatively, the West could simply give in to Russia’s demands, hoping that doing so would lead
to them backing off. However, withdrawing NATO-aligned troops from the region and forfeiting Ukraine’s ascension risks opening the door to a largescale Russian invasion that would leave the West scrambling to respond.

Ensuring that Russia does not take over Ukraine isn’t just a matter of preventing an enlargement of Russia’s sphere of influence and the destructive impacts that come with it; Ukraine simply cannot have full sovereignty with Russia looming over it against the will of Ukraine’s people. Giving in to Russia’s demands risks completely forfeiting Ukraine’s sovereignty.

The West could also attempt to counter Russia in another way: using arguments similar to Russia’s anti-NATO argument against it. The Baltics could make a compelling argument that the membership of Belarus and Russia in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), functionally akin to NATO, and the buildup of troops in Belarus poses a threat to the Baltic states and Poland. The West could essentially tell Putin that if it pulls its security pact and forces away from the region, Europe will do the same. Even if this wouldn’t entirely get rid of the threat of Russian expansion, troops being pulled out of Belarus and Russia’s border with Ukraine would ease some of the direct pressure on the region and place Putin at a disadvantage for further expansion, making any unprompted move to rebuild military power a very obvious attempt to encroach on the region.

Regardless of the path that the West chooses, it must act together. Disagreements between
states on how to proceed can be expected, but prolonged disputes and a lack of consensus give Putin
a strategic advantage. It must do everything possible to avoid armed conflict while also protecting the sovereignty of Ukraine and other states in the region, stopping Russia’s expansion in its tracks.

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