Graham Allison is the Douglas Dillon professor of government at Harvard University.
Most public discussion this winter reflects a conviction that Ukraine must — and can — win a decisive victory. But what constitutes a win against a country such as Russia? As we consider the road ahead, we cannot escape the brute fact that Putin commands an arsenal of roughly 6,000 nuclear weapons that could kill us all. Lest we forget, consider his announcement this week that Russia is suspending participation in New START, the last remaining arms control treaty it had with the United States.
As a reality check, it is essential to consider four inconvenient questions.
First: If what is at stake is not just Ukraine’s survival but the future of Europe and even the global order, why are there no American troops fighting on the battlefield alongside brave Ukrainians? Answer: President Biden determined from the outset that the United States “will not fight World War III for Ukraine.” If the United States sent American troops to the battlefield to kill Russian troops, it would quickly become a war between the United States and Russia and could escalate to a nuclear war.
As surely as the leaders of the “evil empire” ever did, Putin commands a nuclear arsenal fully capable of destroying the United States. Serious students of national security know that in this MAD (mutual assured destruction) world, Ronald Reagan’s incandescent insight remains a foundational truth: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” As certainly as it did during nearly half a century of Cold War, America’s own survival requires finding ways to defend and advance our interests without engaging in a direct conflict with Russia.
Second: Is CIA Director William J. Burns right when he asserts that Ukraine is a war that Putin “doesn’t believe he can afford to lose”? Yes: If conditions on the battlefield force Putin to choose between a humiliating loss, on the one hand, and escalating the level of destruction, on the other, odds are that he chooses the latter. As he has demonstrated in the campaign of missile strikes destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure, he is able and willing to move up this ladder. The outcome of this war is not existential for Russia. But it is for Putin.
If Putin’s only alternative is decisive defeat, he might believe he has no choice but to conduct tactical nuclear strikes on Ukraine. President John F. Kennedy, having survived the Cuban missile crisis, where he believed there was a 1 in 3 chance of war that would extinguish hundreds of millions of innocent souls, offered future statesmen one big lesson. In his words: “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”
Third: If the fighting somehow ended today, would anyone have a doubt about who won and who lost? Whatever tactical territorial gains Putin might hold when this phase of intense war stops, no one will have any doubt about the fact that Putin’s war was a grave strategic blunder. He succeeded in achieving precisely the opposite of what he intended. Ukrainians’ sense of identity and confidence that they can build a viable modern nation has never been stronger. NATO has never been more unified and its European members far more willing to invest in their own military capabilities than in a generation or more. By re-creating a vivid Russian threat, Putin has condemned his country to a new Cold War against a united transatlantic adversary whose combined economy is more than 20 times its size.
Fourth: If we imagine a map of Europe in 2030 and weigh the factors that could shape Ukraine’s place on it, how much would it matter whether the killing stopped 100 miles to the east or west of the current line of control? Ukrainians will never give up their goal of liberating every inch of Ukrainian territory — nor should they. But as Zelensky and his supporters in the West consider options on the road ahead, they should review the postwar history of West Germany. By building a vibrant free-market democracy within larger European institutions secured by a U.S.-led NATO, West Germany created conditions in which the recovery of the country’s Soviet-occupied eastern third was just a matter of time. Could Ukraine become the West Germany of the 21st century?
If these answers are roughly right, we should expect the future of Europe to be defined by a new Cold War with Ukraine on the front line, NATO right behind it and a long wait for a post-Soviet Russia to come to its senses.
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.