The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Experts from NATO countries disagree on how to approach Ukraine

Different countries have very different narratives about the crisis

The NATO flag is seen during NATO-enhanced battle group military exercises in Adazi, Latvia, in October 2019. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)
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NATO members in Europe have begun deploying ships and fighter planes to Eastern Europe, a move NATO officials say is aimed at “reinforcing Allied deterrence and defense as Russia continues its military buildup in and around Ukraine.”

But are NATO allies in agreement on the Russia-Ukraine crisis? Last week, President Biden appeared to signal disagreement between the United States and its European allies on a potential response to Russian aggression against Ukraine. Top U.S. officials have since worked to clean up the president’s remarks and vowed a “united” response.

Our research, however, found that scholars and policy analysts in NATO countries have radically different understandings of developments in Ukraine after Russia’s 2014 intervention in Crimea and the Donbas. Some of these differences reflect cultural conventions and perceived national interests. Other key factors include how different authors view the concept of “justice” — whether its source is international law, or history and identity. These differences, in turn, create very different perspectives over what might be the optimal combination of deterrence and appeasement in Western responses to Russian actions.

If Russia invades Ukraine, what happens next?

Not one narrative, but many

We studied how Western scholars and policy analysts made sense of the conflict in and around Ukraine by closely examining their publications over a six-year period after the invasion of Crimea. How did they attribute responsibility for the ongoing conflict — and how did they propose to resolve it? After reviewing a total of 1,009 publications from the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Greece and Poland, we identified six different narratives about the nature of this conflict and possible solutions.

Will deterrence counter Russian aggression?

The first narrative — dominant in Poland, prevalent among U.S. and British authors, and popular with some analysts in France and Germany — calls out unprovoked Russian aggression and advocates for deterrent measures. This view holds Moscow responsible for the violation of international law and Ukraine’s sovereignty. Appropriate responses, for those with this view, include intensifying Western efforts to counter the aggression, tougher sanctions on Russia, more aid to Ukraine, and greater support for its democracy and European integration.

Or would appeasement be a better option?

The second narrative — popular in France and Germany and prominent among U.S. realists who view Ukraine as marginal to American interests — tries to reconcile Russia’s aggression with a preference for dialogue with an essential global power. While the first narrative defends the rules-based order, the second shifts the focus to interests. The proposed dialogue can include different compromises with Moscow at Ukraine’s expense such as ditching Kyiv’s NATO membership agenda and reducing Ukraine’s control of parts of its territory to purely nominal.

A third narrative — one popular among academics and policy analysts in France and Italy, as well as Greece — presents Russia’s actions as a legitimate response to a perceived threat from Western encroachment into its traditional sphere of influence — and/or to irresponsible policies pursued by Ukraine’s post-Euromaidan government. In this view, the West and Ukraine — not Russia — are primarily responsible for the conflict, and this justifies significant concessions to Moscow that boil down to the recognition of Ukraine’s “limited sovereignty.”

Why would Putin invade Ukraine?

The fourth narrative — prevalent in Greece and, to a lesser extent, Italy — blames the Ukrainian government for developments in Crimea and the Donbas, citing irreconcilable identity differences between Kyiv and/or western Ukraine, on the one hand, and the eastern and southern regions, on the other. This view portrays the West as complicit in Ukraine’s wrongdoings, but plays down Russia’s participation. To these analysts, the West can normalize relations with Moscow by pressuring Ukraine to change official policies — for instance, on regional autonomy for the Donbas and an official status for the Russian language.

A fifth narrative — also popular primarily in Italy and Greece — holds Russia and the West jointly responsible for the situation in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. To these scholars and analysts, Ukraine’s own preferences are of little importance, as the country is merely the battlefield between Russia and the West. Ending the conflict requires renegotiating the world order, including regional security arrangements.

A sixth and final narrative among some analysts in the United States and Europe takes a neutral stance, and proposes no overarching solutions. It focuses instead on narrower policy questions like sanitation or child trafficking that have arisen during the conflict, and how dialogue of all parties is essential to end to the suffering of the affected populations.

Four maps that explain the Russia-Ukraine conflict

Different experiences lead to different conclusions

Where a country sits historically and geographically says a lot about where its foreign policy establishment and where policy analysts and academics stand on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. For instance, the strong tendency in Poland to blame Russian aggression and urge deterrence reflects both the country’s historical experience with Russia, and its position as a front-line state. This view is also widely held in Britain, in line with its government’s strong deterrence stance against Putin’s Russia.

By contrast, French policy analysts and academics are more likely to see cooperation with Russia as an opportunity to weaken U.S. influence and increase France’s political weight in Europe. While recognizing Russian aggression, they thus prefer the West to continue dialogue with Russia and compromise at Ukraine’s expense. Russia’s long cultural presence in France also helps shape another prominent view among French analysts and academics: that Russian actions are a legitimate response to a perceived Western threat.

In Italy, a lack of preoccupation with Ukraine in the academic and think tank community mirrors a lack of interest in Ukraine on the part of political elites. The two predominant narratives include justifying the Russian aggression by pointing out the historical ties between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, and viewing Ukraine as an object of geopolitical rivalry between the West and Russia.

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What these findings suggest is that Western scholars and analysts, just like Western policymakers, remain divided on how to respond to Moscow’s aggressive behavior. Should the West try to deter Russia, risking some imminent instability but maintaining the established order in the long run; or try to appease Russia and deal with any repercussions as they arise? With the new escalation of conflict, these differences within NATO allies have become particularly acute and are unlikely to be resolved easily — a fact Russia may be counting on.

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Volodymyr Kulyk in a head research fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

Nadiia Koval is head of information and analytics at the Ukrainian Institute.

Mykola Riabchuk is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

Kateryna Zarembo is a senior lecturer at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Marianna Fakhurdinova is a research fellow at the New Europe Center.

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