Relaciones Internacionales – Comunicación Internacional

Ukraine and the balance of power (Luis Simón, CSIS)

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Ukraine in Crisis

January 31, 2022

The current crisis in Ukraine has put Russia once again at the center of the transatlantic agenda. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 had already pushed NATO to (re)prioritize deterrence in Europe’s eastern flank. However, the alliance has sought to broaden its perspective in recent years by taking stock of other security challenges, not least of all the strategic implications of China’s rise. Such a trend was arguably partly motivated by a willingness to mitigate a perceived gap in strategic priorities between NATO (“Russia first”) and the United States (“China first”). Ultimately, it was also informed by the concern that unless the alliance takes U.S. strategic priorities more seriously, it might lose its appeal in Washington, whose support and investment are essential to NATO’s own health.

Yet, the specter of a war in Ukraine raises difficult questions about priorities for both NATO and the United States while also highlighting the connections between Europe and Asia. Can the alliance keep ruminating about the need for a global perspective at a time when deterrence and security in Europe are under threat? As the United States weighs its Ukraine options, how much importance should it give to China-related considerations? Should the United States worry that an elusive response to Russian aggression in Ukraine may damage its own reputation and credibility in the eyes of other partners and allies, including in Asia? Conversely, how much should the United States worry about antagonizing Russia and pushing it closer to China, or about not being entangled in a European war that could possibly invite opportunistic aggression in Asia?

Those who argue against NATO engagement in Ukraine point to an alleged “asymmetry of interests” between Russia and the West over Ukraine. The assumption that Russia has a core interest in Ukraine and the United States a peripheral one appears to be rather widespread, as is the notion that Washington has bigger fish to fry. But shouldn’t a similar logic apply to Taiwan, which China defines as a core interest and the United States does not? Similarly, many Europeans argue that the logic of the security dilemma works in favor of de-escalation in Ukraine and that normative musings about democratic solidarity or Ukraine’s right to choose should not undermine Europe’s material interest in stability. This begs the question of whether Russia would be satisfied and simply retreat into a predictable relationship with the West following a hypothetical “win” in Ukraine, whatever that means. Still others argue it is not just up to Ukraine to decide the terms of its relationship with the West, but also up to the West itself. Many of these same voices point to the problem of endemic corruption in Ukraine.  

Whether one clings to arguments about an asymmetry of interests, Ukraine’s corruption or lack of full-fledged liberal-democratic credentials, assertions that cold-headed realism should trump liberal illusions, or that a showdown in Europe should be avoided in light of China’s rise, the conclusion seems invariably the same: holding Ukraine is not a core Western interest.  

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